There are many summer birthdays in my family, and the the one that we celebrated most recently was my father’s–though the actual holiday is July 15th. I put him on hold this year because I was tired of sending him gifts via Amazon, and instead wanted to treat him to an outing rather than yet another object to stick in a drawer or on a shelf. The trip I had in mind was actually one that we’d taken before–back in the summer of 2007 when I was but a lowly PhD student taking a break from my field season:
I’m not sure how or why, but my parents went through a period during which they frequently visited Ohio’s Burr Oak State Park and rented pontoon boats so they could explore the reservoir. After their initial foray, they returned with my dad’s parents, my mom’s parents, and, finally, me, each time packing a picnic lunch to eat while out on the water. They discovered an inlet, which they dubbed Kight Cove, where it was particularly pleasant to drop anchor and float while dining. Despite the fact that they very much enjoyed their visits to Burr Oak–so much so that they even investigated how much it would cost to purchase their own pontoon boat–they got distracted by other outings and stopped going. I figured it was time to revive the tradition.
Amazingly, the marina looked pretty much exactly as it did the last time I was there, despite the fact that seven years had elapsed. Because we visited on a weekday, it was nearly deserted, which only added to the peace and calm of the environment–a calm that we momentarily disturbed when we practically crashed the boat while pulling out of our parking space.
When I say “we,” I actually mean “my dad,” because he was our driver for the day. I suppose it seems a bit wrong to make the Birthday Boy take the wheel, but he’s the one with the most experience and my mom and I only really felt comfortable driving when we were out in the middle of the lake where we were unlikely to bang into anything (obviously we needn’t have worried). It wasn’t until our near-miss at the docks that any of us appreciated the fact that pontoon handling skills might be diminished after seven years of non-use. We eventually made it out onto the water in the end, with the rental office staff assuring us that we couldn’t do anything they hadn’t already seen.
The park is located about 30 minutes from my parents’ house, just on the edge of Wayne National Forest in southeastern Ohio. When people tell me that Ohio is flat, boring, and/or filled with nothing but cow pastures and cornfields, this is the portion of the state I tell them they need to see. Here, in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains, there are rolling hills covered with green trees filled with singing birds. As far as I’m concerned, there are few places that can compete with the seaside–particularly the Cornish seaside–in terms of beauty and restfulness; this area is number one on the list.
As we drove along, I could hear the voices of many familiar North American birds–Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, downy woodpeckers, American goldfinches, belted kingfishers, and dozens of great blue herons that took flight as they saw us coming. We also passed vast patches of blooming swamp rose-mallow, a beautiful plant in the same family as the hibiscus:
At the time, I incorrectly (but understandably, I think) identified this as marsh mallow, which is a very similar invasive relative. Despite the inaccuracy of my first ID, it did have the benefit of initiating an interesting investigation into the relationship between the marsh mallow plant and the marshmallow sugary treat. It turns out that ancient Egyptians harvested the plant’s root to make medicines to soothe sore throats. The French created a sugary, meringue-based form of this treatment that gave rise to the modern marshmallow that we all know and love.
We also encountered many fragrant water-lilies–though sadly we didn’t get close enough to test the accuracy of the plant’s name:
A few years ago, these grew in Burr Oak Reservoir in such abundance that boaters were complaining; the vegetation got caught in propellers and made it impossible to make any headway through the water. An extended period of flooding killed off many of the plants, leaving only small, picturesque patches floating above the shallowest parts of the lake.
In case anyone is interested in the culinary details of our outing, as well as the biological, I should probably mention the goodies we ate when we arrived at Kight Cove (or the spot that we judged to be Kight Cove; seven years’ absence makes it difficult to tell one inlet from another). The main course was Giada de Laurentiis’ penne with beef and arugula–a recipe that was designed specifically for picnics, but which I usually eat warm; I think this was actually the first time I used it for its intended purpose. I also made a modified version of Paula Deen’s fresh fruit salad with poppyseed dressing. The modified bit was the fruit, since the grocery store was fairly depleted when I visited the night before our departure. I followed the dressing instructions very specifically, since that is what makes the salad so special. (The version of the recipe I have includes avocados, raisins, and chopped walnuts–none of which feature in the recipe in the link above, but which are quite tasty additions!) Finally, we had a savory salad made from a recipe whose origins are completely mysterious to me. At some point I typed the ingredients and instructions into a compilation of recipes on my computer, but I have no record of where I got that information; the dish is pretty similar to this one, though the vinaigrette is made with lemon juice rather than vinegar.
As you can imagine, we were all quite full after lunch, and stuck to boating rather than indulging in a bit of swimming–though the water was inviting given how warm it was in the sun. We managed to explore nearly the entire perimeter of the reservoir, which is impressive given how large it is. Much of the shoreline looked quite similar (trees, herons, lilypads…trees, herons, lilypads…), but there is something about being on the water that makes it enjoyable no matter how repetitious the scenery becomes; the breeze on your face and the vibration of the motor put you into a bit of a Zen state.
Hopefully that peace of mind–not to mention a full belly, a suntan, and some good memories–was a more valuable gift than a new book or shirt or whatever else I could have ordered for my dad online. Happy birthday to a great guy–may there be many more years, and boat trips, to come!