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Embrace Your Lake

Erie's good for way more than fish. Here's some ways to dip your feet in the water

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As hard as it can be to fathom, that big blue expanse to our north is good for a lot more than staring at through the office or condo window.

Our region's most amazing asset, Lake Erie is too inviting for just a random fish charter when out-of-town guests arrive, visits to waterfront bars forever lost in alcohol hazes, or summers slipped by with nary a water venture except that one afternoon of sand-castle building at Mentor Headlands.

If you're among the guilty, here's a bunch of suggestions to get you out on — and into — that fresh water. Once you're out there, keep this fun fact in mind: Lake Erie is the shallowest of the Great Lakes. Because of that, the storm you see way over yonder can whip the gently lapping ripples near you into whitecaps and six-foot swells faster than you can say "Walleye Sandwich" — or, more pertinently, "Coast Guard Rescue." If you're a lake novice and see a cluster of gray-black clouds anywhere over the water, head for shore.

Do a Dive

No need to save up for that idyllic learn-to-scuba trip to Belize when you can try it here. What our pond lacks in the way of brilliantly hued fish and spectacular sea creatures, it makes up for in the sheer number of shipwrecks to explore — many right off the Cleveland coast. Our shallow waters make wreck diving here perfect for beginners. Another plus: No sharks.

You'll need open-water certification before you dive, and Aqua Amigos Scuba Club (aquaamigos.com) offers classes at area YMCAs. Other options include Dan's Scuba in Twinsburg (dansscuba.com), Cleveland's Aqua Specialists (216-252-4855, aquaspecialists.com), and Buckeye Diving School in Bedford (440-439-3677, buckeyescuba.com).

When you're ready, catch a dive charter from the marina at Wildwood State Park at East 174th Street and Lakeshore (216-481-5771, discoverydive.com). Prices range from $50 for a one-tank trip to $100 for more advanced wreck dives.

A New Island Itinerary

Take a break from the typical Put-in-Bay party-till-you-puke fest and head to neighboring Middle Bass Island. No, the winery didn't reopen. But the historic west end of Middle Bass is worth a look. Back around the turn of the century, the area was a private club where the well-to-do and well known built summer cottages, and many of them remain, with all their Victorian gingerbread trappings.

Today, Middle Bass has a quiet, lazy island vibe that's starting to attract writers and poets. You can bike to the historic end, see the old winery grounds complete with glacial grooves, visit the general store for a souvenir or two, and grab some grub at the one island entertainment venue — J.F. Walleye's. The microbrewery is just a short walk from the ferry and features Lonz wines and weekend entertainment. If you need anything more than that, you're not the Middle Bass type. Learn more about the island's history (middlebass.org) — or better yet, head over to the Miller Ferry at Catawba (millerferry.com), which can take you and your bike, or car if you insist, over for a day.

Visit Gibraltar

If you've ever wondered what that protuberance topped with a castle-type mansion is off of South Bass Island, you can easily find out. That rock is the storied Gibraltar Island. It was once owned by Civil War financier Jay Cooke, who built his 15-room summer home there in 1864. Important rich people like the Chase family of bank fame, along with a President and a U.S. chief justice or two, were visitors.

But the Cookes sold Gibraltar to Ohio State University in 1925, and it has been the center of Lake Erie research and conservation ever since. Though most visitors are marine experts, you can visit the research lab, walk around the island, and learn about lake science and plans to renovate Cooke Castle beginning June 20 through August 15.

Tours happen every Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and cost $10 for adults and $5 for children. You will also need $6 per for the round-trip water taxi from South Bass Landing. For more information and directions to the water taxi, call 419-285-1800 or visit http://stonelab.osu.edu/tripsandtours/island-tours/.

Beach Adventures

Tired of the same old crowded local beaches? Pack the sand toys and fill a cooler for a day trip out west. Try Nickel Plate Beach off of Route 6 in Huron (ohiodnr.com) for a grand swath of sand, three beach volleyball courts, a playground, and picnic accoutrements. There's a challenging walk atop a rugged stone jetty to a lighthouse too. A $5 parking fee will get you in.

Further afield, Catawba harbors the beautiful and calm Gem Beach — one of the North Coast's best-kept secrets. It's off Route 53 and a bit tough to find, but if you can locate the Gem Beach Marina (gembeach.com), you're there. The surfside of this tiny, historic resort community offers island views, see-through water, sandbars, a playground, and concessions. Try parking along one of the narrow side streets leading to the sand and check out some of the cute — and vintage — summer cottages while you're at it. Gem Beach is, in miniature, what Vermilion was in the 1950s.

Nearby is East Harbor State Park, with a long stretch of beach and camping and cabin rentals if you want to stay (419-734-4424, dnr.state.oh.us/parks/parks/eastharbor/tabid/733/Default.aspx). But if you're looking for some beach seclusion, try the far eastern end of the East Harbor beach — there's no road access, and it's best visited by boat unless you want to hike the nature preserve trails lugging your beach gear. Instead, anchor out front and float your picnic basket in on a tube or raft. On a weekday here, you might be all alone. In a good way.

Touring by Kayak

Lake Erie's shores take on a whole new look when seen from the peaceful water-level view of a sea kayak. You can get a guided tour of Whiskey Island or Lakewood's coves and cliffs for just $40, including the skinny craft and everything else you'll need. For more experienced paddlers wanting to go it alone, sea kayaks and river models can be rented at the Yak Shack off Scenic Park Drive in Lakewood's Rocky River Reservation. Kayak classes for various levels of expertise can be had, too, for $90. For more information, visit 41 North Coastal Kayak Adventures (866-KAYAK41, kayak41north.com).

The Faster Lane

If kayaks are too slow, you can speed things up and rent a jet ski or plan a water-skiing outing and rent a boat. Great Lakes Water Sports (216-771-4386, glwatersports.com) on Main Avenue in the Flats offers both, docked right in front of Shooters for easy lake access. At $95 an hour, jet ski rentals are best for the occasional Sea-Dooer who can't be bothered with buying one and finding a place to keep it. Power boats that can take on up to 8 or 12 people start at $160 for two hours — you pay for the gas, and Great Lakes can give you a test that will get you a temporary boater's license that's good for the day.

No Boat? No Problem

Get out and meet people who do! One fun group of about 150 skippers and boatless folks alike is North Coast Sailing Singles, based at Lakeside Yacht Club (northcoastsailingsingles.com). For a $55 annual membership, you can join in on the boating fun — members have sailboats and motorcraft docked from East 55th Street to Sandusky, and are looking for groups to sail with. The only requirements are that you be at least 21, legally single, and have a sincere interest in boating activities. The group also has social events throughout the year and regularly meets for a yacht club dinner before its monthly meetings.

Single or not, check out West Side Boat Outings, a fledgling group just getting off the ground this season. Some of the 85 members so far are boat owners inviting the less nautically endowed along on excursions planned for Put-in-Bay and the Vermillion Lagoons (and bars), along with local docks at Shooters, the Rock Hall, and the East 55th Street Bar and Grill. Tubing trips are also in the works. You can join them for free at meetup.com/westsideboatoutings/.

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