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The Break Wall

Access to the lighthouse has always been a challenge. Direct water access is only available on the east side next to Fairport Harbor via a set of stairs cut into the original lighthouse platform. Years of pounding waves and winter ice have taken their toll on the stairs so that the bottom two closest to the lake have severely deteriorated. And without a dock, no watercraft can safely land there.


So that leaves getting to the lighthouse by walking from Mentor Headlands State Park parking lot, across the protected dunes, along the beachfront and finally climbing up onto the rocky and very uneven break wall. While it provides a great workout, the walk is tedious and can be downright dangerous when waves or wind batter the rocks.


Thanks to Mother Nature and mighty Lake Erie, where the lake water hits the break wall varies. For years, water pushed onto the beach such that the break wall extended to the dunes area of the park. When that’s the case, the early part of the break wall is relatively flat and not a bad walk. However, once you reach the middle section, it is mostly collapsed boulders, some tilted at 45⁰ angles. When those rocks are wet, there’s a slime that makes even the best walking shoes completely ineffective and you can slip and fall faster than you would on a patch of ice. And if you take a spill, those rocks are completely unforgiving. Bumps, bruises, cuts, and more serious injuries are a given.


For years, I walked the break wall weekend after weekend with a backpack filled with supplies – paint, food, water, cleaning products, etc. The mantra of “carry-in, carry-out” is in full-swing when renovating a dilapidated lighthouse. Once my backpack was so heavy that as I attempted to get up on the break wall, I fell backwards in the sand, landing like an upside-down turtle. I’ve taken my share of tumbles all in the name of renovation, but fortunately, never had any serious injuries. The break wall is not my friend.


Another challenge with the break wall is when storms and/or strong winds come in from the west and kick up large waves. Those waves can batter the rocks so that it makes it nearly impossible to navigate – you’ll either get soaked from the rain or waves or possibly get blown right off altogether.


One year, at the end of the season in mid-October and my last day there, I awoke to very strong westerly winds. Throughout the day as I prepared the lighthouse for winter, I kept watching out the window hoping the wind would subside and I’d have a shot at getting down the break wall safely. As the day wore on, it was clear the wind was not calming down and the waves continued to crash over the break wall causing an extremely dangerous situation. As I glanced out the window again, I saw two men in a small boat fishing alongside the east side of the lighthouse. Feeling anxious about my predicament, I struck up a conversation with the men in the boat. After a few minutes, I posed a question to them, “Hey, are you going back to land in the near future?” They shook their heads “yes.” I continued, “Do you think when you’re ready to head in, that I might be able to hitch a ride with you? The wind is pounding the break wall and it’s a very dangerous walk.” They kindly agreed and said they’d be ready to go in about ½ hour.


Excited that I would be spared the danger of a wet break wall being pounded by waves and wind, I zipped around the lighthouse finishing the closing chores with one eye squarely on the fishing boat outside. I packed my backpack, grabbed the last bag of trash of the season and my Golden Retriever, Lucy, and waited. Once I heard a faint, “Ma’am, we’re ready,” I picked up Lucy’s leash and the trash, shut the front cast iron door locking it for the winter, ran down the east steps to the water and practically flew into their boat. I’m sure they weren’t expecting a big dog and an even bigger bag of trash to come along, but it was too late to say “No.”


“Where do you want to go,” they asked? “Just take me to the Coast Guard Station,” I said, knowing that I could walk from the Coast Guard Station into Mentor Headlands State Park and back to my car. “Can we do that?” they asked. “Sure, I said. They know me. It will be fine.”


The little fishing boat with the two men, me, Lucy, and the big bag of trash puttered across the harbor and pulled up to the Coast Guard Station dock. A uniformed officer saw us and came walking over. Wasting no time, I took Lucy and the trash bag and jumped on to the dock as quickly as I could. “You can’t park here,” the officer said calmly but firmly. “I know, I know,” I said. “They’re just dropping me off.”


I glanced back at the fishermen who had very worried looks on their faces and as soon as my feet were off their boat and planted on the dock, they hit the gas and that little boat zipped away. They weren’t going to hang around and get reprimanded by the Coast Guard. Frankly, I don’t blame them. It was very kind of them to give a lift to a stranger and I certainly didn’t want to get them in trouble.


Now alone, I continued chatting to the Coastie about the wind and waves on the break wall and how dangerous it was as he escorted me to the main gate. He opened the gate and Lucy and I walked out across the road, through the park and to my car. The trash also made it out safely and into the park’s large dumpster. Sheila: 1, Break wall: 0.


In recent years, Mother Nature and Lake Erie have been changing such that the water has withdrawn from the break wall and made the walk much less challenging. Nowadays, when I do have to get up on the break wall, it’s generally only at the very end to cross a few flat rocks to the lighthouse staircase. Somedays the lake is completely pulled back from the break wall and I can walk the beach the entire way. As crazy as it seems to make my way to the lighthouse without taking my life into my hands on that break wall, I’m loving every minute of it. The break wall is not my friend.




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