HURON, Ohio – An estuary is simply a coastal place that’s in between.
The Old Woman Creek estuary is different from Lake Erie and different from other streams that empty into the lake on Ohio’s North Coast. The estuary’s water is generally brackish and chemically different from the lake and the creek.
The coastal sanctuary in north-central Ohio also features important ecological habitats. It is a rare and rich wetland.
It has one of the longest names you will encounter anywhere: Old Woman Creek National Estuarine Research Reserve and State Nature Preserve. The 573-acre reserve, popular with birders, lies 3 miles east of Huron on U.S. 6 in Erie County.
The semi-enclosed wetland is one of the finest natural estuaries in the Great Lakes and an important spot for the study of coastal habitats. Much of the preserve is undeveloped and off-limits to visitors because of its sensitive ecosystems and scientific research.
More than 90 percent of Ohio’s historical wetlands have been lost. Estuaries are critical to the health of the lake, but virtually all estuaries along Ohio’s Lake Erie shoreline have been affected by human development. Old Woman Creek is one of the last naturally functioning estuaries along Ohio’s 312-mile shoreline.
It serves as an ecological line of defense. It filters out sediments and pollutants that flow off the land into the water. It’s an important habitat for fish, migratory birds and other wildlife, and it buffers the surrounding areas from storms and floods.
The Old Woman Creek preserve includes marshlands, open water dominated by leafy American lotus, a barrier sand beach, mud flats, upland forests, vernal pools, prairies, scrub-shrub and old crop fields.
It has a visitor center and five short trails covering 2.75 miles, with boardwalks and observation areas overlooking the wetlands. With luck, you might even spot bald eagles that nest on the much-studied reserve and frequent the area.
The reserve is not a park: No pets, picnics, swimming, fishing or hunting.Old Woman Creek is not big: It flows 15 miles and its watershed covers 27 square miles. It is flooded for the first 1.3 miles upstream from Lake Erie. The waters are rich in floating microscopic plants and animals called plankton that are basic to the estuary’s food chain.
I was impressed by the small beach where Old Woman Creek empties into Lake Erie, filled with dead fish and storm-tossed trees. Its look changes, depending on waves and wind conditions on the lake. The beach, about 760 feet long, sits on the north side of U.S. 6 at the northwest corner of the reserve.
In fact, the shifting beach will periodically close the mouth of the creek and keep its water from entering Lake Erie. Such closures are temporary.
Ohio has 169 public access sites along Lake Erie, 55 miles of accessible coast. A total of 9.9 miles of public access is in Erie County.
You can also explore the reserve via water. On a June evening, I got a chance to paddle a canoe on a guided trip at Old Woman Creek.
Our flotilla of canoes and kayaks put in and headed south under the U.S. 6 bridge. The instructions were simple: Remain in the channel and out of the vegetation. The estuary widened into a swamp. We paddled past 10-acre Star Island that was timbered in the 1880s and later farmed.
The slack water was dominated by leafy American lotus that will have fragrant basketball-sized blossoms in July. There is also pondweed, coontail and white water lily. If the water levels are low, the area may be giant mud flats.
The paddlers headed south under a railroad trestle and into the narrow tree-lined creek. Aerial-blown cottonwood seeds looked like summer snow. From the water, the bankside vegetation towered above us. The key feature is a wooded flood plain. Forests and old farm fields surround the stream.
The put-in and takeout spot is north of U.S. 6 and near the reserve’s beach, but paddling into Lake Erie is not permitted because of dangerous currents where the estuary meets the lake.
The reserve’s visitor center was expanded in 2007 and named in honor of Mike DeWine, former U.S. senator and now Ohio attorney general, for his support for Lake Erie projects. The research and education center has interactive exhibits, a classroom and a laboratory.
Visitors will learn about the Great Lakes, Lake Erie water problems, northern Ohio weather and its effects on the estuary, and diverse habitats found on the preserve. There are also aquariums, dioramas, videos, natural history exhibits and nature artwork. The exhibits include information on what you can do to help save wetlands and watersheds.
The preserve is owned and managed by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Wildlife, in partnership with the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that provides much of the funds for reserve operations and research.
Center hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday from April through November. From November to April, the center is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday.
The reserve’s trails are open dawn to dusk daily. The estuary is open for canoeing and kayaking within certain guidelines. Only five permits per day are issued.
The center also conducts estuary programs, outings, workshops and laboratory programs throughout the year. It will mark National Estuaries Day on Sept. 28 with an open house from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
You can also contact the Friends of Old Woman Creek at (419) 433-4601.
Old Woman Creek, with nearly 300 species of birds, is also one of 80 Ohio spots on the Lake Erie Birding Trail from Toledo to Conneaut. For information, go to www.lakeerieohiobirding.info.
Part of the Old Woman Creek watershed lies in the nearby Edison Woods Preserve.
The 1,300-acre park, operated Erie MetroParks, lies off state Route 61. It features 13 trails.
The site is known for its spring wildflowers and is one of the most pristine woodlands in northern Ohio. It was once proposed by Akron’s FirstEnergy Corp. to be the home of a nuclear power plant.
For information, contact Erie MetroParks, (419) 625-7783, http://eriemetroparks.org.