"I felt like a penguin on a giant treadmill. The Canadian shoreline just did not seem to be getting any bigger."
Editor"s Note:This story was originally published in the December 1978 issue of Cleveland Magazine. We"ve republished it as part of our Historic Read of the Week series, in which we revive classic pieces from the magazine"s archives. Read more about Dave Voelker"s walk as part of our "30 Myths That Define Cleveland" December 2019 cover package.

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On February 18, they made their crossing as planned. Well, not quite as planned. I had argued that a two-day trip would be a better idea, because 30 miles was too much for six relatively out-of-shape persons to hike in one shot. The last stretch of ice would have to be covered in darkness, which, combined with fatigue, would reduce the safety factor to a dangerous low. Instead of reaching the Ontario shore slightly tired at 7 p.m., they arrived at 11 p.m., totally exhausted. Toward the end, just staying on their feet was a real struggle.Meanwhile, I hadn"t abandoned my own plans for a solo crossing. The spelunkers" qualified success proved that the route was passable; the ice was solid the whole way. Unknown to them, I had already called the Coast Guard before their departure to find out whatever they could tell me about the lake in winter. I half expected a frenzied lecture on ice safety, with a desperate plea to settle for walking across the fountain on Cleveland"s Mall. Surprisingly, I found the Coast Guard officers to be concerned and extremely helpful, offering safety tips about ice characteristics and the advantages of certain wind directions. Sure, they discouraged the idea, but they acknowledged they were powerless to prohibit such crossings, and they might as well make sure the participants take as many precautions as possible. The following week I tried to find at least one other person to go with me, but no one was particularly crazy about the idea. If I was really bent on going, it looked like I would have to go alone. At the outset, when so much was uncertain, I would not even have considered a solo hike, but I had built up my hopes sufficiently that, by then, I could undertake the trip by myself and still feel reasonably secure — even though, by venturing out alone, I was breaking the cardinal rule of outdoor safety. I rationalized it as an inescapable necessity, but the fact is 1 was secretly relieved not to have to share with anyone an experience that was bound to be at once ennobling and humbling — and profoundly personal.I decided to make the trip the weekend after the first expedition, taking two days to do it. The temperature had been below freezing for over 30 days and promised to stay down there through the weekend. I could look forward to a cold and windy hike. My equipment included a backpack, a tent, a sleeping bag, two large empty water bags placed in the bottom of the pack for flotation, an ice ax (a special ice climbing tool), a red flare and a two-channel walkie-talkie. Total pack weight: about 40 pounds. In addition, I brought my camera and tripod to record my crossing on film. This account is lifted from a mini-journal I kept along the way, expanded when I got home to include observations that numb fingers precluded from recording on the spot.


3 p.m.: "Only the Good Die Young." For some reason, I couldn"t get that crazy Billy Joel song out of my head. This was the farthest I"d been from land. I could barely see East Sister Island (Canada) ahead, but knew I wouldn"t make it there by nightfall. The strong northwest wind was slowing my pace. The immensity of the lake was beginning to impress me, but the only analogy I could think of to describe how dwarfed I felt was "a piece of sausage sandwiched between two giant slices of white bread." Cold does funny things to the creative faculty.

6:30 p.m.: Darkness was imminent, and I was beat. Conditioned by years of experience in camping, I intuitively began looking around for a good place to pitch my tent, then realized foolishly that one spot is as good as the next. According to the positions that East Sister and Hwen Islands occupied on the horizon, I figured my camp to be right on the international boundary. It took me a half hour to erect my tent in the wind and, as always, crawling into my warm sleeping bag after an arduous day was a near-orgasmic experience. I fired up my small camp stove and supped splendidly on canned spaghetti with Vienna sausages, oblivious to the swirling, frigid wasteland that lay just outside my comfortable quarters.

7:30 p.m.: I thought I would give my walkie-talkie a try. Its normal range is only a few miles at best, but wide open places are supposed to improve reception and transmission greatly. "Breaker 19 for a northbound on this here Lake Erie. Anybody copy?" Fuzzy static. "I"m out here on the lake. Can anybody pick up my signal?" Still nothing. "Would it make any difference if I had a broken leg, internal bleeding and frostbite?" More static. So much for my precious radio link.

8:30 p.m.: I stepped outside the tent to relieve myself one final time, and met the scene that, more than any other on the trip, would become firmly imprinted on my memory. The wind had died down to a dead calm, and my thermometer read 20 degrees. The stars were out in full force, and I could see shimmering lights onthree shores. Except for the drone of an occasional invisible plane, the silence was complete and overwhelming. It was a peaceful, striking image, and as I beheld the rare beauty of a frozen lake in the dead of night, I felt possessed by a satisfying and impregnable serenity. For that feeling alone, the trip was worthwhile.

Back into my cozy sleeping bag I crawled, taking my water bottle with me so it wouldn"t freeze overnight. I fell asleep instantly.


There are some people who are trying to make it illegal to walk across the lake. But they"ll never do it, not as long as we have a Constitution. Hiking is a bona fide recreational use of the lake, certainly no less legitimate than fishing or water skiing.

Colin Fletcher makes the point much better than I in his book, The Complete Walker. To those who still wonder why anyone would want to walk across Lake Erie, this excerpt comes as close to an answer as you"re going to get:

If you judge safety to be the paramount consideration in life, you should avoid at all costs such foolhardy activities as driving, falling in love, or inhaling air that is almost certainly riddled with deadly germs. Never cross an intersection against a red light, even when you can see that all roads are clear for miles. And never, of course, explore the guts of an idea that seems as if it might threaten one of your more cherished beliefs. In your wisdom, you will probably live to a ripe old age.

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But you may discover, just before you die, that you have been dead for a long, long time.