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National Park Getaways
A New National Park Getaway Every Wednesday
I came to South Bass Island as an escape. Finals week—days (and nights) of frantically scrambling to memorize facts while maintaining a strict diet of junk food—had left my head spinning. I needed a vacation, on a student’s salary. I had no idea that I would end up at Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial, but I am lucky that I did.
Like many Ohioans, I was only vaguely aware of the archipelago of small islands that speckle Lake Erie’s shoreline. I knew even less of the Battle of Lake Erie that had taken place there nearly two centuries ago, and virtually nothing of the monument that had been erected to commemorate it. From the shoreline, I could see this structure, a 352-foot Doric column. It rose from the horizon as I cruised over on the ferry. I must admit that the ride to the island felt a little like departing from the country, but at least I was leaving the pandemonium of last week in my wake. The waves gleamed and trembled in their endless dance of crest and trough as I kept my eye on the monument, which seemed to declare: history, honor, heritage.
The vessel dropped off its passengers, and I made my way into the visitor center. Once inside, I found myself overcome with curiosity. Along the walls were elaborate paintings of a gruesome sea battle. In front of me stood a gigantic statue with the name Oliver Hazard Perry engraved on it. Whoa, that’s an even more awesome name than James Danger Bond, I thought.
A friendly ranger stepped in to give me the scoop on the park. Commodore Perry, I found out, was an American hero. His bravery and leadership had helped America seize victory in one of the most significant naval battles in our history. The American victory in the Battle of Lake Erie, fought during the War of 1812, solidified the country’s claim on Ohio and Michigan. I felt a twinge of guilt as I realized how the sacrifices of Perry and his selfless men had helped secure the freedoms I was enjoying today. Here I was, collecting the benefits, without so much as acknowledging their existence. That’s going to change, I decided, as I set out to learn the story.
Outside the visitor center, the monument sat on the narrowest stretch of island. A lush green field, no more than 200 feet wide, was surrounded by breakwaters that overlooked the expansive lake. A period camp sheltered costumed rangers, who gave firsthand accounts of the troubles they had endured. The terrors of battle and the horrors of primitive surgery became real enough to make me shudder.
The memorial itself, however, inspired me. An engineering marvel completed in 1915, it commemorates more than 100 years of peace among Britain, Canada, and the United States. I stood silently below it in amazement.
As the sun set, I sat on the breakwater to view the battle area only a few miles out. Swells of waves crashed around me; splatters of flashing droplets cascaded. At the beginning of my journey, I had felt like I was momentarily stepping away from the country, but after the day at Perry’s Victory, I felt much more a part of the American fabric than I had before. I was, and still am, proud to be part of a nation with such a noble heritage.
The sun, orange and low, was slowly sinking below the distant horizon and painting a spectrum of colors across the thick clouds. Oranges and pinks reflected off the concrete of the memorial. It was a breath-taking picture. The chaos I had left back home was beginning to feel much less like troubles and more like opportunities given to me from a free and fair country.
By Trudy Roth, Media Specialist, Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial
Note: Perry’s Monument received Recovery Act funding, and you can watch the renovation work in progress. A 300-foot hoist, a remarkable contraption, transports construction materials from the ground, up the 352-foot shaft, to the top of the observation deck, where most of the work is happening. Join a ranger for a daily construction update at the monument’s base. The observation deck is expected to reopen in 2012.