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Like flying, Lake Erie’s Put-in-Bay is what you make of it

The tree branches had just begun to come into focus against the predawn sky when Naomi popped upright in the tent. 

Put-in-Bay, Ohio, has a reputation as a rowdy party destination, but at 5:45 a.m. all was quiet. “Mama!” she said, climbing onto my chest in the morning stillness. “Up!” This is sleeping in with a toddler.

It had been a few months since I sprung the idea on my husband: Did he want to fly to Lake Erie with our daughter to camp? There were a lot of good reasons this was a bad idea. I hadn’t flown in almost a year and a half, as morning sickness gave way to sleep deprivation and parenthood turned our schedules upside down. I’d only camped once in the past decade, and Matt’s formative camping experiences involved marching his toenails off at Fort Benning, Georgia. Previous attempts at family vacations had led to groggy nocturnal vows of Never again. And, since I wanted to document this experience for AOPA Pilot, someone would be following us with a camera. No pressure.

Still, there were reasons to go. A cluster of island airports on Lake Erie make the area ideal for general aviation flying. Plus, my aunt, who vacations on the shore of Lake Erie and hadn’t yet met Naomi, had invited us to visit. And getting Naomi accustomed to the airplane could turn traffic-snarled drives into much shorter flights to our favorite vacation destinations. We could wait until fall, when it would be cooler and Naomi would have passed her first birthday. And I wanted an excuse to start flying again.

“Sure,” Matt said, calmly. Naomi popped a clover in her mouth and gagged before we could get to her, spitting up on her shirt and derailing the conversation for a while.

Flying with family

It shouldn’t have surprised me that Matt agreed to our new flying adventure, but I couldn’t help feeling as if he’d called my bluff. Now what? We talked about realistic expectations. Was island-hopping with a toddler taking on too much? We settled on just one destination: Put-in-Bay.

As autumn neared, I finished my flight review. We bought children’s hearing protection for Naomi and practiced wearing it with her. I stepped up from a Cessna 172 to a 182, for payload and passenger comfort. But I put off scheduling the flight. This felt like a test: A successful trip could be the difference between flying as a family and rarely flying at all.

It may sound melodramatic, but how many times have we all heard that familiar refrain: Life got in the way. FAA data on active pilots look like a bell curve with the top scooped out; numbers increase through age 29, then decline steadily through the mid-40s before climbing again through the 50s. I was 33. If turbulence, sleeplessness, or tears spoiled this trip, would I take the time and expense to stay proficient on my own?

I solicited advice on flying with family—everything from close the air vents to cut down on noise to fly at 12,500 feet so the kid falls asleep—and approached Matt with my plan, ready to counter traditional anxieties of general aviation passengers.

But Matt didn’t care about airmets or altitudes—he trusted me to handle the flying. He had more terrestrial concerns: Where would we stay? How would we get there from the airport? Did the campsites have golf cart charging stations if the golf carts were electric? Where was the nearest grocery store? Emergency services—and contact information? Matt’s a fun-loving guy, but he’s also a career Army officer who thinks in terms of logistics, operations orders, and execution. He didn’t need assurances about the safety of single-engine aircraft over water; he needed egress instructions and a life jacket.

It wasn’t a question of how to fly with family. It was how to fly with my family. I typed up phone numbers, airport information, and other notes to answer his questions, and we piled a mound of camping gear by the door.

Traveling with a toddler

  • Traveling with a toddler
    Put-in-Bay is just one of a cluster of island airports in Lake Erie (photography by Mike Fizer).
  • Traveling with a toddler
    Matt and Sarah Deener appreciated South Bass Island State Park’s shaded campsites and luxurious—for Matt—amenities. Naomi mostly liked the snacks and dirt.
  • Traveling with a toddler
    The author’s uncle, Ron, helped load the Cessna 182 for departure.
  • Traveling with a toddler
    Watching Daddy on the lawnmower helped convince Naomi of the value of ear protection for the two-and-a-half-hour flight (photo: Matt Deener)
  • Traveling with a toddler
    Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial, which stands a mile and a half northeast of Put-in-Bay Airport, opens for the season May 19, 2018. Visitors get around the Put-in-Bay mainly by gas-powered golf cart or on foot.
  • Traveling with a toddler
    Patrons of the Boardwalk Restaurant may park their boats at the dock; space is available to non-members on a first-come basis as available.
  • Traveling with a toddler
    The shoreline of South Bass Island State Park is a tranquil foil to the rowdy downtown.
  • Traveling with a toddler
    The excitement of the trip wore out Naomi, who napped in the tent while the author planned the flight home.
  • Traveling with a toddler
    Clear skies all the way to Maryland.
  • Traveling with a toddler
    Map: Laura Barnard

Putting in

Located three miles north of the Ohio mainland in Lake Erie, South Bass Island is more commonly known by the name of its village center, Put-in-Bay. The village had a total year-round population of 138 at the 2010 census, but in the summertime the streets swell with crowds; parking a car is nearly impossible, so gas-powered golf carts are the transportation mode of choice.

Most visitors ride a ferry or take a boat to the popular destination, but it’s also served by Put-in-Bay Airport, one of four public-use airports serving the Bass Islands of Lake Erie. Our 280-nautical-mile flight from Frederick, Maryland, to Put-in-Bay would take us over Pittsburgh and Cleveland’s Class B airspace. With forecasts looking favorable a few days before our planned flight, I called my Aunt Fran and let her know we were planning to make the flight that weekend, weather permitting.

The morning of the flight, the weather was beautiful. Light winds, unlimited visibility, and only a few wisps of cirrus clouds high above. A delayed start turned out to be fortuitous for naptime; Naomi was asleep before we reached the runup area at Frederick. Matt sat in the back seat to tend to Naomi in case she woke up, but she dozed straight through as we cruised at 8,500 feet in smooth air. Friendly controllers cleared us into Class B unsolicited. I pointed out landmarks as they passed below, and even spotted a tiny airship drifting below at Goodyear’s Wingfoot Lake base near Akron, Ohio.

As we began the descent past Cleveland’s Class B airspace, hugging the coastline and donning life vests just in case, I started to get tense. We had made good time, but we had started late, and family was waiting. Plus, this would be my first landing with our child on board, and I wanted it to be smooth.

The Put-in-Bay website said Runway 21 was preferred, so I set up for a left pattern for 21 after finding calm winds reported on the nearest AWOS. Perry’s Monument, a column honoring Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry and others who fought the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812, stands 352 feet agl a mile and a half northeast of the airport. Careful to remain 1,000 feet clear of the monument, I turned final high and fast. Put-in-Bay’s 2,870-foot runway looked awfully short with two displaced thresholds. I went around. Matt, who I later discovered was proudly filming the whole thing, told me not to worry. I set up again. It took me one more pass before I finally bothered to look at the windsock, which favored Runway 3. I landed on Runway 3 uneventfully, taxied to parking, and shut down, mortified.

“What’d you do those two low passes for?” my Uncle Karl cheerfully asked as my extended family met us at the airplane.

All about fun

While we waited for our golf cart from the airport location of Erie Island Carts, we loaded our gear onto Fran’s cart: tent, sleeping bag, cooler, backpacks (who knew we had so many backpacks?), and Ralph the stuffed dog, all bulging from bungee cords at the back of the cart. “It’s the Beverly Hillbillies,” chuckled the guy who passed us the keys.

About half a mile from the airport, the 33-acre South Bass Island State Park has a wooded campground, playground, and waterfront with a view of Lake Erie. I had reserved a campsite listed online as having a “slight” slope, but the woman at the front desk saw the bright-eyed kid in my arms and recommended one farther from the steep drop to the water. We set up camp in the spacious, shaded lot; chatted with family; and let Naomi stretch her legs until dinnertime.

My mother grew up in Ohio, the oldest of five children. The youngest three still live in Ohio and Fran, the youngest, met us at the airport with her husband, Bill, and Karl, the second youngest of the five. Ron would meet us the next day.

For dinner, we decided on the Boathouse Bar and Grill, where my mother had waited tables one summer in college. We were there early enough that Naomi’s wanderlust didn’t bother other patrons, and she roamed the restaurant with Matt while we waited on dinner, spooking herself a bit as she checked out the pirate statues.

Like many businesses in Put-in-Bay, the Boathouse makes the transition from family-friendly by day to party central at night. It has a changing table in the bathroom and a breathalyzer in the dining area. As we left, a group of women in matching pink T-shirts that read “Just Drunk” passed in three golf carts whooping with delight; across the street, Naomi squealed at a pair of terriers in the park and chased a little boy around the playground after he kissed her on the cheek.

Later, I spoke with Ray Fogg Jr., co-owner of Reel Bar in Put-in-Bay and president of 3 Whiskey 2 Pilots Association, about my surprise at how suited the island was to a one-year-old. He said it’s not all about drinking.

“The party scene…it’s world class, without any question,” he said. But there’s also hiking, biking, monuments, a butterfly house, a golf course, and watersports such as parasailing and jet skiing. And later in the season, when we went, crowds lessen and Put-in-Bay attracts an older demographic. “When people say, ‘What is Put-in-Bay about?’ I just say it’s about fun, and I think we have the ability to define fun in more diverse ways than almost any place I’ve been to,” he said.

Just right

We made it back to the campsite just as Naomi was running out of steam. I dressed her in her Elmo pajamas and put her to bed while Matt got the campfire going, and we talked until what felt like late at night. But the night was just beginning for Karl and Fran, who went to see the band Mustang Sally back in the village. Karl raved about it the next morning over breakfast at Pasquale’s Cafe—and explained that sometime in the night he’d lost his wallet, but it was returned to him intact.

Every Saturday in Put-in-Bay is an occasion to celebrate, and on the weekend we were visiting it was halfway to St.Patrick’s Day. Naomi waved to a man dressed as a leprechaun and bobbed her head to a Pink song as we strolled along the waterfront. Timing is everything with a toddler, and we again arrived back to the campsite just as Naomi was wearing out. She slept in the tent while I checked the weather for the return flight, and by the time she woke up there was another family member to meet: My Uncle Ron joined us for lunch at Joe’s Bar and Restaurant, where Naomi discovered a love of Cuban sandwiches (mostly pickles). Soon we were airborne again, in clear skies all the way back to Frederick. Naomi woke up fussy somewhere over Pittsburgh, but a sippy cup and Daddy kept her entertained the rest of the way back.

Now Naomi looks up every time an airplane passes overhead and makes motor noises with her mouth. Matt brought up flying as an alternative to driving to visit friends in Pittsburgh. But the chief rewards of the trip weren’t about the flight. Flying meant the chance to see family, to explore a new place. And when I think of Put-in-Bay, I think mainly of Naomi’s look of unbridled joy in the golf cart, the wind in her hair as she shouted, “Wheee!”

Email sarah.deener@aopa.org

Sarah Deener

Sarah Deener

Managing Editor, 'AOPA Pilot' and 'Flight Training'
AOPA Pilot and Flight Training Managing Editor Sarah Deener is an instrument-rated private pilot and has worked for AOPA since 2009.

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