Johnson’s Island, after a blizzard

It’s days like today that make me realize how lucky I am to live and work in Ohio.
Temperatures are in the 70s, and not even the threat of rain can dampen my spirits. I’ve been revitalized by spring break, a semester winding to a close and the documentary “Rebels on Lake Erie,” nearing completion.
As I reflect on the long documentary journey, I’m reminded of one particular day – Feb. 4, 2011.

It had been a hard winter, one of the worst in recent Ohio history.
We had just emerged from the “blizzaster,” a language abomination that seemed to perfectly describe the rain, ice, snow and sleet of Groundhog Day 2011 and the day after.
That storm had not just paralyzed the state but much of Midwest and the eastern seaboard. Boston, New York, Chicago, Cleveland – and Sandusky, Ohio, had all been battered by the storm.
Could there be any better reason to trudge – slowly – across the state of Ohio and get the ideal winter shot on Johnson’s Island?

February 4, 2011: With the turnpike open and much of the storm damage cleared away (or so we thought), my videographer (University of Akron graduate student Keith Aukeman) and I packed up the HD camera, the tripod, and the mike into my little Prius and headed out to Johnson’s Island, on Sandusky Bay.
I’d read enough about the Confederate officers imprisoned on Johnson’s Island during the Civil War complaining about the winter weather. I was going to see it for myself – and that meant videographer Aukeman had to see it too.
The trip across the state was long, cold and desolate. The sun reflected off the sparkling snow.
Keith and I talked about the shot, the weather, and the seemingly endless semester.
Two hours later, we left the turnpike, found Ohio 2, and headed for Bayshore Drive. For the first time ever, I didn’t miss Gaydos Drive.
We reached the causeway – but the code wouldn’t work so I loaded the machine with quarters and took the long road across Sandusky Bay to Johnson’s Island.
As I slowly drove on the narrow two-lane causeway, I started to think maybe this hadn’t been one of my best ideas. I suspected that if anything happened to us – getting lost, sliding off the road, running out of gas, we might not be found until spring.
On Johnson’s Island, the road was plowed — to the cemetery at least. We parked on the road. We didn’t have to worry about traffic because there was NO ONE on the island.
We unloaded the car. I took the lightest equipment. I’m tenured and old. Keith, who is much younger, handled the heavier gear.
We weren’t quite ready for the depth of the snow. It was over my knees. Although I was wearing my unfashionable big heavy winter boots, the snow got in, soaking my socks and freezing my toes.
I wasn’t ready for the wind either. I was wearing a heavy coat, a sweatshirt and thermals – but I was still cold, cold to my very bones.
After I fell – it’s tough to walk in knee-high snow, Keith asked if I was okay. Sure, I responded. Only my pride was injured.
Once we got near the bay, Keith got the shots of the cemetery and the statue first. Then I reminded him, we were up there for other shots – of the frozen bay, of the snow whipping around, of the desolation.
I wish we could have captured the feel of the cold, the bone-chilling cold, on film.
If you haven’t been up on Johnson’s Island in the winter, you just can’t appreciate it.
I wondered how the Confederate soldiers endured these temperatures – and the wind – in barracks that were heated only by a stove.

After an hour or two (in the cold, it’s hard to figure out time), we eagerly went back to the car, loaded up the gear and headed out. The first thing I did was turn up the car’s heater.
As we tried to warm up, I thought about those prisoners and how to work that bone-chilling sense of cold into the documentary. I’m not sure if we succeeded – or if anyone could convey it. I still get chills thinking about it.
We drove back over the causeway and headed into Sandusky.

We were cold, tired and hungry – and not much was opened in the city.
We stopped at one diner.
“Sorry,” the owner said, “we’re closed.”
We wandered down the street and stopped at another restaurant.
This one was closed permanently — or so the official notice said.
We finally found a bar and drank lots of coffee and ate our lunch at about 3 p.m. Such is the life of a documentarian.

Reasonably warm and no longer hungry, we wandered back to the car and planned what to do next – get a couple more shots of the bay.
That sounded easy enough.
We headed for the waterfront. But nobody wanted us down there. The plows were still trying to clear away about a foot of snow.
We weren’t going to be stopped, however. We eventually found a reasonably cleared parking lot – and a park right on the bay. We got to work.
Keith captured the lonely seagulls and the frozen bay. They are beautiful shots.
The wind blew off the bay, freezing everything – including my face. I had gloves on but my hands were still cold. After about half an hour, I retreated to the car. About 45 minutes later, Keith joined me.
We were ready to head back to Akron.

It had been a good day and we accomplished a lot.
The next day, another storm barreled across Ohio. Akron was snowed in yet again.

On Groundhog Day 2011, Punxsutawney Phil, my favorite forecaster, didn’t see his shadow, predicting an early spring. That February, snow storm after snow storm battered Ohio.
I’ll never trust a rodent again.

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