A Day At The Lake

The Herald | A Day at the Lake

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Story by Allen Laman
Photos by Marlena Sloss

On the beach. Inside the park. Away from stress. Surrounded by peace. That’s where he became one with the earth.

Gary Carver looked out across the packed beach, digging his hands and feet into the grainy sand, literally melding his body to the soil, reflecting on how the waters, on how the forests, on how all of Patoka Lake State Park shaped him into the man he is today.

“When we came out here, it was always spiritual,” he remembered of early life trips to the regional magnet in the 1980s. “You got to be beyond your surroundings. And then living in the city, you can’t see stuff like this at all. We’re surrounded by concrete and cars.”

Saturday, June 13, he did something he’s done many times, something that many fathers and mothers do. He shared a slice of the sprawling, 26,000 acres of land and water with his three children.

“This is like a mental, physical, visual and spiritual awakening,” Gary said while his 6-year-old son, Skyler, buried his tiny body in the shore just a few feet away.

“You get one with nature,” Gary added. “Playing in the sand; you can’t play in the sand in the streets. There’s just gravel, asphalt, pollution. There’s none of that out here.”

Crowds fill the beach and cool off in the water. By the afternoon, the beach and boat ramp parking lots hit capacity. State parks have seen record numbers of visitors in recent weeks.

The state park has a widespread pull on beachgoers, kayakers, hikers, campers, bikers, boaters, fishermen, and nature lovers of all ages, backgrounds and financial statuses. From sunup to sundown, guests spoke of the magic that permeates from the massive Southwestern Indiana destination.

The escapism it provides with all-encompassing natural beauty. The new traditions that are made there, that become old traditions when they are passed on to new generations. The community that everyone joins when they set foot on the grass, in the sand or on the trails.

Patoka’s 8,800-acre lake opened across Dubois, Crawford and Orange counties in 1980 primarily to provide flood control, and secondarily, to act as a water supply. But on Saturday, recreation reigned.

Business has boomed at all Indiana state parks since campgrounds reopened in late May. Patoka Lake is no exception. All modern camping spots sold out days before Saturday, and parking lots at the site’s beach and a popular boat ramp nearby reached capacity by the afternoon.

“The property is intense right now,” explained Dana Reckelhoff, the lake’s interpretive naturalist. “Since the state reopened, it has been busier than a normal holiday weekend, every weekend.”

A few hours after sunrise Saturday, after a surrounding birdsong and ambient locust choir welcomed in a new day, after beavers and osprey and bald eagles rose and ventured across the newly lit terrain, a group of 35 kayakers gathered at one of the lake’s many boat ramps for a 5-mile tour.

They paddled through both wide spans of deep water and narrow, shallow corridors — pausing to gawk at a towering rock quarry and a dribbling waterfall along their way. Reckelhoff guided the aquatic excursion, which was designed to be both fun and educational.

Interpretive Naturalist Dana Reckelhoff, right, leads Angie Hochgesang of Celestine to a rock quarry on the kayak tour in the morning. Guided kayak tours are held at the lake from April through October. In addition to being a workout and bonding experience for the paddlers, the tours are also learning experiences, as participants learn about the history of the lake as well as the natural beauty it provides. "We sneak in a little educational value while we're out here just enjoying a beautiful day," Dana said.

Tom Gregory, his wife Lorinda, and their daughter, Andrea, have frequented the guided monthly trips for about seven years. Even with that much experience under his belt, Tom, who lives with his family in Stendal, said there are still parts of the rambling reservoir that he has never journeyed to before.

As they made their way across the tiny waves, both he and Lorinda spoke of how those who head out on the tours comprise a community of their own. Like many in that group, the act of kayaking at Patoka serves as an escape and a release for the Gregorys.

“We find that we’re always in a much better mood and can look at things in a better light when we get back,” Lorinda said of the shift in perspective that comes after hours of sweeping across Patoka’s surface.

The back of the pack returned from the odyssey around 1 p.m., about three-and-a-half hours after departure. At that point, Gary and his children had long claimed their spot at the state park beach, which is located in the central portion of the huge body of water.

Gary believes the grounds foster a sense of freedom. Freedom to let your guard down. To experience nature affordably. To interact with friendly people — even strangers — who value the outdoors and each other.

“It’s beautiful,” he said. “You can actually relax. It feels like you’re on vacation, but you’re not. You’ve got to go to work Monday. [Being here] is like getting a piece of time. Cutting a slice out of life, even if you’re not rich.”

Elijah Northern, 6, of Greenville, flies through the air after being tossed by his father, Billy, at the beach. Billy said he loves the quality family time he gets at the lake.

Not far down the shore, among hundreds of other swimsuit-clad babies, youth and adults, Marcella Brown of English bathed in the brilliant sunshine. She, her daughters and her grandchildren were the first to set up on the beach on Saturday morning. They arrived and claimed their spot at 7:30 a.m.

“We are the first ones here every time we come,” Brown said as she lounged on the sandy earth. She and her family have made it out to the Patoka Lake beach each weekend except for one since the location opened on May 23.

Meanwhile, Victor Thomas of Louisville cheffed up hamburgers and hot dogs on a public grill near the beach entrance. Saturday marked his family and friends’ first trip to the lake. Around 3 p.m., they were all laughing and smiling in their beach tent.

Spending time outdoors at Deam Lake State Recreation area in Clark County was a part of Thomas’ childhood, and as a father, passing those experiences on to his kids is important.

“So they can have something to do instead of being at home, playing video games,” he said as the meat he was tending sizzled over charcoal. “Get them outside. Do some running, instead of being a couch potato.”

Life blossomed outside Patoka Lake’s beach in the afternoon, too, as guests at both the lake’s modern and primitive camping sites huddled together by their tents and campers to share food, drinks and company.

Judy Smadi of Louisville passes out baklava, a Middle Eastern pastry made with honey, flaky dough and chopped nuts, at their campsite.

Originally from the country of Jordan, Amani Kettaneh and Muad Maya now live in Louisville, and have brought their children and friends to the state park each year for nearly two decades.

Kettaneh and Maya have visited about 20 lakes together. Patoka is their favorite.

Saturday, the tent campgrounds served as the gathering point for a tight-knit assembly of 16 Louisville-area families of Middle Eastern descent.

“It’s kind of our tradition now,” said Kettaneh, who wore a pastel pink hijab as she beamed a wide smile and offered up homemade baklava and grape leaves stuffed with rice. She explained that her children first visited the park when they were just months old.

“We love this place,” Kettaneh later added. “We feel it’s like part of our community.”

The lake brings them together. Even if they wanted to, Kettaneh and Maya’s children would never let Mom and Dad skip out on the trips. Coming to Patoka to swim, or to fish, or to indulge in great food and spend time with their friends is too important to the young ones.

Seleen Maya, 14, loves the atmosphere at night when everyone joins together to chat. The kids congregate to play truth or dare and marshmallows are roasted on campfires to make s’mores.

“It’s very great,” Seleen said. “Because we all get to meet up ... and see everyone. So, it’s like that one time where we can talk to everyone at once.”

Eva Dupps, 2, of Jasper, left, and Moses Berg, 3, of Ferdinand, play with a bubble machine at their families' RV campsite in the modern campground in the afternoon. The kids families were glad to be able to secure one of the few spots in the park where they could have the four families camp around a grass area.

Nearby modern campsites are equipped with electrical outlets, asphalt surfaced pads, running water, flush toilets and showers. Many families sat outside their campers and recreational vehicles as early evening set in.

In one corner of the twisty, largely shaded section of the state park, four families pulled their RVs next to each other and chatted while their kids biked around the loop and ran through bubbles.

To Kurt Bleemel — who was camping at Patoka Lake for the first time in years on Saturday — the experience of being outdoors with friends is a getaway rooted in closeness.

“We’re not thinking about work,” the Ireland man said. “We’re not at home. We’re away. And it gives us time to bond with friends and family, because your friends are basically your family. You spend just as much time with them as you do your immediate family.”

Later, the kids are asleep, tuckered out from a day of playing outdoors and a night of catching toads.

The adults talk around the campfire, venting and supporting each other.

That’s how this day ends.

When Bleemel camps, that’s always how the days end.

“Campfire talk is very critical and very important to everybody, I think,” he said. “There’s so many good conversations and problems that are solved around a campfire, and the camaraderie of friends you grew up with.”

Patoka Lake allows for this connection with others — and with nature.

It’s a place of growth, escape and togetherness.

That’s the magic of the lake.

Logan McIntire, 16, of Palmyra, fishes near the South Lickfork Boat Ramp at sunset.