They call it a barge ride, but it’s really a pontoon boat with school chairs and a carport cover. A slight wind beats on our faces as we slowly ride across the lake. The rumble of the engine isn’t loud, but it still clashes with the silence of nature. Suddenly the rumble vanishes as the engine cuts off. Ranger Bob Culler turns to the passengers and says in a slow, Southern drawl, “Uh, we just ran out of gas.”
Just fifteen minutes earlier Ranger Bob ushers the twenty-one passengers onto the barge. It was easy to find a seat with a great view on the open-air boat with panorama views in all directions. The plastic chairs with sturdy metal legs are comfortable enough for an hour tour, and the three foot high chain link fence around the edge allows passengers to see the water while keeping children safely on-board.
The engine rumbles to life as Ranger Bob backs the boat away from the shore and charts a course down the narrow lake. He stands at the front of the boat facing the passengers, occasionally making slight course corrections, as he talks about the ecology of the lake and preservation of the mountain. He talks about the types of lily pads growing on the lake, names of a few bird species living at the park, and points out a big turtle swimming beside the boat. The school chairs make a horrible ruckus as everyone jumps from their seats and moves to the edge of the barge to catch a glimpse of the large turtle just below the surface.
Ranger Bob has been doing this for many years, but his passion for the work is evident as he speaks with a big smile on his face, occasionally making a few good jokes. He points to the numerous fallen trees around the lake’s edge. “Every year storms knock the trees down, but the following year new trees grow back in their place. And as you keep coming back here over the next 50 or 100 years you’ll start to see a lot of that.” He pauses for a moment as he looks at the young, thirtyish crowd. “You all come back fifty years from now and I’ll give you a free tour.” Everyone breaks into laughter as he continues, explaining the only fallen trees removed by park staff are those that block roads or trails. The rest are left to rot as part of the natural cycle.
The rumble of the engine vanishes. The sudden absence of sound seems to bring nature closer, driving you to listen for the chirps of birds and lapping of water at the lake’s edge you could not hear moments earlier. Ranger Bob turns to the passengers, amusingly quips about running out of gas, and points out a large beaver lodge directly ahead. As the boat slowly passes the lodge he explains the daily life of these nocturnal animals, points out several pencil-point shaped tree stumps as evidence of their woodworking skills, and talks about the architecture of the lodge. Eager passengers lean over the rail of the barge, hoping to catch a glimpse of a beaver, but the ranger points out they are most likely asleep at the moment, dashing their hopes of a photo op. A few minutes later the engine starts up again, the rumble returns, bringing the visitors back to the reality of sitting on a barge in the middle of a lake.
As a final hoorah and small attempt to give the children something memorable about the tour, Ranger Bob grasps the throttle control before making an announcement. “Okay, you guys are gonna get to be part of a historical event right now.” The adults look confused; the children excited. “I have a GPS watch here that I use when I’m runnin’ to keep track of speed and so forth. I’m gonna see how fast this boat goes.” He pauses for a moment. “Everybody fasten your seatbelts.” There are no seatbelts, but a moment later the boat surges across the lake. Ranger Bob pushes the boat to maximum speed for about a minute before he pulls the throttle back and turns to face the passengers. “We just hit right around a nine-minute mile. That’s pretty good. That’s right around six and a half miles per hour.” Everyone laughs as they think about the relative slowness of the boat compared to traveling in a car, but a moment ago it certainly felt more like sixty miles per hour.
The forty-minute ecotour on the lake passed too quickly. As the boat pulled ashore and the passengers disembarked, Ranger Bob reminded everyone the park rangers were about to feed to wolves in the animal habitat. The children squealed as the parents tried to keep up, trotting quickly up the paved path. It’s one of the many great things about Bays Mountain Park & Planetarium: the nature preserve surrounding the lake features miles of hiking and mountain biking trails, about a dozen animal habitats, an observatory, homestead museum, and a modern digital planetarium. There is enough to keep families, solo travelers, and couples entertained all day long, over and over again.