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One day at Lake Placida in the 1940s, Ziegler “Zig” Heilman ‘50 did the unthinkable. He and his skating buddies had been furiously chasing a puck across the ice. Despite the chilly air, Heilman had grown warm – and very thirsty.
Not far away, a cold, clear flow whispered from the lake. Heilman wavered. He knew you weren’t supposed to quaff untreated water. But Heilman recoiled at the thought of quitting the pickup game and driving a mile home for a drink. (We never stopped,” he explained, “and there was nobody to take our place. The point is, I REALLY liked ice hockey.”) He went over to the spillway, cupped his hands and gratefully swallowed.
He never got sick. Placida saved him that day.
All these years later, the keepers of the lake are saving Placida. This time, it’s for the greater environmental good.
The lake, Elizabethtown College’s go-to marine gem for 90 years, has long funneled skaters, fishers, hikers, campers—even folks getting baptized. Now, fresh from a $2.5 million reboot, Placida and its traditions are entering a more deliberately ecological age.
A new dam, pedestrian bridge and additional aeration fountain are the most visible alterations to the four-acre lens tucked in the northeastern corner of campus. The changes made below the water line are the most profound:
In summer 2012, Placida was pumped dry of the spring-fed creek water that enters near the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies. Thousands of invasive Asian pond carp, that had riled the lake’s muddy bottom and squeezed out native fish, were culled by hand and hauled away for farm fertilizer. Contractors scooped up three feet of sediment that was mostly from off-campus agricultural runoff, deepening the impoundment to 12 feet at its greatest reaches near the dam. Cub Scouts and other volunteers restocked the rehydrated basin this spring with 1,500 bluegills, 100 channel catfish, 500 largemouth bass and 400 crayfish.
College facilities workers scattered pea gravel to help jump-start fish spawning and built fish hideouts/feeding areas using wooden pallets and rubble from the old dam.
Eighty pounds of fathead minnows—fish food —were added to rev up the chain of life.
But this is no closed-system biosphere.
The lake is a center for the community and a key organ in the watershed, said Mark Zimmerman, E-town’s director of facilities management. Its new mission is to stave off catastrophic flooding in the borough and help sustain downstream ecology along the Conoy Creek, Susquehanna River and Chesapeake Bay.
Dr. Thomas Murray and Dr. David Bowne and their biology students will chart its progress. Placida’s vital statistics were recorded earlier to serve as a base line. “We know from whence it came,” Murray said.
It essentially came from a swamp.
That’s what wetlands were called in 1923, when E-town purchased land to make a lake.
Church of the Brethren volunteers passed the hat for the all-donation project then cleared the little marsh and installed an earthen dam themselves. They held a name-that-lake contest; the junior class president won. Alumni awarded Eli M. Engle Jr. five bucks (nearly $70 in today’s currency). The handle was announced Oct. 1, 1924.
Alumni thought the name befitted the Brethren doctrine of inner peace. But, while the young lake might have represented spiritual refuge, it was hardly sequestered. It was a working—and playing—landscape.
Brethren youth camped, boated, swam and staged retreats at its edge. E-town’s Dean of Women OK’d skating by moonlight. Church initiates trooped across College Avenue and descended concrete steps to the base of the dirt spillway to be baptized.
The lake settled into a utilitarian groove.
During the early part of his tenure, said religion professor emeritus and revered assistant soccer coach Dr. Eugene Clemens, who arrived at E-town in the mid-1960s, “I remember it being used more… It’s part of the graciousness of the campus, but it’s also sort of a symbol.”
Sometimes the symbol ate your homework.
That happened about 30 years later to Crystal Mills, ’96. The English and communications major had been sitting lakeside, catching up on an assignment one day when the wind rose. She did not sacrifice her papers to nature. “You dive in after them,” she said.
Mills recalled human pranks, too, like students adding bubble bath to the water. Most of her days, at Placida however, were more meditative.
The Leffler Chapel and Performance Center had not yet gone up when she started school. The lake was farther out on the edge of things. “It was cool,” Mills said. “There was more foliage at that point in time. It was a nice, quiet place to read.” She cracked her first Toni Morrison novel there, for a John Rohrkemper lit class. “The ducks would hang out with you. It felt like a little oasis. It was just kind of quiet and peaceful.
“I do remember [the walking path around the lake] being paved,” added Mills, who also mountain biked at the nearby quarry that is now filled in. And she’ll never forget the gobbler in the Brown lot.
Mills was getting into her car one night to go to work, she said. “I looked up and there was a wild turkey on the hood of the car beside me.”
Other winged giants patrolled Placida when Naomi Hershey donated swans for the lake in 1992.
Chummy ducks were the pressing wildlife dilemma of the day. In 1990, College officials asked the public to not feed the ballooning mallard population, then drew fire a few winters later for intervening to keep the birds from starving. By that time, said Murray, Placida was plagued by avian poop, nutrient runoff and algal blooms. A refresh, 12 years ago, slightly deepened the lake. Pollution was cut by planting riparian buffers and adding two storm water recharge basins near Schreiber Quad.
But then came the exotic creatures. “At one point,” Murray said, “somebody introduced a big South American fish that looks like a piranha.”
Invasive pond carp dug in. “The carp took over the whole ecosystem,” killing many of the underwater plantings and pushing out the bass and bluegills, said Zimmerman.
He and Joe Metro, his retired predecessor, started brainstorming another overhaul in 2010. “We’d known for some time we had to update the dam,” Zimmerman said. The state Department of Environmental Protection required the work and provided a matching grant and specs.
The habitat renewal idea grew out of the dam rebuild. “Once the water was down,” said Zimmerman, who had previously proposed building fish shelters, “we had a great opportunity to make some improvements.” The Department of Biology helped design a habitat plan. A lot of the ecological work was done in-house, holding the price tag to 1-2 percent of the project cost.
Zimmerman said the new three-step concrete weir dam should overflow only during the most severe floods, such as 2011 Tropical Storm Lee. Meanwhile, bass fingerlings are growing fast. (Anglers are asked to refrain while the animals settle, and the college welcomes passive recreation but discourages skating and public boating on Placida.)
This fall, Murray and his students, armed with nets, gauges, sampling equipment and the regulation screechy oarlocks, will be back rowing the lake in a 12-foot aluminum skiff. They’ll measure dissolved oxygen and light levels, the professor said. They’ll see how many fish Placida can support. “We’re going to be looking at nitrogen and phosphorus,” two nutrients that need to be controlled, he explained.
He noted that summer nutrient loads remained high as the site rebounded from reconstruction.
While it’s hard to control nutrient input off- campus, Zimmerman said, the lake is getting less ag silt because 33 acres along Campus Road the college leases out are now farmed using no-till methods.
On a summer day lidded by puffy clouds, Bowne surveyed Placida’s progress with his son.
Ben Wohlbowne, 11, had designed a Coke-and-Mento-powered model boat to ply the lake. His turtle scientist dad trappped critters with a large round hoop net and notches their shells so that he can track their movements.
The greenish-brown depths harbor a central mystery.
“Nobody knows how turtles find a body of water for the first time,” Bowne said. The important thing was, the animals had rediscovered the refilled Placida after retreating to nearby Weird Pond—another campus water feature—during the dredging.
“I couldn’t be happier” with a lake nestled steps away from the lab, Bowne added. He pointed to raised logs that had been positioned so painted turtles can bask. He extended his hand to mimic a snapping turtle and showed how the reptiles can arc their heads back toward their tails to bite.
Snappers live a long time, he added, and it’s “theoretically possible but not likely” that one of the hoary old charter residents of the lake still lurks.
As Bowne spoke, the sun came back on duty. Wind flicked nearby branches of oak and red cedar. Parentheses of goldenrod and other species around the lake help keep geese at bay and screen runoff, Bowne said. Some of the plants have seeded themselves.
That’s the lasting beauty of the place, he said. It’s manipulated by humans, but it brings the wild close. Nine decades later, the formula still clicks for junior Alexandra Doran.
“My friends and I walk around the lake at night” and just talk, said Doran, who by day wades the waters snaring turtles for Bowne’s class.
Placidian vagaries of light and weather inspired 2012 visiting artist James Fuhrman of Glenmoore, Pa. He said he sees the floating sculpture he designed for the lake, “Water Gesture—Where Does the Moon Rise,” as “a contemplative space” spotlighting the nature/human interface.
And so Placida remains E-town’s tonic—if not its beverage.
“I wouldn’t be drinking from a warm water fishery!” Zimmerman said with a laugh when he heard about Zig Heilman’s 1940s exploit.
Heilman, a retired schoolteacher in Elizabethtown, who attends campus programs with his wife, Christine ’52, never again sipped Placida’s broth. But he did drive past a couple of times last year when the lake was drained and gunky. Old ice hockey memories welled up.
There was always one place where the surface did not freeze over, Heilman reflected. “We would lose pucks in that water.” A pause. “I was thinking there’s got to be quite a few pucks in that mud.”