Family of aviators share their connection to Lake Erie with the Watermark Project

Watermark PicIts 20 degrees on a frigid Saturday afternoon. Jennifer Nalbone is standing outside a small Western New York airport waiting for her father Lou.

He’s returning from a brief flight a neighboring town. The aircraft he’s flying is an American Champion Scout, a sport utility plane. When Lou finally arrives, he taxis to the terminal and climbs out. On the ground he describes what Lake Erie means to his family of aviators.

“It’s the highway in the sky and it still is to this day,” he said.

And, to this day, it’s how you find your way home. When you get lost, you follow the shoreline of Erie. Back before digital signals were used for flight navigation, aviators would use visual flight rules, taking pilots from city to city along the flyway.

“The number one highway was the shoreline,” said Lou. “Because of the definition, you had situational awareness, you had the difference between the way the land looked and the water and it was also the lowest elevation land available on the route from Chicago to Buffalo.”

The family runs a flight school out of the airport, so Jennifer pretty much grew up here. She learned to fly before she could drive, and she has her grandpa John Nalbone to thank for that.

John was a WWII flight instructor, after he came home from the war he opened a flight school. Using visual flight rules was one of the ways he taught her how to fly.

“He always said, and he told most of his students this, if you ever got in trouble, follow the farm lines,” she said. “The farms are plowed and planted north, south, east, west. And head west, head to the lake and find your way home.”

She remembers flying really close to the water over Lake Erie.

“In the winter you can fly low and see these pressure ridges of ice forming along the offshore area,” she said. “In the summer time you can fly over and see the cracks in the shale beneath the water. It’s something that will always be in my memory and is part of the way I grew up and remembered experiencing Lake Erie.”

Their story is one of over a thousand collected for the Watermark Project. The project is one of Lake Ontario Waterkeeper’s newer ventures. The Toronto based environmental group catalogs the stories and publishes them online, to document personal connections residents of the Great Lakes have with the water.

Watermark president, Mark Mattson says the project began as a way to fuel passions to protect the environment.

“There’s all the rational reasons for protecting water, but usually it’s those personal reasons that have the most power and it gets people to work harder for their watershed,” he said.

The Waterkeepers enlist various organizations, teachers, businesses and others to collection these stories for the project. Stories like the Nalbone’s were collected by the International Joint Commission.

The IJC has collected several stories for the project. Like this one, it’s about a woman whose name is Anne Runyan . She tells her story about Lake Huron in Canada and her family’s summer cottage.

“I was a baby boom child without much adult supervision,” she said. “I remember sitting in dunes and watching the water stilling in swings so it’s really a landscape that is very gorgeous and one I associate with childhood freedom beauty and solitude.”

The stories cover not just the Great Lakes, but waterbodies around the world.

This one is from Sri Lanka. It’s about the Indian Ocean. And, it’s from a young man who as a child was a victim of a deadly tsunami. His name is Kaveen .

“I saw things at a young age that force me to think how much impact water has especially on island and like on people who live near the coast because their livelihood is based on sea, based on fishery and now it’s pretty much attacking them and destroying their lives,” he said. “It had a huge impact on me I didn’t know how to swim at the time and when I went back to school the first thing I did was learn how to swim.”