Thirty-five years ago I was driving through downtown Akron on I-77 to visit the University of Akron for the first time. I was shocked to see a lake in the middle of the city. A lake practically in my backyard? How cool was that, I thought.
But when I started asking about Summit Lake, locals described it in three words: disgusting, dirty and dangerous.
That was the perception most people had about the lake until about two years ago, said Lindsay Smith, marketing and public relations manager for Summit Metro Parks. A study of the water quality, which for many years was bad due to pollution from nearby industries, was found to be good – even comparable to the Portage Lakes, Smith said.
As well as perceptions about poor water quality, residents had a fear of the lake, said Smith, explaining that they were concerned about water safety.
Getting residents from nearby public housing to “engage” with the lake has been the focus of the Knight Foundation’s “Reimaging the Civic Commons” program, designed to reinvent the city’s public spaces, like parks, trails and recreation areas.
“It gave us funds to make changes,” Smith said. It helps that the area has a playground, nature center, picnic tables and more to help make it more inviting.
Kayaking, fishing and hidden treasures
The improved water quality has made the Summit Metro Parks comfortable holding programs at the lake, Smith said. The parks added a kayaking program to Summit Lake (they also hold them at Nimisila Reservoir and the Gorge).
In two hours, participants may learn to kayak (kayaks and equipment provided) and spend time practicing their skills. With a cost of $15, the two programs held each month fill up quickly, Smith noted.
In addition to water recreation, Smith calls fishing on the lake one of its “hidden treasures.” One can fish off a pier for largemouth bass, bluegill, warmouth, perch and channel catfish. For those without fishing equipment, Summit Metro Parks sometimes has programs where participants can fish for free.
The Towpath Trail, which runs adjacent to and even over the lake (thanks to a floating boardwalk) gives bicyclists, walkers and joggers a good look at the lake. In fact, in 2018, nearly 500,000 people used the Towpath between Botzum Trailhead (northern Akron) and the Stark County line (Clinton), Smith said.
As a bicyclist, that’s how I discovered the beauty of Summit Lake. It piqued my curiosity about what it would be like to kayak there. So on a recent Saturday morning, my husband I headed to the lake. I was still a bit skeptical, but I figured it if were good enough for the Summit Metro Parks, it would be good enough for us.
I’ll admit that when we arrived, I was a bit wary of the people I saw hanging out in their cars. However, Smith told me crime in the park is comparable to other Summit Metro Parks – not much. She also explained that before the lake’s ongoing transformation, people would come down and simply sit by the lake.
As my husband and I headed to the dock, we said hi to a man we passed. He stopped and told us we were welcome to go to an afternoon barbecue. I can honestly say that’s never happened to me before. So much for the area being “dangerous.”
My husband and I were the only ones on the lake that morning, probably because there was a slight chance of storms. But other than a darkening sky and some rumbles of thunder, we enjoyed a peaceful trip on the water.
We watched the steady stream of people pass on the Towpath and admired the herons flying overhead or resting by the many trees lining the lake.
Based on its former, longtime bad reputation, I never imagined that one day I would be enjoying water recreation on Summit Lake. It was funny because as we were putting our kayak into the water, I saw a couple pieces of trash – but also beautiful lily pads.
The ugly past of Summit Lake blossoming into a beautiful present. For info on Summit Metro Parks programming, visit summitmetroparks.org.