By D’Arcy Egan
Robert and Norma Nehls moved to Catawba Island almost 60 years ago, and quickly came to love the people, the many orchards, the Lake Erie shore and abundant wildlife.
A graduate of the Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine, he soon became simply “Doc” to a legion of friends. Doc usually had a Labrador retriever by his side, and kept a couple of riding horses in a stable behind the Veterinary Hospital on NE Catawba Road.
The Nehls raised their son Jeff, a longtime Ohio Watercraft Officer, and daughters Jackie and Jill on Catawba. Doc and Jeff often shared mornings in a hunting blind at his son’s sprawling marsh, the Sandusky Bay Duck Club.
“Everyone knew Doc, and they all thought the world of him,” said Norma, who worked with Doc at the veterinary hospital. “Doc knew animals, and loved working with them. And their owners, who became Doc’s friends, too.”
When it came time for an old dog to be euthanized, Nehls had a strong, steady hand and a caring bedside manner.
Nehls found a special piece of property on Muggy Road in 2003, a 40-acre campground on the pristine shoreline of lower West Harbor. It was a place where he could enjoy the setting sun with his wife, Norma, while watching the city lights twinkle across the water.
“It was our special place,” said Norma. “Doc and our son, Jeff, spent a lot of time clearing away the old trailers and things. It was a place to enjoy with family and friends.”
Her husband never developed a plan for the property, but after he died on Oct. 17, 2017 — Doc and Norma had been married for 57 years — Norma figured it out.
“He had always considered the Muggy Road property a beautiful place for us and our friends to enjoy,” she said. “He had so many friends, and loved singing karaoke at parties and local nursing homes.”
Since Doc’s death, Norma has worked with Executive Director Rob Krain of the Black Swamp Conservancy in Perrysburg, Ohio. Transferring the property to the group in a below-market sale has allowed the 40 acres to become the Dr. Robert L. Nehls Memorial Nature Preserve.
The patch of greenery is on the quiet southern end of busy West Harbor, close to the West Harbor Landing launch on the Mainland Water Trail. The Great Egret Marsh Preserve is just to the east, near East Harbor State Park, and the Black Swamp Conservancy’s Cedar Meadows Nature Preserve is a mile northwest of the property.