as told by Jason Banuski
Why would you do this?
Are you part of a club or something?
Did you paddle around the perimeter of the lakes near the shore?
Paddle across them?
And hey, what was the deal with the 11 days?
These are among the many questions I have been asked since I decided to take on this life-altering challenge. When asked about my motivations, I often find myself responding that it was God who inspired me to act. Even now, having completed my quest with the unwavering knowledge that He was by my side every step of the way, I am not entirely sure what led me to make the decision. However, I trust that the reason will become clear to me in due time.
To challenge oneself physically, mentally and spiritually are all the reasons I did this. In the past, I have sought similar challenges such as marathons, the CrossFit Murph Challenge and paddling the length of Skaneateles Lake each summer – trying to test myself and my limits.
Maybe it’s because I am approaching 50. Maybe I needed a break from my routine. Perhaps I wanted to wrestle with God a little and seek Him out without distraction, where I could clearly hear His voice to tell me why I am at this point in life, adrift from where I thought I would be. Divorced after a 20-year relationship with regrets, I became a man I never thought I would become. I left the church and dropped the habits that kept me connected to God.
So I headed out to the water. I have always loved the water. I am a Pisces after all! The beach, ocean, lake, river, stream, puddle – I love it all and am drawn to it.
Even though I was a life-long Finger Lakes resident, several years ago I finally realized through a curious course of events over several days that there are actually 11 Finger Lakes. The beginning of a plan began to form, if there are 11 Finger Lakes, I wonder if I could paddle them all.
What I planned to do and why I did it
My plan early on was to respond to the prompting of the 11 Finger Lakes and paddle each one on a Saturday the following summer. Eleven Saturdays spent on the water seemed like a worthy way to spend my valuable summer hours.
I began mapping out a strategy. I took full advantage of websites, Google Earth imaging and internet queries. If I was to paddle north to south, or south to north, I needed to find convenient places to enter and exit the water. This is not as easy as you may think. Public access is not present on all lakes at the proper locations. Onsite reconnaissance was required. I took day trips in the spring to each lake to investigate the shorelines and water access. Identifying parking, restaurants, beaches, docks, conditions and engaging locals with questions.
Truths emerged. No one had heard of anyone paddling the lengths of their lakes – so my inquiries were often replied with blank stares and “I don’t know.”
I decided to expand my idea of a Saturday on the water to a weekend on the water. If I drove to lodging close to multiple lakes I could paddle one on Saturday and another on Sunday. I kept tinkering with the schedule.
And then there was the weather. Unpredictable, with unknown winds, storms, pop-up showers. I would not know each morning if I was paddling north to south or the opposite. I had learned the lesson of the importance of wind at my back that first attempt of paddling Skaneateles years earlier.
I had a sense that the best weather was in August. If I planned later in the summer, I predicted more favorable weather and it provided maximum training time.
And then it hit me. The simplicity and the symmetry. The culmination of my research, lessons, logistics, weather, support all rolling into one continuous stretch. I would paddle the length of all 11 Finger Lakes in 11 consecutive days.
As I write this, I am not sure anyone has ever accomplished this feat. I am not sure anyone has ever attempted it. Hell, has anyone been crazy enough to even consider it? It was the answer to the promptings I had been feeling for far too long and from so many distant places. Take on a quest that will challenge me physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. 11 Finger Lakes in 11 Days was born.
Day 1: Owasco Lake (11.1 miles)
I embarked on my water journey from the south shore at 6:30 a.m. The surroundings were eerily quiet with flat water and fog. A calmness weighed down the water, suppressing a single ripple. I prayed, knelt and asked the Lord for his favor for the next 11 days. I prayed for guidance, favorable weather, safety and for His clear message. He had a purpose in directing me to the water for the next 11 days and I wanted to discover why. I began paddling. When you are paddling, alone on the water, marking distance by landmarks on the shore, it is challenging to gauge pace. I counted the hours and estimated the distances.
A strong wind favored my journey, and I covered more than half of the lake at a steady pace. But as I paddled and made course decisions, I made a rookie mistake. I allowed myself to drift from the west shore and its wind protection to the middle of the lake. I should have recognized it and stayed west but now began to feel the push to the eastern shore. It posed a challenge for the last few miles.
Eventually, I reached the Emerson Park channel slightly after 10 a.m. and finished with an easy relaxed pace through the walled-in calmness to where my son Peyton was waiting to shuttle me back to retrieve the Jeep and head home.
Day 2: Canandaigua Lake (15.5 miles)
For day two, I started with a rare late afternoon start on Thursday. Planning transportation is an important aspect to paddling a dozen miles or more. Think about it, if you travel one direction far enough you need to somehow get back to your starting point. The physical and mental act of 11 days paddling was nearly matched in difficulty by the logistics involved planning it.
I launched at 2 p.m., with a favorable southerly wind, hugging the west shoreline, the lake was filled with cocktail cruising boaters and wake surfers. This is one of the most active of the Finger Lakes, with local residents taking full advantage of a humid afternoon and the August-warmed water.
Around the 8-mile mark, a storm front rolled in and a light rain fell with a rising wind – at my back thankfully – pushing me south over rolling waves, fast, fun and exciting. I cranked up the music in my airpods, paddled fast and sang my heart out as if no one could hear me.
I finally paddled into the south launch at 7 p.m. with my support team patiently waiting. We finished the evening with an incredible steak dinner back at The Lake House.
Day 3: Honeoye Lake (4.5 miles), Hemlock Lake (7 miles), Canadice Lake (3 miles)
Day three was an ambitious goal of paddling three lakes in one day, although shorter paddles, the travel between them meant an early start to see that I could finish. I arrived at the south Honeoye launch at 5:30 a.m. Because of a forgotten pump to inflate my paddleboard, I had to spend an extra hour to retrieve it. I left the shore at 6:30 a.m. on flat clear water, an hour behind schedule and unhappy with myself. I completed the 4.5 miles in just over an hour – record time for me.
The second lake of the day was a 7-mile peaceful paddle on Hemlock Lake. The serene experience was worth it, as no development is permitted on the lake, offering only miles of forest shores to admire. During my paddle, I only encountered a handful of other people, propelling themselves by paddling up and down the shoreline.
My day concluded with a quick tour of Canadice, which happens to be the smallest of the Finger Lakes. The heavy winds in the afternoon delayed my paddle a bit, causing me to take a break on a rock-strewn beach. Eventually the wind subsided and I was able to finish the paddle.
Day 4: Conesus (8 miles)
When this adventure is over and someone asks me what my favorite lake of the 11 lakes was, my answer will be Conesus Lake. The pleasure I experienced, the joy and wonder of the inhabitants and the treasure of Conesus Lake during summer is indisputable, with numerous activities such as boating, paddling, swimming and dock parties. This lake was alive; after so many empty docks and vacant shorelines, Conesus residents are actively using their homes and camps.
The weather was favorable with a light breeze, and locals informed me that it was one of the calmest days of the season. This experience is precisely why I adore paddleboarding!
Day 5: Cayuga Lake (38 miles, Part 1)
Cayuga and Seneca are by far the longest lakes of the Finger Lakes, with each stretching out nearly 40 miles. Cayuga lake the longest of the Finger Lakes, which meant tackling this lake over two days.
My friend and Skaneateles Kayak Club brother Stuart Scarr volunteered to paddle with me as I ventured out onto the wider rolling water of Cayuga. Wind favored a northern paddle so we set out on a course that would see us traversing the lake from shore to shore as we held a steady northern course through the shifting shoreline curves.
We launched from Sheldrake Point and headed north at 9 a.m. For the only time during the 11 days, high waves knocked me off my board! At 3:30 p.m. we arrived at the north end, tired, happy and ready to get out of the water.
Day 6: Otisco Lake (5.4 miles)
After five straight days of paddling I was feeling the weight of another six days pushing in on me. I needed a shorter excursion to maximize my rest time. I headed out for the shorter miles of the eastern most Finger Lake, Otisco Lake, for an easy quick paddle.
I woke to find strong weather was predicted as I watched the wind forecast intently. My best option recommended a launch from the southeast end. Heading out at 8 a.m. from the southeast presented an incredible challenge with a tricky wind pushing against me, impeding my progress, and wanting me back on the eastern shore. It was going to be a slow, hay maker throwing fight through a strong steady wind and waves to reach the channel. The exact opposite of what I needed on my “rest day.”
I covered the distance in less than two hours, pulling off of the water at 9:50 a.m. The paddle was steady, but almost entirely right-side paddle strokes the entire morning to keep myself from the eastern shore. My dad picked me up to shuttle me back to the Jeep and I headed home for some needed sleep and rest.
Day 7: Skaneateles Lake (16 miles)
Just over halfway, doubt crept in that I would not be able to complete the lakes consecutively. I began sharing with my support team my disappointment. They responded positively remind me that completing this challenge in 12 or 13 days was still an accomplishment. On day seven I paddled my home lake. I would have loved to finish the quest here, my romantic idea of padding into the village to find dozens of family and friends waiting to congratulate me. A dose of humility, the wind and the weather had another plan.
I launched at 6:30 a.m. to a favorable south wind. After spending time on so many other Finger Lakes, I now appreciate how clear and blue the Skaneateles Lake water can be. After the winds shifted and made my paddle much more challenging, I finally arrived in Skaneateles Village around noon.
Day 8: Seneca Lake (38 miles, Part 1)
Somewhat rejuvenated, the shorter paddles in familiar territories of Otisco and Skaneateles left me with four 20-mile paddles to finish. I was not confident my body would hold up. I decided to not worry about all four days at one time and focused on just one: The next day, paddle half of Seneca Lake. I launched at 8:30 a.m. from the friendly Plum Point beach.
Seneca Lake has tricky wind shifts and I had every type of water surface to contend with. The lake water is beautiful, clear, and blue, perfect for a hot day. I took a longer rest than normal halfway through, including a 20-minute nap on the board, beached on a sunny shore.
A strong westerly wind shift pushed me unavoidably to the eastern shore with only two miles to go. Frustratingly I could not move my board south; it was like being caught in a current moving me sideways, a watery treadmill out of a nightmare when you want to run but your legs don’t work.
My plan was for my dad to drive to Watkins Glen and pick me up. I was beached on the eastern shore with no hope of continuing, given the present wind conditions and my body fatigue. I phoned my dad to vent my frustration, that I didn’t know how long I would be until I could finish, and that I was sorry to make him wait. He shared that earlier that day he learned of a family friend that was my age that had stage four cancer, that he was so proud of me for what I was attempting to accomplish that he didn’t care if he had to wait all day for me to finish. God was speaking to me in this moment, putting this whole silly thing I was doing into perspective. I looked at my circumstance with fresh eyes and realized He drove me to this shore, providing a time-out. I dropped to my knees and prayed for my friend, I prayed for other friends that came to mind, family and those in need. I began thanking Him for all He had done in my life. How He had been revealing Himself to me in this endeavor, how He kept showing up. I prayed as intently as I can ever remember. I wept. When I had every thought wrung out of me, I opened my eyes, I felt the warmth of the sun and no longer felt the battering of the wind. It had subsided. I jumped on my board with renewed energy and without barriers. I paddled hard the last two miles to finish in Lake Side Park where my dad was patiently waiting with new paddle friends Joe and Willow.
I totaled 6.5 hours on the water that day. With three days to go, I had a plan to finish on time if my body held up, found favorable winds, and a little help from above.
Day 9: Cayuga Lake (38 miles, Part 2)
Today was a 20-mile paddle to complete the second half of the longest Finger Lake. I launched from the same spot as last Sunday, the Driftwood Inn at Sheldrake Point. Standing on the shore, I admit I was intimidated; the wind and waves were intense!
This was no leisurely pleasure cruise, this was a buckle your seat belt, focus and grind kind of day on the water. I started by paddling broadside through big rollers, getting knocked around until I could find the correct angle to head south and ride the crest of waves, which aggressively pushed me south to my destination, Ithaca. It was fun, I made great time, 4 mph (over my normal 3). In this type of water you need vigilance and concentration. I wore my PFD as I was blown out uncontrollably to the middle of the lake. With this strong wind/wave combo, you go where it takes you and hold on.
Twelve miles in I pulled off and beached at Taughannock Falls State Park where my support team was patiently waiting. Rested on the shore for a bit, unflexed every muscle, fueled up then made my way the last 8 miles with still favorable wind direction to Ithaca. With Cornell on the hill and red channel markers as guides, I pulled into Allan Treman Marina after six hours on the water.
Day 10: Keuka Lake (19.6 miles)
I set out from the village launch in Hammondsport on a gorgeous summer morning. A slight breeze from the south made for a steady cruise toward the neck of the Y in the middle of the lake.
Taking the long path down the eastern extension of the lake, the paddle was long and strenuous, while aided by a soft south wind which was enough to create a steady current flowing north. Several dips in the cool refreshing water kept me going.
I eventually arrived at the Morgan Marina in Penn Yan exhausted, all my provisions gone, as I finished 7.5 hours on the water.
One day and one long paddle was left to successfully complete my goal of paddling all 11 Finger Lakes in 11 consecutive days!
Day 11: Seneca Lake (38 miles, Part 2)
Victory! Today I successfully paddled the length of all 11 Finger Lakes in 11 consecutive days with a 19-mile paddle on the north half of Seneca Lake.
The start was the roughest water I have ever encountered. If I would not have been so close to the finish, I would have stayed on land. Perhaps a bit overconfident of my ability on a board and armed with the knowledge that the south wind – if I could stay on my board – would expedite my tired body northward, I set off from Lodi State Park at 10 a.m.
A concerned boater came directly to me, a local who offered a ride, advising me of the dangerous conditions. Under different circumstances I would have, but not this day. Not on the last day of my quest!
The next few hours continued to warm and eventually calm the waters so that my final paddle was so similar to all of the other lakes explored the past week and a half. Vibrant waterfronts, boaters, swimmers, kayakers, fellow paddlers and so many people truly enjoying these incredibly gorgeous, generous gifts waiting to be discovered.
After six hours on the water, I reached the north shore and with an overwhelming sense of relief and accomplishment, I emotionally paddled ashore to celebrate with family and friends. Thank you to all of my supporters for continuing to follow and becoming a part of my adventure. You helped more than you know!