Brian, Phil and Jim’s Excellent Adventure!

The idea was hatched sometime in late January. Holiday spirit was on the wane as another typical upstate winter established its foothold – bitter, bleak and boundless. But this time around we sensed something different in the air, a hint of new inspiration in the works.

The “we” I refer to is our morning coffee group, a group that gathers daily in a local Syracuse diner over coffee, bagels and muffins, a group that reads the morning paper and chats endlessly about the latest sports, politics and local news, often repeating ourselves. It is a motley assemblage of retired teachers, all male, with a few nondescript add-ons and an occasional wife stopping by just to make sure we’re wasting our time constructively.

Sporadically, conversation wanders away from customary topics to address a gripping human interest story, or spectacular tragedy, broadcast on the T.V. monitor flashing vivid images into “our corner.” It may have been one of these compelling stories that first sparked the discussion, one that soon evolved into an ongoing dialogue. It was agreed the time had come to tackle a new challenge, something beyond our everyday mundane activities.

One early suggestion was a group swim of the English Channel – an idea soon dispatched when research showed that it has now been accomplished by hundreds of people from countless countries and with virtually every type of swimming stroke: breaststroke, backstroke, even the butterfly. Too common, and besides travel expenses would be prohibitive. We dismissed the climbing of Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania’s majestic, snow-covered equatorial mountain, for many of the same reasons.

A challenge was needed more local in nature, more suitable to our financial stations in life, and more befitting our presently diminishing athletic and cerebral abilities. After rejecting a group plunge over Niagara Falls (too awkward getting that many people in one barrel), someone blurted out a viable alternative, “Let’s take a swim in each of the Finger Lakes – all in one day.” The idea was accepted so quickly and enthusiastically that even now no one is sure where the credit belongs. Sure, it had probably been done before, but what hasn’t? Did that make it any less daunting? It was determined that winter was not the best time to attempt such an exploit, so research and planning began for a summer try.

The first question posed was how many Finger Lakes are there? We didn’t want to miss any. Our crack research team soon nailed down the answer – 11: Conesus, Hemlock, Canadice, Honeoye, Canandaigua, Keuka, Seneca, Cayuga, Owasco, Skaneateles and Otisco. Since learning is an important part of any project, the following facts were swiftly unearthed from a Cornell University web page.

Longest: Cayuga (38.2 miles)
Shortest: Canadice (3 miles)
Deepest: Seneca (618 feet)
Most Shallow: Honeoye (30 feet)

It was determined that a “dry run” was essential, an opportunity to see how much time should be allotted for the venture, to locate an available swimming spot at each lake, and to find the most efficient route. This was accomplished, with few hitches, on a warm, sunny day in July. The route was highlighted on a Finger Lakes map and the actual swim date was inked in for a Monday in August.

Target day arrived with heavily overcast skies, thunderstorms, and flashes of lightning, an ominous beginning for an epic mission. A couple of last minute “can’t make it” calls abruptly came in from formerly steadfast participants – “Not feeling so well,” and the even weaker “Got my dates mixed up.” Only Phil and Brian joined me to form a resolute group of three for the actual swim. A fourth, Bill, agreed to go along if he didn’t have to go in the water. A sightseer at heart, Bill insisted on not being photographed, but agreed to serve as official photographer, a workable arrangement.

The contingent headed west from Syracuse sipping hot coffee at 7:10 a.m. in a pounding rainstorm, spirits a bit down but undeterred. Would a Mount Everest climb be scratched because a few snowflakes begin to fall? Not likely.
In place was a plan to begin with the westernmost lake, Conesus, and gradually work our way back to its easternmost counterpart, Otisco, late in the day. Optimism surfaced as we drove west, the rain slowed and tiny patches of blue sky appeared. By 8:15, bright sunshine and dry roads buoyed morale – enthusiasm for the task at hand had returned.

Around 8:45, we pulled into the parking lot of Lakeville’s Vitale Park at the northern end of Conesus, the site of our first swim. However, aging athletes of our caliber frequently require sustenance, and the Lakeville Family Restaurant next door offered critical pre-swim nourishment. Bypassing poached eggs, fruit, and oatmeal on the menu, we opted for somewhat heavier fare: omelets, sausage, bacon, home fries, cinnamon rolls, and more coffee.

We stepped into chilly Conesus Lake just after 9:30, submerged, splashed about, and were ready to move on by 9:45. Scrambling out along the rocky bottom, Phil slashed his hand on a zebra mussel, a temporary setback. We patched him up and were soon ready to hit the road.

Each of the next two stops presented a problem. Lakes Hemlock and Canadice are part of a protected watershed for the City of Rochester, and while certain sporting activities and boating are allowed, swimming is prohibited. How could we make sufficient contact with the water to count it as “a swim” and still remain within the rules?

Anticipating this, our questions had been answered in a pre-trip phone call to Don Root, on-site conservationist for the city. Don agreed that a certain “incidental contact” (wading into the water) is essential and acceptable when launching a boat. Along with a required “Watershed Visitor Permit,” we had come prepared with a kayak strapped on top of the car for the necessary launch.

As luck would have it, we arrived at Hemlock to find a family preparing to enter the lake with a small motorized boat. We leapt out of the car offering help. As the family watched, a bit stunned, our eager crew of three waded in (between knee and waist) until the boat was freely afloat. We declared success – swim accomplished (water contact) with the integrity of the watershed rules preserved.

At Canadice Lake we followed the same routine to launch Phil’s kayak. (Okay, so a three-man crew is a little overkill for a kayak. It had to be done.) When Phil had finished paddling, we waded in again to remove the kayak and help Phil, who was still dealing with his injured hand. What a trooper.

It was almost 11 as we approached the first of the next three swims, all on safe public beaches. Sandy Bottom Park on Honeoye Lake, Kershaw Park at the northern tip of Canandaigua, and Keuka Lake State Park all offered sandy swimming areas, friendly lifeguards, and water that continued to warm slightly as the day wore on. People we met along the way at least feigned genuine interest in our undertaking, asking incisive questions like, “You’re doing what?” But all went smoothly, and by 1 p.m. we were heading north on Route 14 toward Geneva and Seneca Lake, six down and five to go.

It seemed like an opportune time for a break and Brian suggested stopping for a light lunch somewhere, maybe a salad or a little tofu, before our next swim. Phil mentioned that we were approaching Belhurst Castle where he and his wife had recently enjoyed their daily lunch buffet and, he insisted, “the price is right.”

Along with a beautiful view of Seneca Lake, the buffet offered salads and soups (a sausage-vegetable soup was excellent) to precede hot chicken, beef, and pasta dishes, fresh fruit, rolls, a sandwich station and desserts. Someone remarked (to a chorus of groans) that the buffet was “Finger Lakin’ good.” Our “light lunch” ended and we were back on the road by 2:30, only to be faced with a new threat.

The sunshine had faded and heavy storm clouds were moving in quickly, followed by thunder, lightning and pounding rain. Our plans for Seneca, Cayuga, Owasco and Skaneateles Lakes had called for swims at state and local parks along the way, each offering first-rate facilities and easy access. But storms would temporarily close each park for a period of time, and rules dictate that none would reopen until at least one hour after the storm had passed through. Once the sky cleared we would move east, but with the storm just preceding us and delays waiting at each stop. This presented an ongoing problem and required a new strategy.

Brian quickly studied our extensive mapping system and proposed a solution – boat launches. Every launch provided convenient docking and graded ramps sloping into the water, perfect situations for easy in and easy out. We proceeded confidently through the countryside, passing rolling hills and scenic farmscapes. At each location, since the storm had recently blown through, we had the boat launch area to ourselves. The hurdles once presented by Seneca, Cayuga, Owasco, and Skaneateles folded up like so many cheap lawn chairs. Our intrepid swimmers rated the waters of Owasco the warmest while those of Skaneateles, true to its reputation, were chilliest of the four.

The day was growing late. It was just after 6 as we approached the final lake. The master plan called for the concluding swim to take place at a popular swimming area at Otisco Lake known as “the causeway,” a rock-lined, tree-covered strip of land several miles down the lake’s eastern shore.

But as we approached the northern tip of Otisco the clouds darkened again, thunder rumbled in the distance, and rain began to fall. Threatened, we dashed through a small public park to squeeze in a quick dip between raindrops, attempting to beat the oncoming storm. Unfortunately, a rough shoreline, thick weeds, and slippery underwater rocks afforded an inauspicious finale to the day’s activities. We swiftly stumbled in, and then scrambled out. No wonder. It was only while scurrying out of the park, amid the storm’s increasing intensity, that we noticed for the first time a posted sign – “No Swimming.”

By 6:30 the job was done – 11 lakes in nine hours. We celebrated completion of the mission with a stop in Marcellus for some very large ice cream cones, sundaes and milk shakes. Still high on the cusp of success, conversation soon led to a thrashing out of what could be done in the future for an encore, a project to at least equal, or even surpass, this year’s effort.

Among the best suggestions was one from Bill, a participant who hadn’t been heard from much during the day. “How about spending a few days searching the Finger Lakes region for the preeminent burger joint?” Bill’s proposal brought immediate grunts, murmurs, and nods of approval…but then there’s a whole winter ahead to assess the options.


by James P. Hughes