I was 8 when I met Canandaigua Lake. It was huge, limitless – a youthful (and false) perspective. But during that late-summer holiday, the lake stretched out northward to infinity.
We stayed at a little boathouse below Vine Valley, huddled in the shadow of Whaleback (a much better description than the official South Hill, but still less rich than the Seneca name – Nundawao). Only the boathouse roof was visible from the pull-off for our old Saab ’96 wagon.
“Dad, are you sure about this?”
The owner was “Mr. Mackey.” His first name was Fred, but calling him Fred was like calling Nundawao South Hill. He was much like the lake. He could produce an intimidating glower, twitching his eyebrows like whitecaps spraying in the wind. And he could sparkle, finishing a tale with the warmth and gentleness of the late afternoon sun playing on the waves. But for the first week I knew him, he wasn’t quite real. We played our roles in my mind: I the wondering, inquisitive boy, two years before the mast; he the stern sea codger, from his storm-splashed wheel barking stories about this enormous piece of fresh water.
Most days I would cajole my father into stone-skipping contests. His low sidearm tosses seemed to hop all the way to Woodville. My weak imitations rarely made it past the end of the dock. Then, he would hurl round stones high into the air where they would fall with a satisfying “gloop” into the depths; one of the most pleasant sounds to grace this earth.
Never much of a swimmer, I paddled about endlessly on an inflatable raft, basking in the sun, scrunching beneath the breeze, finding favorite places. A narrow deck encircled the front of the boathouse. Between the deck pilings and the foundation of the boathouse was a dark watery passage into which only I could fit. With decking above and the stony foundation alongside me, the slap of the waves echoed in my ears and my raft bumped pleasantly in the two-way chop. A suburban Jerseyite, I called this place “The Holland Tunnel” and navigated it numerous times daily. Mr. Mackey thought the name preposterous. But he was old. What did he know? The Holland Tunnel was everything the lake became for me: dark dancing waters of laughter, friendly secrets happily surrendered.
Most mornings, Mr. Mackey would come stiff-legged down the steps from his house across the road and set up my mom in a little skiff. She would row about 20 yards offshore and fish for sunnies for a couple of hours. She didn’t really want to catch any, but reveled in the solitude and curiously whorled waters of a calm lake morning.
One morning after seeing mom off the dock, Mr. Mackey paused to check the tie lines on his beloved wooden inboard. I crept out near him, waving to mom.
“See that sky, boy?”
I looked up to carefully ordered ranks of brilliant white cotton-puff clouds over the far shore’s Gannett Hill, motionless but marching eastward.
“That’d be rain by this time tomorrow. Best close the window by your cot tonight.” I searched that old etched face and saw a glimmer in his eye. “Nice afternoon, though.”
Indeed, it was.
And when I woke to raindrops on the boathouse roof in the small hours of the morning, Mr. Mackey became real, yet more magical than ever; he was wholly human, flesh and blood, but something more, too. A lore master. Genuine. His was the voice of Canandaigua Lake, and his tales contained the living cadence of this land and water.
In 1966, dad discovered Cape Cod and our summer vacations moved to the sea. The lake receded in me, nearly forgotten, until my wife and I moved to Canandaigua in the summer of 1985. Fred Mackey was gone, the boathouse sold and renovated, the lake altered with development and the perspective of my years. But those cotton-ball clouds remain unchanged, still the harbinger of rain within a day. And when I see that sky, and in the 5 a.m. stillness hear those raindrops, the glower and the glimmer come to me again.
There will be a time soon when I drive my two children down below Vine Valley. We’ll park at the top of a steep wooden staircase, and I’ll take them to the water’s edge hoping no one is home. We’ll shed our shoes and dip our toes, and I’ll look up and say, “See that sky, boys?”
by Andrew Thomas