From Ithaca to Oswego: A Paddler’s Journey

Paddlers at the end of the line with Southern Tier Kayak Tour operator Aaron Myers, who generously shuttled them back to Ithaca from Oswego. Photo courtesy Finger Lakes Land Trust

Our intrepid band of six conservationists and planners set out from Ithaca last summer with three goals: to get a firsthand look at shoreline conditions, visit local officials to discuss shoreline conservation and improvement projects and, simply, to enjoy ourselves.

We were just south of Aurora when I started to wonder if paddling more than 100 miles in a kayak was as good an idea as it had originally seemed. Cayuga Lake is particularly wide there, and near the end of the first of our five days of travelling, strong headwinds and waves made us suspect that our destination of Long Point State Park was actually moving away from us to the north.

Fortunately, we made our destination on that first day, and on to Wells College, where we were overwhelmed by their wonderful hospitality. We continued paddling the length of Cayuga Lake and beyond over the next days, waking up early to take advantage of the lake’s early morning stillness.

Creaking locks and a long aqueduct 

At Cayuga Lake’s outlet, we passed through Mud Lock – the first of a series of canal locks that would gradually lower us more than 139 feet in the course of our descent to Lake Ontario. At each one, we paddled into these big steel boxes, waited for the clang of the doors to close, and then patiently held onto the side ropes until we were lowered to the right level – watching the zebra mussels on the side of the lock “spit” water at us as they were revealed by the diminishing waters. With a big creak, the doors would then open and we’d paddle on our way.

Our passage through the Montezuma Wetlands and down the Seneca River was a lazy journey through placid and tame water. At one point, the Richmond Aqueduct emerged from the swampy forests like some ancient Roman ruin. Built to carry the Erie Canal over the Seneca River, it was the second-longest aqueduct constructed on the system. Though partially destroyed when the canal was rerouted to the Seneca, it remains an impressive sight.

Around every bend of the river, the summer stillness was broken only by the flapping of a great blue heron and the splashing of a large carp. Occasion-ally, we greeted another kayak, motor boat or touring canal boat. Then, after a night of riverside camping, we enjoyed Baldwinsville’s Red Mill Inn – a charming spot located on an island in the midst of the Seneca River.

At Three Rivers, where the Seneca and the Oneida join to create the Oswego, we noticed a hint of the north woods along the shore and a bit of a current in the river as we headed due north toward Oswego Harbor. Highlights of the Oswego included clear, cold riverside springs that were once the site of a bottling operation, and an impressive excavated cave that was reported to be used by either dairymen or rumrunners during Prohibition. Whatever its origins, stepping into that cave on a hot July day was like stepping into a walk-in cooler.

On the fifth and last day of our trip, we enjoyed the company of other paddlers. We encountered a number of canal locks that, along with their associated dams, tamed what was once a raging whitewater river. We enjoyed paddling past wooded islands that gave this stretch a particularly wild feel.

Our entrance to the City of Oswego was dramatic. At one moment, we were paddling along through the forest. In the next moment, we were rounding a bend where we seemed almost perched above the city and a series of canal locks. We could almost taste the cold beer that awaited us, and so we eagerly paddled across the harbor to end our journey at the city’s harbor-side park.

After 110 miles, we’d fallen into the rhythm of paddling. When we glimpsed a freighter in Oswego Harbor, I toyed with the idea of continuing the journey up Lake Ontario’s eastern shore. A glimpse of the choppy waters steered my thoughts back to the cold beer. With muscles that ached a bit, but were no worse for wear and tear, we hauled our boats out of the water and celebrated the completion of our journey.

Let’s create a network of protected shoreline 

Foremost in my mind is the remarkable beauty of our region – from the grandeur of Cayuga Lake’s still waters at dawn to the tremendous abundance of birds, fish and
turtles along the banks of the slow-moving rivers to the north. Another strong impression was of the wonderful hospitality provided by the residents of our region, who went out of their way to make us feel welcome wherever we went.

During the course of our paddle, I was also struck by how much pressure we put on the natural systems in the area, particularly our lakes and rivers. We paddled past mile after mile of densely developed shoreline. In some stretches, the cottages were so crowded that it seemed there was barely room for a single tree to grace the shoreline!

My final impression was one of tremendous opportunity. Paddling our lakes and rivers is a wonderful way to spend a day, a weekend or even a week, yet public access is limited, as are shoreline businesses that cater to paddlers and other boaters.

I came away convinced that we must redouble our efforts to secure our last remaining undeveloped shoreline. While so little is left, we can still create a network of protected areas on each of the Finger Lakes that can also provide outstanding opportunities for paddling, fishing, bird watching and other activities. The creation of such a network will not only add to our quality of life but also enhance the appeal of the Finger Lakes as a tourism destination – an industry that generated $2.7 billion last year in economic
activity within the region.

If you’ve never tried it, go out and rent or borrow a kayak and get out there on the water. You’ll be glad that you did.


Creating places on the lakes for everyone to enjoy

Since it was established in 1989, the Finger Lakes Land Trust has worked cooperatively with landowners and local communities to secure more than 15,000 acres of the region’s scenic farmland, rugged gorges and majestic forests. In recent years, the Land Trust has focused on the region’s most precious land resource – undeveloped shoreline. During the past two years alone, the Land Trust has dedicated the Van Riper Conservation Area and Whitlock Nature Preserve on Cayuga Lake, and established the Cora Kampfe Dickinson Conservation Area on Skaneateles Lake.

The adjacent Van Riper and Whitlock properties feature 1,900 feet of wooded shoreline and extensive frontage on the Cayuga Lake Scenic Byway (Route 89) in the Town of Romulus, Seneca County. An easy loop trail provides access to the lake, as well as a view of Wells College’s spires in the distance. The site is a popular spot for birdwatchers, and fishing is allowed. A parking area is located on the east side of Route 89, and the Land Trust hopes to make the site a link in the proposed Cayuga Water Trail.

The more rugged Cora Kampfe Dickinson Preserve features 1,300 feet of the Staghorn Cliffs – a dramatic feature of Skaneateles’ eastern shore that is well known for its coral fossils. The cliffs tower over the lake in one of the least developed parts of the Finger Lakes. The best way to visit the site is by canoe or kayak, which can be launched at the south end of the lake. The Land Trust also offers periodic naturalist-led field trips to the site.

The Land Trust is now working on the acquisition of a 390-foot cove beach on the eastern shore of Canandaigua Lake. This rare stretch of shoreline is associated with a 68-acre parcel that features extensive woodlands bordering New York State’s Bare Hill Unique Area. The Trust intends to retain the shoreline as a link in the proposed Canandaigua Lake Water Trail, while conveying the hillside forests to the state as an addition to its Unique Area.

These are just a few of the projects the Land Trust is working on. Additional information about these sites and other natural areas that are open to the public may be found at, or by calling 607-275-9487.

by Andrew Zepp, Executive Director, Finger Lakes Land Trust

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