story and photos by Gail Tyner Taylor
I’ve been drawn to water and nature for its mesmerizing ability to make the world seem peaceful. To me, kayaking is a means of connecting intimately with the great outdoors, while also achieving the unexpected benefits of a cardio-physical workout, whether paddling gently or intensely. According to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC), “Being out in nature or forests can reduce stress, lower blood pressure and boost your mood and ability to focus.” And let’s face it, workouts are more fun when you can enjoy the scenery outdoors rather than being stuck inside a gym.
One of the most beautiful places to kayak is in the Finger Lakes Region with its awe-inspiring scenery, abundant wildlife, world-class wineries, farmland, parks and some of the freshest water in the world. There are 11 Finger Lakes in Western and Central New York and from west to east they include: Conesus, Hemlock, Canadice, Honeoye, Canandaigua, Keuka, Seneca, Cayuga, Owasco, Skaneateles and Otisco.
The side-by-side lakes are spread out like a splayed hand encompassing Rochester, Syracuse and Elmira-Corning. Information on where to find boat launches at the lakes can be found by visiting the NYSDEC website.
While all 11 lakes offer kayak rentals, my husband Geoff and I opted to purchase our own kayaks, paddles, life vests and j-racks to afford us more flexibility. Other than that, kayaking is virtually free. We decided on recreational kayaks made of carbonlite for their speed and responsiveness, while also being light enough for the two of us to get them up and down from the car roof without killing each other.
With its travel restrictions and social distancing rules, 2020 became a year of staycation for us. With that, we challenged ourselves to kayak all of the Finger Lakes, and also explore its regions. Truth be told, it was not how or where we expected to travel during Geoff’s first year of retirement, but in the end, the experience was priceless and we learned there was much to see and do in the Finger Lakes Region.
Our adventure began in late July on Canadice Lake, which has the most remote feel of the Finger Lakes because its shorelines remain undeveloped. Pushing off from the shallow end of the boat launch and paddling into the lake, water rose up around the sides of the kayak, keeping my lower body cool while the heat of the sun warmed my upper body. I soon felt a sense of peace as I took in the steep and forested shorelines. I slowly increased the speed at which I moved my paddles up and down, sliding in and out of the water. I could feel a little tension in my shoulders, back, abdomen, hips and legs as my muscles worked together to stabilize and propel the kayak forward.
The lake, smooth as glass, enhanced the beauty of the bright blue sky and lofty clouds with its reflection. The clear water of Canadice is protected because it is a source of drinking water for Rochester. It also has a wide variety of fish and is very popular with fishermen. Coming in as the smallest of the Finger Lakes at three miles long, we were able to paddle around it in less than two hours.
Located a few miles west of Canadice Lake is Hemlock Lake, which is also wild, undeveloped, popular for fishing and serves as a water source for Rochester. Just seven miles long, it is also considered a minor Finger Lake. While silently floating or gently paddling on this lake, I felt like I was in the water as a resident, not a guest, surrounded by wildlife that I could get close to before it could see or hear me. I felt relaxed in its tranquil atmosphere as dragonflies darted here and there, fish splashed in and out of the water and hawks flew overhead. Bald eagles nest in the rolling hills surrounding the lake, which also boasts shale cliffs and mature hemlock trees, much like the unspoiled nature of the Adirondacks.
Letchworth State Park
Not far from these sister lakes is Letchworth State Park, known as the Grand Canyon of the East. While you can kayak there, we chose to hike and take in the magnificent scenery by foot. The park includes about 66 miles of hiking trails that showcase waterfalls, cliffs, forests and the Genesee River. We hiked to the three major waterfalls and were spellbound by the river roaring through the gorges, over the waterfalls and between cliffs that were as high as 600 feet. After taking in some forest bathing as well, we sat outside at the Glen Iris Inn for a country-style lunch.
If you’re looking for lots of action, you’ll find it on Canandaigua Lake. While we were there kayaking, lots of others were doing the same, as well as canoeing, stand-up paddle boarding, boating, water skiing, tubing, sailing, windsurfing, swimming and fishing. At 15.5 miles long, Canandaigua is the fourth largest of the Finger Lakes, with plenty of space to have your own fun.
Geoff and I launched our kayaks at the north end of the lake and paddled around Squaw Island, one of only two islands in the Finger Lakes. The water is clear and beautiful, and serves as a main source of drinking water for Canandaigua and nearby communities.
Besides being a fun lake, there’s a lot to see and do on land. Charming wooden boathouses, each with its own nautical personality, are a must-see on Canandaigua’s City Pier. The 80 rustic boathouses, found in rows in an array of colors and sizes, are unique to the Finger Lakes. Overlooking the lake is New York Kitchen, where we’ve been for brunch, lunch, dinner, drinks and cooking classes. They’ve got it all, and we’ve never been disappointed.
Lastly, if you’re looking for some inspiration for your garden, I found it at Sonnenberg Gardens and Mansion Historic Park, where original landowner Mary Clark Thompson was influenced by her European and Asian travels.
Keuka Lake is the only lake in the country that flows both north and south, and one of only two natural lakes in the world in the shape of a Y. Famous vineyards surround Keuka, and the views from our kayaks were stunning. Known for its warm water, Keuka is almost 20 miles long and is often referred to as one of the most picturesque lakes in New York.
At the southern end of the lake is Hammondsport, a charming village that begs for a walk to fully appreciate its unique shops, restaurants and neighborhoods. It’s also home to the first licensed Finger Lakes winery and is considered the “Heart of the New York Wine Country.” Geoff and I never miss an opportunity to visit two of our favorite wineries, Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery and Heron Hill Winery.
Seneca Lake is the largest Finger Lake by volume and the deepest in New York, creating the perfect environment for growing grapes at its 35 wineries along the famous Seneca Lake Wine Trail. The lake is one of the most popular Finger Lakes, starting at the north with beautiful Geneva and finishing to the south with stunning Watkins Glen State Park. Geoff and I launched our kayaks at the north end and took in spectacular views of vineyards, farmland and untouched nature gracing the sloping hillsides. The 38-mile long lake is so large we felt we had it all to ourselves, barely noticing any nautical activity.
Whether you’re in the mood to wine and dine at a luxurious villa or romantic castle, you’ll find both in Geneva. At Geneva on the Lake, Geoff and I prefer dining outside to enjoy its classic, formal garden that reminds us of a mini Versailles. Nearly next door is Belhurst Castle, named a World’s Best Wine Hotel and one of the Most Romantic Places in New York State. You can’t help but to feel royal dining at this castle.
Geoff and I have visited quite a few wineries along the Seneca Lake Wine Trail. For award-winning wine and scenic views, you can’t go wrong with Magnus Ridge Winery, Fox Run Vineyards, Lamoreaux Landing Wine Cellars and Boundary Breaks Vineyard. We’ve also stopped at Weaver View Farms, a Mennonite family farm and store that sells homemade quilts, jams and more. We even bought some Buffalo Bills masks while there.
South of Seneca Lake is Watkins Glen State Park, a natural treasure with a series of 19 beautiful waterfalls and over 800 stone steps. The two-mile hike along the Gorge Trail has amazing views. The park also includes a swimming pool, picnic facilities and camp sites.
Look for Part 2 in the September/October issue!