story and photos by Gail Tyner Taylor
In the July/August issue, Gail introduced readers to the challenge that she and her husband Geoff put in front of themselves in 2020 – to paddle in each of the 11 Finger Lakes. In that issue, they introduced us to their odyssey with the first five Finger Lakes, in the order they were paddled – Canadice, Hemlock, Canandaigua, Keuka and Seneca. In the September/October issue, we continue with the rest of the lakes – Cayuga, Owasco, Skaneateles, Honeoye, Conesus and Otisco.
On September 1, our wedding anniversary, Geoff and I decided to kayak on Cayuga Lake for the first time. It’s the longest of the Finger Lakes, stretching 40 miles from historic Seneca Falls to Ithaca, known for its gorges and waterfalls. On the north end you’ll also find Frontenac Island, one of only two islands in the Finger Lakes.
The afternoon was daunting, with overcast skies, strong winds and choppy waves. As I started to paddle, I soon realized that kayaking is not only a stress buster, but can also be an intense aerobic and muscle building exercise. Paddling against the wind, I noticed key muscles engaging in my hands, arms, shoulders, back, chest, abdomen, hips, legs and heart. I was getting a better, more natural work out kayaking than I would at the gym. While Geoff and I felt energized taking on the wind and the heavy waves, the real fun came when we turned around and flew down the lake with the wind at our backs, our kayaks bouncing up and down and splashing water all around. It was exhilarating. Weather in the Finger Lakes Region gets tricky in September. It can be clear, sunny and warm one minute, then turn gray, windy and cool the next. That’s the difference between an effortless paddle, quietly taking in your surroundings, or an intense experience with your muscles fully engaged and heart pounding as you work hard to control your kayak and stay afloat. Each experience can be unpredictable, but that’s what keeps it fun and fresh.
At the north end of Cayuga Lake is Seneca Falls, home of the Women’s Rights National Historical Park. Our visit there on August 26 happened to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, guaranteeing a women’s constitutional right to vote.
Overlooking Cayuga Lake is Mackenzie Childs, a tranquil Victorian farm and studio world-renowned for its colorful, handmade ceramics, enamelware, glassware, furniture and home accessories. My favorite time to visit its headquarters is in the spring, when its gardens start blooming and its store is full of whimsical, cheerful, bold-colored collections that say “hello sunshine, goodbye gray skies!” Down the road is The Aurora Inn, where Geoff and I like to dine on the veranda to take in the view overlooking the lake.
Owasco Lake is an intermediate-sized Finger Lake, with shallow, warm water that makes it ideal for swimming, boating and fishing. The lakefront is highly developed, so the only public access and boat launch is at Emerson Park. While launching our kayaks, I noticed the Owasco Inlet to my right before paddling down between the park’s two piers where people could be seen fishing. As we headed toward the 10.5-mile long lake, the wind and waves kept getting stronger, tossing me around with the threat of getting knocked into a pier. I soon learned I had no loyalty to my kayak or paddles; I thought, if this kayak gets swamped and capsizes, I’m getting out and swimming back. There would be no rescue efforts for my replaceable vessel. Geoff was ahead of me, so I thought, okay, we got this. By the time we paddled past the piers, the growing waves under gloomy skies had encased Geoff’s kayak. All I could see was the top half of his torso bobbing up and down while the menacing waves seemed to want to swallow his kayak.
Realizing how ridiculous our situation had become, we both started laughing, and I struggled but succeeded in getting some pictures. Since we’re not experienced enough for freestyle or rodeo kayaking, we decided to head back, much to the relief of our captive audience fishing from the piers. By the time we got to the inlet, the waves had settled down and the sun was glistening on the water. We found solace paddling at our own pace among the ducks and geese.
Just north of the lake is Auburn, where Geoff and I have paid tribute to historical landmarks including the William Seward House and the Harriet Tubman statue at the NYS Equal Rights Heritage Center.
One of the most beautiful and cleanest lakes – not only in the Finger Lakes, but also the country – is Skaneateles Lake. With its sparkling blue-green water surrounded by scenic forests and nature preserves, it’s our favorite lake to visit both on land and in water. Skaneateles Lake is so pristine, it serves as an unfiltered water supply for nearby towns and the city of Syracuse. There are four public parks around the 16-mile lake, so we have choices as to where to launch our kayaks. Once paddling, I took in the clear water’s beautiful sight of rocks and shale at the bottom, with fish swimming here and there. At the upper end of the lake you’ll find luxury, with the biggest and most expensive homes in the Finger Lakes Region. Geoff and I always have fun laying claim to the mansion we’ll buy one day. Average listing prices range from $1-10 million. The view of the lake’s natural beauty, however, is priceless.
On land, Geoff and I enjoy walking around the lakeside village and exploring its parks, boutiques and restaurants. If you’re in the mood to enjoy the French countryside, Mirbeau Inn & Spa will take you there with its old-world French architecture, Monet-inspired gardens and fine French cuisine. Geoff and I like dining on the patio to take in the stunning views and flirt with the schools of koi fish that swim up to us in hopes we have something to share.
Another great place to dine is at the 200-year-old Sherwood Inn, located at the north shore. The former stagecoach stop turned inn serves up hearty food and will transport you back in time with its historic ambiance.
Across the street is Thayer Park, where we like to find a bench and relax while admiring its gardens and the lake. Very popular boat cruises are a great way to explore the lake. A short drive from the village is the beautiful and fragrant Lockwood Lavender Farm. The 120-acre farm sits on a hill overlooking Skaneateles Lake and boosts over 30 species of Lavandula that you can either pick yourself or purchase pre-cut.
Honeoye Lake is the shallowest and second smallest Finger Lake. Measuring just 4.5 miles long with a maximum depth of 30 feet, its north and south ends are completely opposite in nature.
To the north is the flat land of Sandy Bottom Park, while to the south there are rolling hills covered in trees. Summer had turned to autumn by the time we kayaked on Honeoye Lake. The leaves were just starting to change color when we took in the impressive views while kayaking.
Honeoye celebrates summers’ end with the Ring of Fire tradition on Labor Day weekend, when area residents come together to light a fire around the lake and celebrate the new harvest season.
The most westerly of the 11 Finger Lakes is Conesus Lake. A minor lake at eight miles long and one mile wide, it’s also shallow and warm, appealing to swimmers, fishermen and kayakers. We launched our kayaks on the north shore at Vitale Park. The location draws a crowd with its nature center, gardens, picnic tables and playground. Geoff and I paddled by plenty of folks in motorized boats and kayaks, just hanging out by the park’s shallow end, taking in the view or playing water sports. At the south end of the lake is the Conesus Lake Wildlife Management Area, which is very popular for kayaking.
If you’re in the mood for barbeque, 3 Legged Pig has you covered. The menu is extensive, the food is outstanding and the prices are reasonable. Look for it right across from Vitale Park.
Geoff and I completed our FLX kayaking challenge at the eastern-most Finger Lake, Otisco Lake. It was an unseasonably warm day in late in October. The sky was a deep blue, offset by billowing white clouds. The green-blue water glistened with the sun. But the real beauty was amid the rolling hills with lush, second-growth forests that burst in rich colors of yellow, red and orange. The lake was a marshland until about 100 years ago, when two dams were built to raise the water level. While Otisco Lake is considered small, just six miles long and a half mile wide, it delivered big on our last day of kayaking for the year.
And so, our adventure came to an end. All told, Geoff and I traveled about 80 miles east to west and 50 miles north to south to discover some of the best kayaking and traveling experiences in the Finger Lakes Region. From Canadice, the smallest of the Finger Lakes, to the largest, Cayuga, every kayak outing was unique and inspiring. We definitely plan on coming back for more exploring – and besides, kayaks make great car accessories.