By Michele Howland
Photos by Bill Banaszewski
My husband is a charmer. The generous ladies of our neighborhood stopped by one day and just handed Bill a gift certificate for a sightseeing helicopter flight over Lake Ontario’s shores, which they won on bid at a charity auction. Thrilled with this gift and the great photo opportunity it offered, Bill waited for perfect conditions to schedule the flight. October 10, 2016, was an ideal Finger Lakes autumn day.
As a photographer’s wife, I usually tag along on his escapades, never sure where they’ll lead, so I was prepared to sit out his adventure with my usual degree of patience. We arrived at the Williamson-Sodus Airport and were cordially greeted by Ray Chapin of BAC Helicopters, who was our pilot. He is the owner of the helicopter, and a generous donor to the auction in support of the Literacy Volunteers of Ontario-Yates.
I watched Ray wheel the helicopter to the pad. A two-seater, I presumed – no room for me. But to my surprise the cockpit accommodated three with seat belts and head sets for all. “Well, sure!” I said as I was invited to climb in. The engine revved and aeronautical things whirled up to speed. The helicopter ascended with a slight tail wag and wobble. Soon we were humming along, climbing in elevation, and absorbing a near-360-degree view from our glass bubble.
In a matter of minutes we were surrounded by Lake Ontario’s shimmering waters. They spread to invisible shores more than 50 miles to the north and almost 200 miles from east to west. Directly below, we traced the shoreline of Wayne County, which marks the northern edge of the Finger Lakes Region.
The vantage point reminded me of a flight with our granddaughter at a young age. Descending to the Greater Rochester International Airport, I pointed out a view of Lake Ontario as far as the eye could see. Showing her a map in the airline magazine, I named each of the Great Lakes. As a preschooler she knew about the Finger Lakes and about Papa’s Lake – known simply to others as Keuka Lake. “Is Papa’s Lake a Great Lake?” she asked. I had to chuckle and say, “Sort of, but not exactly!”
Ontario, “Lake of Shining Waters,” the smallest of the Great Lakes, covers a 7,340 square mile surface area and is the 17th largest lake in the world. At its deepest it reaches 800 feet, but average depth is 280. It is the lowest in elevation and easternmost of the five Great Lakes. As a result, water from each of the other Great Lakes flows via Lake Erie and the Niagara River into Lake Ontario on its journey further downstream to the Atlantic Ocean.
The waters of the Finger Lakes also drain into the Great Lakes watershed, known as the Great Lakes Basin. In fact, the majority of land within the 14-county Finger Lakes Region is a part of the Great Lakes Basin. Only Tioga County along the Pennsylvania border lies beyond it. Can you imagine a highway marker on State Route 14 (as you head north along the banks of Catherine Creek south of Watkins Glen in Chemung County) that announces, “Entering the Great Lakes Watershed” considering that Lake Ontario is 75 miles further up the road?
Our flight path soon came to Sodus Bay. All of its distinctive features appeared below: the Historic Sodus Bay Lighthouse, the sandy beach, the lighthouse on the northern end of the west pier, the channel, the east pier and then Charles Point, a fragile barrier beach separating the bay from the mighty lake beyond. The bay is about 4 miles long and just over 2 miles wide. It is 48 feet at its deepest point (east of Eagle and Newark Islands), but the average depth is 18. With these conditions, Sodus Bay is the most secure anchorage along the New York shore of Lake Ontario, and it sees plenty of marine traffic at times. It never occurred to me that the Finger Lakes Region has its own U.S. Customs Port of Entry at Sodus Point. The original customs house, dating back to the 1800s, no longer exists, but today foreign vessels report to U.S. Customs via video phone!
Further to the east, Chimney Bluffs appear. They create an unusual land formation that is a critical environmental area with unique character and geological interest. The bluffs – lunar-like dunes towering 150 feet above the lake – are drumlins formed 6,000 to 10,000 years ago. Shaped by wind and water, they continue to be eroded. The 600-acre Chimney Bluffs State Park can be explored along a network of trails at the precipice or from lake level. The park offers picnic areas and beautiful views of the lake.
From our bird’s-eye view, we could see the next stretch of shoreline past Chimney Bluffs. It seems mostly inaccessible by roadways, but we could spot the rooftops of a cluster of homes and cottages along the west side of East Bay. The Department of Environmental Conservation operates a gravel boat ramp off Slaght Road to access East Bay, which covers 160 acres. It has a 6-mile shoreline, and is hardly deeper than a backyard swimming pool. But it is fed by a vast wetland that looks like a paddler’s wonderland.
Further along, plenty of cottages line the 8-mile shoreline of Port Bay, which is 28 feet at the deepest and averages 13 feet. There are several boat launch sites off W. Port Bay Road. As we passed above Port Bay, the pilot pivoted to the south and west, and we began our return to the airstrip. But the sightseeing wasn’t over.
Acres upon acres of apple orchards carpet the landscape below, spreading from the edges of Ontario’s wetlands and extending for miles. Mature apple trees with a broad canopy of fruitful branches, and younger apple trees trained to trellises in neat rows like vineyards, spread below us in a patchwork of colors, lines and textures. At the peak of harvest we see laborers, farm machinery, and full crates of just-picked apples, stacked and awaiting shipment.
Wayne County is an agricultural giant. Its orchards produce the highest market value among all of its agricultural products. But more impressive is the fact Wayne County has the greatest acreage dedicated to apple production of any county in the entire state, and on a national scale it ranks the fourth highest. It seems to me that Wayne County ought to be “The Big Apple” instead of New York City.
In its entirety, our half-hour aerial excursion carried us over a 15-mile stretch of shoreline and back. All together, Bill snapped 530 images, which is about 18 shots per minute or one every three seconds. (Fortunately he wasn’t using slide film!) So while Bill was hard at work, on this tag-along day, I had the pure pleasure of absorbing the beauty of the experience. In the end, I was doubly rewarded. The flight was a delight, and when we couple our individual “ways of seeing,” we are able to recreate and share this memorable experience along the Finger Lakes Northern Frontier.
The Nature of the Lake Ontario Shoreline
An abundance of water, wetlands, and forests along this shoreline provides excellent habitat for fish and wildlife. The New York Department of Environmental Conservation Wildlife Management Areas, plus State Parks and Nature Conservancy properties, offer plenty of opportunities for hiking, birding, fishing, photography, hunting, and paddling.
The wetlands in this Eastern Great Lakes Basin are important spawning and nursery sites for a variety of warm water fish, as well as breeding sites for waterfowl, reptiles and amphibians. They also provide resting areas where birds can fuel up before continuing their long seasonal migrations. Fall is the best time to see large flocks of migrating waterfowl.
From the high point on the forested drumlins of Chimney Bluff State Park there is excellent birding from April through October. Immature bald eagles, turkey vultures, and occasional mature bald eagles can be seen at eye level. Late spring and early summer is the time to walk along the shoreline and see hundreds of bank swallows swooping about, tending their nests in the loose soils on the face of the bluffs.
Lake Ontario is an outstanding fishery. Offshore, some of the targeted species are trout, salmon, walleye and smallmouth bass. King salmon are prized. Lake Ontario produces the largest Kings of all of the Great Lakes. With plenty of alewife for prey, Kings have been taken up to 47 pounds, while catches of 25 pounds are common. Fishing success is quite remarkable in the streams feeding the lake during fall and spring when trout and salmon are spawning.
Sodus Bay is a “pan fish to pike” fishery. Warm water species like northern pike and largemouth bass are great sport fishing. Perch and other pan fish are fun to catch and make a good meal. For anglers without a boat, fishing from the pier at Sodus Point is popular. The attraction is you never know what you may catch – perch, pike, bass, trout or salmon.
What a Difference a Year Makes
Last year was exceptionally hot and dry throughout the Finger Lakes region. Low water levels and widespread algal blooms were visible from our fly-over. In fact, Sodus Bay showed pretty clear evidence of harmful algae blooms, also known as toxic blue-green algae (BGA). A BGA bloom is quite problematic. It creates a disagreeable odor and contaminates the water. Wading, swimming or drinking water contaminated with BGA is ill-advised because it can cause a variety of serious and potentially fatal maladies in both people and dogs.
Now, seven months later, there is another crisis for the same residents of Sodus Bay and the Lake Ontario shoreline. Rochester had its second wettest spring, and Buffalo had its wettest spring on record. These conditions resulted in lake levels that were 3 feet above the long-term average. By June, Ontario was at its highest point in 100 years of record keeping.
Additionally, several storms with winds up to 80 miles per hour created powerful waves that pounded the shoreline, causing significant erosion and flooding many homes and businesses. Break walls, and public and private docks were destroyed. The rising waters have encroached upon lakeside and bay properties, and some of them appeared quite precarious even when we flew over last fall.
The record rainfall is one obvious reason for high water levels and flooding. However, there is also considerable finger pointing at the International Joint Commission which, since 2014, has been responsible for managing the water levels in the lake. The consensus seems to be that both have contributed to the crisis.
Unless the rains keep falling, some estimates suggest the lake level could drop by 1 foot come August. However, it would still be 2 feet above the long-term average. The excessive rains have supercharged the bays with nutrients that could lead to more blue-green algae blooms in the future. The outlook is not very encouraging.