“What should we do this summer, Mom?”
My 9-year-old son, Riley, was sitting in our blue lounge chair, in what we call our “warm room.” It has a wood stove, so it’s where we gather in the winter and, well, try to get warm. But Summer had now eased itself into the chair alongside Riley and seemed to peer at me through tinted Ray-Bans, sipping a margarita and repeating Riley’s question with more urgency. “The kid’s right, I’m finally here, but not for long. What are you going to do this summer, Mom?” I wanted to do something that would combine Riley’s love of geography, math and adventure. I thought of our shared joy of swimming in nearby Cayuga Lake. Then the idea – geographic, mathematical and adventurous at the same time – became clear. This summer we would swim in all the Finger Lakes.
10 fingers plus a thumb?
Riley is the ultimate fact-checker, so I knew I had better get my Finger Lake’s details straight. I wasn’t even sure how many lakes there were. Since they’re called “finger” lakes, there are probably 10, right? After a quick search, I learned there are actually 11.
I was also a bit embarrassed to discover that, although I’d grown up in the region, I had never heard of some of the lakes. Where was Hemlock? I also learned that Oneida Lake, which I thought was a Finger Lake, was really just considered a “thumb.” The “Thumb Lakes” just don’t have the same ring to them.
Soon, I could recite all the lakes by heart: Seneca, Cayuga, Keuka, Otisco, Owasco, Skaneateles, Canandaigua, Conesus, Honeoye, Canadice and, oh yeah, Hemlock.
When I announced my plan to Riley, I added what would soon become our mantra: “One summer, eleven lakes.” Riley’s single-word reply sealed our destiny. “Epic.”
I pictured Summer, still lounging in the blue chair, putting down the margarita and saying, “Niiiiiiiiiice.”
We soon pinned up a map of the Finger Lakes in our warm room and devised a plan. We started with the lakes closest to our home in Trumansburg, which also happened to be the largest: Cayuga and Seneca. It had been a record-cold winter, and the lakes were not even close to warning up yet, even on that day in late June, when Riley and I first counted down to begin our quest. We ran and dove into Seneca, and it felt a lot like the inside of your nose feels on a frigid winter day, after you breathe in and your nostrils freeze up and tingle. It felt like that all over my body.
We rushed out of the water like two icicles with arms and legs, and let the sun thaw us. Our summer adventure had officially and frigidly begun. We quickly checked off the first two lakes on our list – Seneca, the deepest, and Cayuga, the longest. From there, we decided to swim the eastern lakes: Skaneateles, Otisco and Owasco.
Discovering their different personalities
Riley and I walked all the way out on the long dock that lies adjacent to the swimming beach at Skaneateles, and watched the sailboats glide silently across the lake. The water itself felt soft and it was incredibly clear and quickly deep – perfect for swimming. I was already struck by how each lake had its own personality and unique features. Skaneateles was a happy lake.
We returned to the area a few weeks later, and swam off a little park in Otisco, surrounded by ducks and geese who seemed to look upon us as an oddity. They gave me the feeling that Otisco is less of a swimming lake; more of a fishing lake. As we drove around , we discovered the causeway, a stretch of narrow land that juts out across the lake. We parked and walked out on it, and noticed a rope swing. Still, no one was swimming. Fisherman were scattered along the causeway though, and as we walked by in our swimsuits with beach towels tucked under our arms, their looks reminded me of the ducks and geese we met earlier.
We reached a lifeguarded Owasco beach late in the day, just before it closed. We ran and dove into the lake as the sun sank like a shiny penny in a wishing well. Number five. Wow, I thought. We are actually doing this.
No swimming allowed
The four western-most Finger Lakes – Hemlock, Conesus, Canadice and Honeoye – are considered “minor” lakes because they are the smallest. A few hours’ drive away, they are the farthest from us.
We had already planned a brief camping trip to Letchworth State Park in mid-August, and since our map showed us the minor lakes would be fairly close, we continued our swims then. Letchworth State Park is called the “Grand Canyon of the East,” and it lives up to its title. We spent one day there white-water rafting down the Genesee River, and saved our second day for the lake swims. One day to swim in four unknown lakes seemed overly ambitious, but after a hearty campfire breakfast we headed out of the majestic cliffs armed with two towels, Nutella sandwiches and a bottle of water. “Let’s do this,” Riley proclaimed.
We were excited to reach the shores of Conesus Lake quickly, but our spirits dimmed when we soon learned that, due to budget cuts, the swimming beach was closed. The sheriff was hanging out right by the beach, so we decided not to take our chances. Maybe we should lower our expectations for the day, I thought.
But just as we began to head back to the car, a man passed us, smiled, and asked us if we’d gone for a swim. We shook our heads in disappointment and I explained our mission to him. I told him we would have done a quick toe dip, but the sheriff was keeping watch. The man laughed and pointed next door. “You can take a swim off my dock!”
He ran a kayak rental business, but didn’t mind if people also used his dock to cool off, he told us. As we plunged into Conesus, we were feeling optimistic, but before we headed back to the car, as we were saying thank-you, the man told us, “You know, you really ought to just skip Canadice and Hemlock.” He looked sorry for us. “You’re not allowed to swim in them.”
He explained that both lakes are a water source for Rochester. Building is not allowed on their shores, and boating and fishing are limited. As we walked to the car, we thought of the man’s words: “Just forget those two lakes.” Riley and I looked at each other, smiled, and mouthed our shared thought: “No way.” We had come this far; we had to at least dip in our toes. We toweled off and set the GPS for Canadice.
Canadice and Hemlock are not easy to find. As we rounded yet another cornfield and spooky cemetery, I was certain we were lost. Neither of the lakes was on our GPS, so we had programmed in “city center” for Canadice. As we drove down the dusty dirt roads, that phrase became more laughable.
Suddenly, the landscape showed an undeniable inward curve. Just as we peaked another hill and began to drive downward, a small lake emerged that mirrored the gray-blue skies above.
We knew Canadice might not be an easy swim, but I didn’t anticipate being attacked by biting ants as we climbed down a steep anthill to the shore. Thanks to the very shallow water, dense mud, thick seaweed and dead fish smell, we were happy to just dip in our toes.
By the time we reached Hemlock Park, the clouds had thickened and the wind had picked up. It had not been a warm day to begin with, so we weren’t surprised that the park was deserted. Still, I had an eerie feeling that Riley and I were the only humans on the planet.
“Come on Mom, this way!” Riley ran towards stairs that ended at the top of a hill as if they led to an invisible entrance. As I climbed, I heard Riley at the top. “Wow,” he said.
When I reached him, we just stood silently for a moment, spellbound. We were standing on the brim of a bowl of deep azure water. Only dense forest surrounded the lake. I was instantly aware that this place had been carved out by vast glaciers millions of years ago. Our first awestruck glimpse of Hemlock Lake was probably the same view Native Americans saw hundreds of years ago.
I might not have known that Hemlock was a Finger Lake, but after that moment, I would never forget it.
When we reached Honeoye Lake, our last of the day, we again found ourselves alone. There were signs that the beach, named “Sandy Bottom” (Riley found that hilarious), had been a place of summer fun: footprints in the sand, a floating dock pulled up onto the beach. But in mid-August, after a week of cool and rainy weather, people were scarce.
We took a deep breath, held hands and plunged into the fourth Finger Lake of the day. As we sat on a bench to dry off, I noticed the many houses and docks lining the lake’s shores. I was already missing the pristine serenity of Hemlock.
On the way home from Letchworth the next day, feeling energized by our successful four-lake quest, we decided to stop at Canandaigua Lake, about an hour away from home. It was an unusually brisk day and, again, we were the only people in the water, possibly the only ones in the entire lake. The unsettled solitude I had felt at Hemlock Lake was replaced by a profound sense of unity with the Earth’s land and water. “
“Hey Mom, we just did number 10!”
“Epic,” I replied.
We arrived victorious at Keuka Lake, number 11, during Riley’s last week of summer vacation. Keuka is the only Finger Lake shaped like two fingers; kind of like a peace sign. The late summer water was warm, much different from our first icy dive into Seneca. As I floated on my back looking up at the sky, I thought of how the Finger Lakes must look from high above the clouds. Eleven tiny blue slivers, and Riley and I would soon be out of view.
story and photos by Laura Reid
Laura Reid is a teacher, writer, champion competitive story-teller and photographer. She is also the owner of Trumansburg Montessori School, the region’s only environmentally-friendly, one-room schoolhouse. Laura lives in Trumansburg with her family and enjoys swimming in lakes with her son. You can contact Laura at tburgmontessori.com