Paddling the Waterways of the Finger Lakes

“There is magic in the feel of a paddle and movement of a canoe, a magic compounded of distance, adventure, solitude and peace...”
-Sigurd F. Olsen  Wilderness Days

Spend a few hours among the “paddling” enthusiasts from our region, and you’ll soon learn that the Finger Lakes is full of rivers, streams and lakes ideal for canoeing and kayaking.

While Native Americans once crafted birch bark canoes to navigate the natural waterways of our region, and European explorers adopted them to reach new lands, canoeing is still very much a sport of discovery. With paddle in hand, we can journey through unspoiled lands, wildlife sanctuaries and experience the living history of the Erie Canal.

Paddling refers to the sports of canoeing and kayaking where a short paddle is used instead of a longer and differently shaped oar to power a small boat. A canoeist kneels or sits and uses a single-bladed paddle; a kayaker sits and uses a double blade paddle to glide through the water.

“Paddle sports are not just great for the exercise itself,” Jody Mutschler of Kayak Quest in Macedon related.  “They are the best way to experience the beautiful waterways of our region.
She is among a group of paddling enthusiasts that serve as guides, initiating paddlers to the beauty of the Finger Lakes’ waterways.

The waterways of Central New York drain into four main watersheds and a great paddling experience can be had within the lakes, streams and rivers that they contain. The Susquehanna River Watershed represents the southern flow; the Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence Watershed makes up the northern flow while the Mohawk Watershed constitutes the eastern flow. Many popular paddling routes lie within the Finger Lakes - Oneida Watershed, the fourth central flow watershed in this region of our state.

The following are some promising routes for kayaking and canoeing within this area. Their waters are generally clear and the shorelines of each have very little development.

Clyde River
The present day course of the Clyde River has much to do with the development of the New York State Barge Canal.  Constructed between 1904 and 1918, the Barge Canal was an expansion of the original Erie Canal which had reached into central New York by the early 1820s. Construction of the original Erie Canal had begun in Rome, New York, as early as 1817. The lower section of the Clyde River was incorporated into the Barge Canal, while the upper portion was left to fend for itself. This partly explains the Clyde’s unmistakable twists and turns.

An ideal put-in spot is lock 26 on the Barge Canal. This is found just outside the city of Clyde to the east. The take-out spot is at Mays Point, near the Montezuma Wildlife Refuge. From this launch site the Clyde loops back and forth, taking you by the town of Galen. The Clyde then joins back up with the Barge Canal, only to separate and reconnect several more times on this excursion.

“Bird watchers really appreciate the area near Montezuma,” Randy French of Pack Paddle Ski told us. “Herons can be seen at many points along the Clyde,” he added.

Orioles can be seen nesting in the high willows during summer. Don’t be surprised if a river otter accompanies your canoe for a section of this trip. While you’re not permitted to paddle within the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, you will see many waterfowl and experience the beauty of this wetland area first hand.

French’s outdoor adventure company, based in South Lima, New York, schedules several paddling expeditions in the Finger Lakes each year from mid April to late October. His outfit has guided tours in all parts of the world involving several different activities, and French himself is on an excursion between one hundred and two hundred days per year. A number of these are in the waterways of the Finger Lakes.

“There are a lot of great places to paddle in this area,” he said. “It’s not too difficult to find water for any skill level.”

Pack Paddle Ski often takes weekend explorers on shorter outings in the Clyde River than the one we’ve indicated here. Putting in at Mays Point and circling back to the starting point will still take more than a few hours.

Seneca River
The Seneca River is known as the largest of the big three rivers of central New York, which also include Oneida and Oswego. Many regional paddlers consider the Seneca River and Clyde River some of the best areas for a leisurely paddle on the water.

A great way to experience the beauty of the Seneca is a day-long trek around Howland Island Wildlife Management Area. This area is filled with man-made ponds of varying size, built as a nesting ground for native and migratory waterfowl. Unlike Montezuma, you may pull your boat to the riverbank and then walk the island.

Depending on the season, you might encounter geese, hawks, turkey vultures and smaller shore birds. Motorized boats usually stay clear of this area, so it is often a calm, scenery-filled experience. “This part of the Seneca is perfect for mid-summer paddling,” French said.

To paddle around Howland Island, you put in and take out at the same location. The island has its own boat-launching site, which can be reached by taking Route 38 north from the town of Port Byron. From Port Byron it is two miles to the launch site on Yellow School House Road.

It is approximately 10 miles around Howland Island, so be prepared for a full day on the water. By day’s end you’ll have seen some beautiful marshlands, trees lining the river and numerous waterfowl-a good trade-off for those over-tired arms.

Lower Seneca - Onondage Lake
The lower portion of Seneca River leads into Onondaga Lake. If speed is what you need, Onondaga Lake is an excellent place to train for canoe racing, using a longer, thinner boat than those used for recreational paddling. Sea kayakers can also be found perfecting their paddling skills. These longer, sturdier kayaks have a retractable rudder and are meant to withstand the wind and waves of open water.  This summer, Onondaga Lake will be the site of the paddling sports events in the Empire State Games scheduled for August 3rd.  Recreational paddlers might opt to follow the Seneca River into Onondaga Lake and enjoy a picnic along the shore of Onondaga Lake State Park.

Canandaigua Outlet
For an excursion on the Canandaigua Outlet, put in your canoe or kayak at the public boat launch within the village of Phelps. This small town is located on Route 96, approximately seven miles northwest of Geneva.

This route puts you in an easterly direction pointing towards the town of Lyons and the Barge Canal. You will find the Canandaigua Outlet a moderate to fast-moving stream. The entire outlet is 36 miles in length from Canandaigua Lake to Lyons. There is enough water here for several day trips, and fortunately there are several access points along the outlet allowing you to get in and take out.

What paddlers first notice about this waterway is the diversity of trees. From late May to early June, it looks as if it is snowing as the many cottonwood trees release their feathery seedlings into the air. If you then look down into the water of the outlet, you’ll find a diversity of aquatic plants, and the water is generally clear.

Canadice Lake
Canadice Lake is positioned in the southwest portion of Ontario County, around 30 miles from the city of Rochester. In size, it is the smallest of the Finger Lakes, measuring three miles in length and covering 649 acres. Canadice is not only the smallest of the Finger Lakes, but also the highest in elevation at an impressive 1,100 feet. By comparison, Canan­daigua Lake lies less than 700 feet above sea level. Seneca Lake is less than 450 feet above sea level and Cayuga has the lowest elevation among the Finger Lakes at 383 feet. “It has a much different character because of this elevation,” Dave Curtis of Hemlock Canoe tells me.

Hemlock Canoe Works guides the most unusual outing in the area. On summer nights of the full moon, they organize a group of fellow paddlers for a Full Moon Cruise. The canoe paddlers meet at the Canadice Lake Boat Launch, which parallels Canadice Lake Road on the east side. After paddling into the center of the lake, they wait for the moon to rise. They encourage acoustic musicians and storytellers to paddle along and enhance the scene.

“The stars are brilliant without the light intrusion from the city. On certain nights the moon is so bright that you will actually throw shadows against the water,” Curtis revealed.  Hemlock Canoe does not charge paddlers a fee to serve as a tour guide. With prior notice, they will supply canoes and a permit which is required to paddle this pristine lake.

Dave and Carol Curtis own a company that makes seven different canoe models. Hemlock Canoe builds contemporary canoes from composite materials of very high quality. They specialize in solo canoes and are always eager to initiate new paddlers. They’ve been involved with paddle sports in the northeast United States for over 30 years and began their business in 1975.

Hemlock Lake
To the west of Canadice Lake is Hemlock Lake. It is positioned in the southeast portion of Livingston county, and 25 miles south of Rochester. It is seven miles long and covers a land area that is equal to 1,800 acres.

“During the mid 1800s, there were hotels, homes and vacation spots on Hemlock,” Pack Paddle Ski’s French told us. Randy said that people on his excursions are very curious to see old foundations and signs of development along this lake. If you walk the shore, you will find remnants of a time when Hemlock Lake had an entirely different character.

With a paddle around Hemlock, you have a chance to see a beautiful, preserved area and might just see a national icon in the process as bald eagles are known to nest in the area. “Hemlock is a true wilderness lake, and I’ve paddled in many areas throughout the Northeast,” Dave Curtis added.

Fishermen are not allowed to bring a boat on Hemlock measuring more than 16 feet in length or to use a motor that exceeds 10 horsepower. Swimming or even wading in Hemlock or Canadice Lake is not allowed. As they are protected water sources for Rochester, you must obtain a free permit at the public boat launch positioned at Hemlock Lake’s northern end.

Canoeing and kayaking require skills that are easily learned, though paddling with a professional guide can certainly enhance the experience. Once basic techniques and safety precautions are addressed, you’ll be well on your way to discovering the rivers, streams and lakes of the Finger Lakes in your paddle-powered boat.

Get Prepared to Paddle!
Contact these regional guides to get started.

Pack Paddle Ski
South Lima
(585) 346-5597

Hemlock Canoe Works
(585) 367-3040

Kayak Quest
(585) 377-2416

by Chris Sharman
Chris Sharman is a freelance writer living in Elmira, New York. He is published in numerous regional publications. He may be reached at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *