Sterling Two Magical Places by a Great Lake

Tucked away amidst the rolling drumlin hills near Lake Ontario in Cayuga County lies the township of Sterling, home to a number of summer attractions. Two of these have a hint of magic about them. One, the lively, whimsical and popular Renaissance Festival has been bringing thousands of summer visitors to Sterling for nearly three decades. The other, 1400 acres of undeveloped forest, meadow and lakeshore, now called the Sterling Nature Center, opened its trails and beaches to the public four years ago. Both owe their existence to hard work, vision, and a dash of luck.

Beach combing holds an all but irresistible appeal for many of us. And Sterling has some of the best beaches anywhere on freshwater. At the nature center, nearly two miles of undeveloped beach beckon treasure hunters and shell seekers. You may see a bald eagle here riding the updrafts off McIntyre Bluff. Or you can search for fossils, calcite crystals, or beach pebbles containing tiny garnets. The nature center also has six miles of trails to explore. In spring, wildflowers carpet much of the woodland. In summer, the lake’s cool breezes pass through the green depths of the forest, and in the fall, the beach stretches wide and empty, inviting exploration.

Once this was slated to be a generating station site with perhaps as many as five nuclear plants. After the land had been bought up for this purpose, the plan fell through. Grass roots opposition, and a sudden interest in energy conservation rather than power plant construction after the 1973 oil embargo contributed to changing the political winds. But that 2800 acre plot of land by the lake had to be good for something. Proposals for storing radioactive waste, toxic waste, or maybe just plain old fashioned household and industrial garbage were floated and subsequently shot down by local opposition.

In the end, far-sighted planners and county and state politicians stepped into the breach and purchased the land. About half of it was then sold and is now being developed. Tentative plans include campgrounds, a hotel, and possibly an education and conference center, these now being designed by an architect known internationally for his sustainable yet profitable eco-friendly buildings.

At the nature center you can easily spend a whole day wandering the trails and lakeshore. Some trails pass by poignant reminders of the past. Test well casings from power plant siting evaluations, old cellar holes, some with
hardy myrtle and day lilies still soldiering on around them, and piles of rocks once marking edges of pastures and fields recall the lives of hard working farm families. One trail takes you through an overgrown orchard where in the fall you can still find crunchy, sweet apples to pick. And a trail near the visitor’s center  features labeled plantings of wildflowers.

Most of the year the lakeshore is lightly used. On a calm day you can explore and beach comb to your heart’s content. On a windy fall day you may see six- to ten-foot waves crash on shore here. At the west edge of the property stands McIntyre Bluff. Its clay and gravel slopes are very prone to erosion and running water has carved the clay into strange shapes. Though less spectacular than the ridges and spires of Sitts Bluff at the Fair Haven Beach State Park about a mile to the west, these mud shapes are still striking.

The rounded pebbles and cobbles on the beach mostly washed out of bluffs like this one. The stones come in a variety of colors and types, all brought together and mixed up by the glacier 10,000 years ago, which dumped huge piles of clay and gravel called till, and shaped them into drumlins and hills like those now forming the lakeside bluffs. You may find gray pebbles with lighter colored fossils within them, or you may discover smooth polished white quartzite brought from the Adirondacks by the ice age. Or seek out a lucky rock, a black pebble with an unbroken white ring around it. While not as kind to bare feet as sand, I think the lake’s pebble beaches are far more interesting.

Full time director Jean Siracusa came onboard in fall 2000. She wrote of the facility in the newsletter, “At Sterling Nature Center there exists a perfect opportunity to connect people with the natural world. The lakeshore wetlands, woodlands, and meadows can provide unparalleled learning opportunities for all.” The nature center has a visitors’ facility located in an 1860 farmhouse. Here you’ll find trail maps, a small gift shop, magnificent gardens, and information on the various special programs, nature walks, lectures, bird watching tours and kids’ activities that are going on year-round here. The center hosted its annual tribute to the arts and nature, Inspira­tion 2002, with music, art, poetry, dance, and theater performances this year on June 8. Call 315-947-6143 to find out what else is upcoming. Trails are open every day.

When I visit here to marvel at this place’s beauty and serenity it seems especially precious for having almost slipped away forever. Thanks to people of vision, it didn’t and now it remains for future generations to enjoy sunsets over the lake and summer mornings in the forest.

Perhaps two miles down the road from the nature center lies another improbable enclave of Sterling touched with magic. It’s the Sterling Renaissance Festival, one of the largest and longest running medieval reenactments in the Northeast. Each summer over 700 professional actors, artisans, gamers, minstrels, and musicians bring the mythical village of Warwick to life. For just six   weekends the inhabitants welcome Queen Elizabeth to their village for a  midsummer festival and celebration. They eat, sing, dance, and perform, inviting you to join in the fun.

The festival was the brainchild of a single individual, Dennis T. Ouel­lette, who, while living in California, encountered the Renaissance Pleasure Faire. Delighted and inspired, he re­turned to his family farmlands in Up­state New York and decided to recreate the romance and revelry of Shakes­peare’s day in Sterling. They’ve been partying ever since.

Highlights of the busy day include a jousting match (don’t try this at home, those are professionals out there—both riders and horses), juggling, and sword swallowing, music, and dance. The moment you pass the Welcome Center with its authentic thatched roof, the 21st century ceases.  Warwick lives in a time of discovery, adventure, intellectual vigor, and flourishing art. Auditions for the 40 positions of the professional Bless The Mark Players troupe draw actors from across the country. These talented men and women engage in rehearsed scheduled events and in delightful improvisations. And when your feet get tired, you can sit down at the pub to enjoy ale, birch beer, mead, or lemonade and genuine medieval soda.

They knew how to cook back then, too. Warwick serves up marinated steak on a stake, pork pockets, chicken croissant sandwiches, and stuffed spuds. There’s hearty, season fresh vegetarian fare too, and plenty of dessert including the village specialty, a one of a kind “mile high” cake.

Dozens of crafters sell high quality juried wares at the festival. You can purchase fancy carved walking sticks, handwoven blankets and rugs, sweet sounding stringed wooden instruments called bowed psalteries, jewelry, and pottery. Many of the crafters are at work, and you can watch and ask questions as they create candles, leatherwear, pewter dishes, or work with molten glass. The festival grounds cover 35 acres, so plan on spending a whole day to do this event justice.

The township of Sterling has several other points of interest for day trippers. They include Marten’s Honey
Farm and Meadery a few minutes drive south from the Nature Center (follow the signs off Old State Road to their store). Their farm store sells mead, beeswax candles, candle holders, honey, honey cream, fruit and honey wines, and wine accessories such as crystal glasses and corkscrews.

Just down 104A to the west from the Honey Farm store a mile or so is the Red School House Museum and the Maple Grove B&B and wool shop. The wool shop has hand spun wool in natural colors from resident goats, sheep, llama and alpaca made into sweaters, hats and other cold weather garb.

Things to do in the Sterling area
• Red School House Museum in Sterling open 2-5 pm Sundays in summer or by appointment. 315-947-6461
• Trails Sails and Rails group tours of Fair Haven and Sterling offered by the Sterling Historical Society. sterlinghistory/
• Fair Haven Beach State Park, swimming and lots more beach to explore along with spectacular recently acquired Sitts Bluff. 315-947-5205
• Spring Brook Greens 18 hole golf course. 315-947-6115

Boat rides/charters
• Elizabeth E historic tours of Fair Haven Bay — six weekends — call for dates. 315-947-6461
• Silver Waters Sailing Charters sunset sails and day trips on Lake Ontario and Fair Haven Bay. 315-594-1906 or
• Frost Haven Resort, B&B, cottages and fishing charters. 315-947-5331 or

by Susan Peterson Gateley
Susan P. Gateley offers sailing charters, lessons and books on Lake Ontario.

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