by Andrea Kilmer Mann
My brother lifted it gingerly from beneath our parents’ Christmas tree and ceremoniously placed it on my lap as everyone exchanged looks. They all knew what was concealed. As I carefully undid the corners, I wondered what this could possibly be. I knew it was supposed to be something profound based on my family’s anticipation, and I knew I needed to deliver the right response. And then, slowly, the awesomeness of the gift revealed itself. A large smile spread across my face, and I was speechless. I had just received the coolest gift ever.
I grew up near the north end of Owasco Lake in the tiny town of Port Byron. For many summers my brothers and I spent our days on a smaller lake closer to town called Duck Lake. That’s where my love of summer and connection with water took shape. But the Finger Lakes were a fundamental part of my formative years in Central New York. I had birthday dinner cruises on Skaneateles Lake, hung out as a teen at the pump house on Owasco Lake, spent my college summers as a lifeguard on Cayuga Lake, caught the sailing bug on Seneca Lake, went to several parties on Keuka Lake, attended family reunions on Canandaigua Lake and fell in love on Conesus Lake. When I met my husband and moved to Colorado, it was tough to say goodbye.
Whenever I went back to visit my family, the first thing my brothers and I would do was drive to Duck Lake to look at our family cottage. It had passed into other hands, but we still needed our nostalgia fix. If there were no signs of occupancy, we would run to the boathouse and push open the padlocked double doors just a crack so we could smell that glorious scent of outboards, fishing tackle and canvas. Then my brothers would offer to take me to see the “big water.” That usually meant a trip to Owasco Lake and Tom Thumb’s for ice cream, or Cayuga Lake and a beer at the Deer Head. My brothers understood the emotional hold the Finger Lakes had on me, because they felt it too.
What I unwrapped that Christmas morning was a piece of every single Finger Lake. In my hands I held a shadow box with 12 compartments. Eleven of the compartments held small vials of distilled water – one for each lake. Affixed to the back of each compartment was a photo of the lake the water had come from. Next came two large boxes of red and white wine purchased from local wineries. I was dumbfounded. As awesome as all this was, the story behind this project was equally amazing. Over Christmas dinner, I learned how my coolest gift ever came to be.
That previous summer in 2005, my younger brother Scott and his friend Saul bicycled over 400 miles around all 11 Finger Lakes. At each lake Scott stopped to get just the right photo. Then, he collected water from each lake in a plastic liter Coke bottle and painstakingly distilled it when he returned home. In 2005, nine of the 11 Finger Lakes hosted wineries. Scott noted where these wineries were, later returned by car and purchased one bottle of red and one bottle of white for a total of 18 bottles. The Eagle Crest Winery on Hemlock Lake actually opened for him on a Sunday afternoon after hearing his story.
My brother recalled other moments while rounding the lakes, including delectable scones in Watkins Glen, pancakes in Hammondsport where he felt like he was somewhere in Europe and lunch next to Rod Serling’s unassuming grave in Interlaken. There were some long days as can be imagined, but the beauty and the bakeries kept him going. All summer long, on every ride, they were met with Finger Lakes hospitality.
After 17 years, the water in every vial is still clear. When my husband and I moved from our home in Boulder to a newer home a few miles away, the shadow box was first thing I carefully wrapped and the first thing that I hung in our hallway. I pass by it several times a day and continue to marvel at how it came to be. It has given rise to many interesting conversations with guests about the Finger Lakes and their charms. I miss all that “big water,” but I have a piece of every lake in my coolest gift ever.