Owasco, Skaneateles, Otisco
by Kyra Bean
This last part of the Finger Lakes series features the three eastern lakes. Although these lakes are smaller and less well known than some of the major lakes in the center of the region, they nonetheless harbor loyalty and love from residents and visitors alike.
Lake 9 – OWASCO LAKE – The Crossing Place
Owasco Lake, a hotspot for events up and down its shores, has attracted both people and wildlife with its magnetic natural charm. Its name comes from the Native American word “osco,” which means “the crossing place,” or “wasco,” which means “floating bridge” – both reflecting its important centrality.
Owasco is an intermediate Finger Lake in most aspects, smaller than the giants but larger than the minor lakes. The whole lake lies in Cayuga County, with Auburn at the northern end and Moravia at the southern end. One of the earliest settlements of the Cayuga tribe was located at the northern end. Its large drainage-basin-to-surface ratio means it’s highly loaded with nutrients.
The northern end of the lake is the starting and finishing place for one of the nation’s largest team-only run-bike-paddle triathlons, the Great Race or Captain Myles Keogh Paddle, Wheel, and Run. It was named after a Civil War soldier who died at Custer’s Last Stand and was buried at Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn. Teams from two to four participants start the relay with a runner, hand off to a biker, and end on a kayaker or set of canoeists to race for the finish. A celebration at Emerson Park with live music and refreshments follows. The 42nd year of the Great Race was held this summer.
Emerson Park, named after local philanthropist Fred Emerson who donated the park, is home to the Auburn Little League, the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse, and the historic Emerson Park Pavilion. Visitors can stroll along the waterfront, swim, or enjoy the many recreational areas within the park. In addition to the Great Race, other special events that it hosts throughout the year include Winterfest, at which visitors can ride in old-fashioned horse-drawn sleighs along the lake, and the Prison City Ramblers’ annual Father’s Day car show that includes a mix of street rods, antiques, classics, and muscle cars.
At the southern end of the lake sits Owasco Flats Nature Preserve, where one will likely see many important bird species that breed and rest here, including blue herons, tundra swans, and common loons. Cerulean warblers, the American and least bitterns, and bald eagles reside around the lake, and beavers and river otters have also occasionally been spotted at work in this floodplain. It’s free and open to the public year-round for paddling or exploring.
Fillmore Glen State Park is located just south of the nature preserve in Moravia and centers around a glen that feeds into the inlet to Owasco Lake. The park was named after Millard Fillmore, the 13th president, who was born in a cabin 5 miles away; a replica of the cabin can be found on the grounds. The park houses five beautiful waterfalls and the remains of an old dam.
In addition to President Fillmore, several other important historical figures lived around the lake at some point during their lives. John D. Rockefeller grew up in Moravia, and Harriet Tubman and William Seward, Secretary of State to President Lincoln and Johnson, had houses in Auburn. Harriet Tubman’s house is now a museum and national historical park, open to the public.
The best kind of fishing differs for each region of the lake. Notable in the south end are panfish, northern pike, and smallmouth bass, and the north end is remarkable for ice fishing, particularly for trout, panfish, and northern pike. Lake trout fishing is excellent throughout the lake, particularly during May, June, and September. The Department of Environmental Conservation stocks around 10,500 lake trout every year.
With so many cottages around the lake, gaining public access can be difficult. Sites are located on the northern end at Emerson Park and at the southern end along the Owasco Inlet, both of which also have public beaches. Visitors can rent boats, canoes, or kayaks to explore the lake at South Shore Marina in Moravia; many also choose to bike around the lake as the perimeter is ideal.
Lake 10 – SKANEATELES LAKE – The Long Waters
Native American legends say that the sky spirits would admire themselves in the reflective clarity of Skaneateles Lake. When the lake spirit fell in love with them, it absorbed the fine, deep blue color of their robes.
“Skaneateles” comes from the Native American word “skeh-ne-a-ties,” or “long waters.” It has some of the cleanest and clearest water out of all the lakes, in part because it’s not burdened by industrial and agricultural waste. Consequently, it’s not filtered before distribution – one of the few lakes in the area that is not. It spans Onondaga, Cayuga, and Cortland counties.
Boating has always been a significant part of the lake’s character. Steamboats like the Independent and Highland Chief were active during the 1800s, and smaller boats took over in the 20th century to deliver mail to boxes on lake-bound cottage docks. Today, Mid-Lakes Navigation Company offers a three-hour U.S. Mailboat Cruise to the public from Clift Park. The lake also serves as the venue for the Village of Skaneateles’ annual antique and classic boat show during the last weekend of July.
Clift Park offers swimming access in the lake and hosts concerts during the summer at its signature gazebo. The Town of Scott Family Park is another lakefront recreation area with canoe or kayak launch access into a brook that runs into the marsh at the southern end of the lake. Bahar Nature Preserve along the western side of the lake offers hiking, swimming, and birding along a portion of lakeshore.
A massive 17-point buck affectionately known as “The Ghost Buck,” “Hollywood,” and “Voltar,” had roamed the woods around Skaneateles Lake for years, inspiring awe from hunters all around as he eluded them, according to David Figura’s article for Syracuse.com. In November 2018, he was finally shot by 80-year-old hunter Jim Buff.
Historically, the lake has been central to the development of civilizations in the area. Tanneries, distilleries, and mills for saw, paper, grist, and wool developed along the creek, and some remnants can still be spotted. Many settlers were attracted to the lake because they could use it as a power source for water mills and other early industries. Several stops on the Underground Railroad were located around the lake as well.
The Charlie Major Nature Trail is located on Skaneateles Creek, which connects to the lake from the north. It follows the path of what used to be Skaneateles Short Line railroad, a three-mile track operating from 1840 until 1981 to serve industries along the outlet and transport passengers. A stroll or bike ride along the trail will yield beautiful sights of nature as well as ruins from the railroad days.
For those who want a piece of the lake at home, the Skan Cam now offers live picture views of the lake throughout the day to curious members of the public. It can be accessed from any computer at skaneateles.com/skan-cam.
Popular fish species include rainbow trout, with the Department of Environmental Conservation stocking 20,000 ever year, and Atlantic salmon, of which they stock 9,000 yearly. Smallmouth bass and smaller lake trout, which repopulate completely on their own, are also notable species throughout the lake.
The lake hosts several marinas and fishing charters around its perimeter. In Skaneateles, North End Outdoors and Skaneateles Marina share positioning on the water. Brinson Marine is located in Syracuse, Krenzer Marine is in Sodus Point, and Owasco Marine is stationed in Auburn. Markin Fish Charters sends boats out from the Skaneateles Lake Boat Launch for up to four people at a time.
Because its water is so clear, the lake is surrounded by many residencies, making it one of the least publicly accessible of the Finger Lakes. Public access can be gained at the DEC Launch Site on the west shore and at Skaneateles Park in the Village of Skaneateles.
Lake 11 – OTISCO LAKE – Easternmost Lake
“Otisco” means “waters dried away” in the language of the Native Americans who resided in this area. It used to be marshland, but has since grown out of that name thanks to several efforts to set up dams. The only aspect that remains true to the name is the causeway that runs across the water at the southern end.
Otisco Lake is the easternmost of the Finger Lakes. It’s one of the smaller lakes – the third shortest, third shallowest, third narrowest, and fourth smallest in area. It lies entirely within Onondaga county. The water enters from a creek at the southern end and flows out through “The Narrows,” a small gap in the surrounding woodlands, and over the dam at the northern end.
The man-made causeway used to be a wagon road. It divides the lake into two distinct basins – the water is smaller, shallower, and quite murky in the southern section, yet relatively clear throughout the main part of the lake. The southern basin is fittingly known as “The Shallows,” and a gap in the causeway closer to the western end allows boats to pass through. This strip of land serves as one of Central New York’s most popular spots for fishing as it runs directly through the lake itself. It also offers some of the most spectacular lake views because you’re able to look toward both the northern and southern ends at once.
In 2009, Tom Boise broke the world record for ice fishing tiger muskies when he caught one in Otisco Lake that was 46 inches long and weighed a little over 27 pounds. Tiger muskies serve as a distinctive trophy, and Otisco offers some of the best fishing for this particular species in the state. Some that were caught had been living there for 11 years. Largemouth bass over 20 inches are also regularly collected. On the first day of bass season during June, this lake also holds an annual fishing derby. New York State and Onondaga County participate in active fish-stocking programs here; the Department of Environmental Conservation stocks 11,000 tiger muskies and 44,000 walleye every year.
The first dam, 10 feet high, was constructed in 1886 to raise the water level and feed the Erie Canal. The lake was dammed again in 1908 to stock more for Syracuse’s water supply. These dams together raised the water level 13 feet. After several rehabilitation efforts, the Otisco Lake Dam is now 310 feet long, made of masonry stone partially encased on concrete, and it’s classified as a NYSDEC Class C Large High-Hazard Dam.
Otisco is surrounded by small, quiet communities, with many private year-round homes along the shoreline. Amber is the largest village on the lake and serves most of the needs of those living around it. Otherwise, there’s relatively few retail services. The remains of the “pudding mill,” a saw and grist mill from the 1800s claiming to have ground corn fine enough to make corn pudding, lies near the northwestern side of the lake. Otisco Lake County Park at the northeastern end offers three acres of land and 600 feet of lakefront access, decorated with sprawling willow trees.
The Otisco Lake Preserve contains 36 acres on the west side of the lake dedicated to conservation. With 1,300 feet of shoreline, it will be open to the public starting July 1 for hiking and observing wildlife. A half-mile trail includes stairs leading up to the shore for optimal public access.
Like several of the other Finger Lakes, the area is a prime habitat for bald eagles. It tends to close seasonally to protect threatened species of nesting raptors.
By the southwestern end of the lake, Spafford County Forest offers 701 acres of an experience even closer to nature with no developed facilities interrupting the connection with the wilderness. What were probably old jeep trails wind through the forest, and an old hang glider spot on the eastern edge offers expansive views of the valley. Close by, Bucktail Falls fan out and tumble over rocks for 21 feet.
Up until 2017, Otisco was the only Finger Lake without a public boat launch. Public access can now be attained at the DEC Hand Launch Site at the causeway. The Otisco Lake Marina in Marietta offers rental boats including pontoons, in addition to private campgrounds at the southern end of the lake.