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Fun in the Finger Lakes

Racing down the Canandaguia Lake outlet

Keuka summers meant feeling the hot, sun-baked wooden float against my wet cheek as I lay my soaked and shivering body down to dry.

by Rich Gardner

I've walked around seven of New York's 11 Finger Lakes. As a child, I was entranced by a relief map on the wall at my uncle's Keuka Lake cottage. I imagined a giant Ice Age hand reaching down from the sky and clawing a swath across the state with its glacial fingernails. I pictured those finger marks filling with clear blue water and the hills between them bursting into lush green forests.

As summers passed, I learned these glacier-formed lakes and hills, and the wildlife inhabiting them, were a New World Eden that drew native peoples from afar to hunt and fish their peaceful shores.

Eventually, the Iroquois Nation evolved. Their main east-west trail (now state Route 20) stretched out on the map like a long piece of rawhide, just north of the lakes, with the lakes, themselves, "hanging" down in a row like so many eagle feathers. These freshwater havens carry the names given them by the Iroquois: names like Conesus, Honeoye, Canandaigua, Keuka, Seneca and Cayuga.

I'm neither geologist nor historian. My obsession with the Finger Lakes draws its energy from indelible impressions of childhood summers on Keuka: arriving in June to the smell of musty furniture; feeling the hot, sun-baked wooden float against my wet cheek as I lay my soaked and shivering body down to dry; working tirelessly at pulling every stone out of the lake, then throwing it back in; the peacefulness of falling asleep-often in a bathing suit-to the soft lapping of waves against the breakwall.

My mother's passion for hiking provided the childhood building blocks of my adult infatuation with these lakes. She took us on hikes up the steep glens and gorges that rose from the lake into the woods and farmlands.
Some women might collect wild flowers as a souvenir of a day in the woods; my mother collected fossils.

My grandmother sold "our" cottage when I was 10. One summer, as an adult, I decided to connect all those summer childhood sorties. With tent and sleeping bag, I backpacked 59 miles around the lake. In that three-day trek, I ferreted out glens and gorges conquered as a child, and located three of the four cottages my family once owned.


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