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The Lake

September 20, 2016

cayuga-lake-091616_0631For longer than I can remember, the lake has been central to my life. To any one local to the area “the lake” refers to Cayuga, that beautiful long glacial trough filled with glistening blue-green water. Although we rarely speak it’s full name in direct reference, every local business, event, and organization possible borrows the moniker. The name originates in the people who made this area home for centuries before they were brutally unseated by Sullivan. His charge, from General Washington, was to make way for settlement by the revolutionary soldiers who would later come and establish themselves in the neat one-mile-square boxes that were imposed upon the rolling terrain.


In the view from space, the Finger Lakes are easy to discern; Cayuga, the longest, would be the index finger. By referencing the adjacent lakes, towns are easy to find but hard to get to since one must travel around each finger to travel east and west. Ferries, which at one time were deemed essential, haven’t plied these waters in a century. Roads, which often follow the grid that Simeon DeWitt, the Surveyor General of New York, devised as a means to divide and distribute the land, have names that give a hint to the ancestry of those early settlers: McCulloch, MacDougall, Allen, Skinner, Yarnell, Swick, and so on. The townships themselves, in a quirk of history, were given classical Greek and Roman names by Robert Harpur, a clerk in DeWitt’s office who preferred the poetic to the pragmatic simplicity of numbers: Ovid, Romulus, Ulysses…There are eleven or twelve Finger Lakes in all, depending on who is counting. It is fitting that the names of seven of the lakes pay homage to the original inhabitants: Cayuga, Seneca, Keuka, Canandaigua, Owasco, and Otisco. Ignoring all of the lake houses, docks and other incursions on the shore, the long bodies of water are the landscape features that would be most recognizable to a Haudenosaunee from five centuries ago. The lakes are the most dominant feature and, more than anything else, define the region and its inhabitants.


As I ponder these thoughts about the lake, I am sitting on a lake-house deck overlooking the water. The soft crashing of the waves on the worn flat stones is the sound track to my ruminations. Some people around here own lake houses; everyone else who grew up here, in the land between the lakes, has dreamed about them: either renting one for a week or two, owning a little summer cottage, or having a full blown year-round house on the water. Until now, I have never realized this dream. Through fortunate circumstance, I have two weeks to spend idly staring at the water and forgetting about work and a heap of other obligations.



My mother grew up connected to the water on the North Shore of Long Island. She instilled in us a love for the water, taking us to the lake when we were younger. She always dreamed about getting back into sailing, which she did with great proficiency in her youth. In 1965, my parents bought 10 acres, not on the water, but across the highway from it. The modernist house my father designed would have sweeping views up the lake from the third floor balcony. My father lost his job, the first of many layoffs, and the dream deflated like a kid’s party balloon left lingering on the living room ceiling until it simply fell back to the floor, where it was left unnoticed, unmentioned, forgotten.


I have never lost the dream and have kept my eye on lakefront properties, but, as the region has boomed in popularity, lakefront prices have swelled to the point of impossibility. Cottages used to be simple, unadorned, summer havens owned by locals, but, they are now becoming the exclusive retreats of wealthy imports. Locals would offset their tax burden by renting weekly during the warm season (most cottages were not winterized), but the new arrivals mostly keep their newly restored lake “cottages” to themselves. Thus, access to the lake for the common working folk, aside from a few parks, is becoming harder and harder. To finally spend two solid weeks, without interruption, at the lake, after 55 years of contemplation, is a dream come true for me.

cayuga lake-photos from poplar beach stay 9/11-9/24/16

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  1. Marie Sanderson permalink

    Lovely! Although I miss the crashing surf of California (to which I could listen for days…) there is nothing quite as soothing as the gentle lapping waves of the lake. A shame, indeed, that it’s become less affordable.

  2. Andy Moerlein permalink


    Andy Moerlein 123 Summer St Maynard MA 01754-2263

    603-496-8525 Andy Moerlein on facebook

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