Category Archives: On the Waters

Lake stinks less

“Places consist of everything that has ever happened in them. And to feel good in those places is to feel the reality of those things.” — Adam Nicolson

Sean Kirst brings up the Onondaga Lake aroma in a blog post related to his interview of Upstate Freshwater Institute’s Steve Leffler. Being from the 690 side of the lake, I can report that the smell we got riding by was definitely not only sewage. It was a sharp, choking smell that seemed to be equal parts chemical and crap. Not quite as sulfurous as a skunk spray — and while very unpleasant, it didn’t seem noxious. In the morning, it was an excellent indicator of how hot a summer’s day was going to get. The lake always seemed to know first.

I say “was” because the lake really does stink less now. Not just physically, but morally and politically — yesterday’s announcement of a new push for local control of the lake cleanup is very welcome news, especially the detail that the Onondaga Nation gets the equal seat at the table that it deserves.

I do have to agree with Jim Walsh’s concerns about the towns around the lake — Camillus, Geddes and Salina — needing to be involved as well in some way. Some people in Camillus, who live around the portentiously named Wastebed 13, still think everything stinks. While the community outreach over the Onondaga land rights action has been heartening to see since 2005, I sometimes have felt that it has been very oriented toward the city of Syracuse and the University, with less emphasis on the other lakeside communities. In unraveling the past history of the lake’s pollution and bad/illegal deals made, we have to remember that the communities along the lake (which later became Solvay and Liverpool) were planted here before the city of Syracuse was even a mirage in the swamp. Just because they are now filled with short-sighted suburbanites of a particular political persuasion, doesn’t mean they’re not part of the puzzle.

(Yes, this post’s subject is a tribute to my all-time favorite newspaper headline, from the Post-Standard: Bills Stink Less.)

Forever wild in the Finger Lakes

New York has a new state forest:

Sale of lands around picturesque Hemlock and Canadice lakes by the city of Rochester to New York state, a goal of conservationists for decades, is now complete, officials announced Thursday… “This is without a doubt the most important land acquisition project the state has undertaken outside of the Adirondack and Catskill Parks in more than a generation,” said Pete Grannis, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, which will manage the new forest.

Already people are grumbling about why New York has $13 million to buy land at a time when our economy is so bad that Gov. Paterson feels the need to hold a “veto-thon” because he thinks the Legislature’s budget doesn’t recognize reality. I kind of wonder what the timing of this has to do with Rochester mayor Robert Duffy’s new relationship with Albany as Cuomo’s lieutenant governor candidate. (Nothing, I’m sure, but that was my first crazy thought…)

Long ago, York Staters published an ode to Hemlock and Canadice Lakes. It’s worth another read, if you are undecided over whether this was a good purchase or not.

In memory of a perfect day

A few weeks ago I talked about the September wildflowers being a prelude to the “big October show” of the leaves. Last year around this time, I took my mom to Green Lakes State Park for a Saturday walk around the lakes on a really splendid sunny day when the leaves were at peak. Took a lot of photos. This year I wanted to do it again, so I’ve been waiting and watching for the leaves to turn and the weather to be cooperative. However, it’s now occurring to me that some days and experiences you just can’t repeat. Some days are just destined to be singularly golden.

I wouldn’t mind getting some nice pictures from a different park this weekend, but in the meantime, why not continue to worship perfection? Here again (with some newly added items at the end) is my ode to the greatness that was October 11, 2008.

Above the mist

I have sometimes considered where in New York (or the Northeast) I might like to live if I weren’t living in Syracuse. It might seem crazy, but in addition to the usual factors (jobs, politics, weather etc), I find myself considering the history of a place. To me, it’s like the character of the landscape, or the atmospheric conditions. Just like you probably wouldn’t consider moving somewhere sight unseen, I wouldn’t feel like I’d done my homework if I didn’t have a sense of what was what, then – as well as what is what, now – since it’s all connected. (This is probably why, if you forced me to choose between Rome and Ithaca, it would be quite a dilemma: Rome isn’t the most congenial spot for me in terms of the physical landscape or the political zeitgeist, but I know the historical landscape fairly well. Ithaca’s history, I don’t have a feel for at all, and I would feel somewhat disoriented.)

And then there are the Finger Lakes, which are so very beautiful and appealing. But for me, it is hard not to breathe in the heavy historical smog there. This was, after all, the scene of a massively destructive military campaign. Some today would call it a national security mission, others would call it ethnic cleansing. The atmospheric conditions there today are neither overtly “bad” nor “good” from a moral standpoint, but those clouds of history are still thick. And nowhere do they seem thicker than along the big lakes, Seneca and Cayuga, and particularly between them, in Seneca and Schuyler counties. This is where I was this past week.

One of the curious things about this unnamed land between the lakes is how laden with U.S. government presence it was and still is. Outside of New York City and Fort Drum, this has been the most federalized plot of land in the Empire State. One can’t trace a clear path from the Sullivan-Clinton days to the 20th century in this regard, but it still seems like somewhat more than a coincidence that a Naval base (later an Air Force base), a heavily guarded munitions depot, and (improbably) a National Forest took form here. Indeed, the two long lakes make ideal strategic barriers… but, these being the first lands that the newly minted U.S. government took from the native inhabitants by force, one must wonder if on some deep echoing level, “uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.”

On a human level — today — I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to make that point. Nowhere in New York is organized anti-tribal sentiment more vehement than in Cayuga country. The prospect of the landless Cayugas putting 125 acres into trust has thrown the local chapters of UCE into high alert. “No Reservation, No Sovereign Nation” signs are still up everywhere. It’s a distinctly different vibe than even in the Utica-Rome area. There are any number of socioeconomic factors driving the rancor. Down on the shorelines are the sumptuous wineries with their newly surfaced parking lots, and up in the hills are the prim white farmhouses with their shaggy coats of peeling paint. But I think history’s miasma hangs heavily too. The land is beautiful, but it was acquired expressly by sword and fire. And that stone fact cannot balance lightly on any psychic sense of safety and permanence.

However, up in the hills between the two lakes is a strange, peaceful little oasis called the Finger Lakes National Forest. I went camping and hiking there this past weekend. This is New York’s only national forest, and the second smallest national forest in the country. It’s also probably the only one that has pastures (with cows!), neatly labeled with brown-and-white U.S. Forest Service signs. Originally a land reclamation experiment, it’s a patchwork of forest and farm lands that seems like a depopulated, idealized vision of the New York countryside — what it would look like if the state were a large outdoor museum. Because the land has hardly been touched by development since the 1930s, the plant diversity is pretty amazing. I counted at least 20 different species (not including shrubs and trees) bordering my campsite alone.

Needless to say, the views from the top of the forest are incredible. You can see Seneca Lake, and almost see Cayuga Lake as well… and you can almost feel that you’re above the mists of the past and present, too.