“New York is teeming with lakes, but I don’t want to know them all. A lake is more like a marriage or long-term lover; one wants to revisit a lake over many years, getting to know where the bass hide, where the lily pads float, where the weeds are thick, or the lake floor sandy. Some might want to explore them all (Fourth, Fifth, Tupper, Luzerne, Trout, Mirror, Placid, Lake George, Chautauqua, the Finger Lakes, and scores more). But I go steady with a lake and only break up when there’s a very good reason or no other choice.”—Kathryn E. Livingston
Words & Wonder
By Kathryn E. Livingston
QUEENSBURY New York—(Hubris)—September/October 2023—As much as I adore the ocean and its beaches, I’m forever in love with lakes. In New York State, I grew up with lakes and have never lost my attachment. New York is teeming with lakes, but I don’t want to know them all. A lake is more like a marriage or long-term lover; one wants to revisit a lake over many years, getting to know where the bass hide, where the lily pads float, where the weeds are thick, or the lake floor sandy. Some might want to explore them all (Fourth, Fifth, Tupper, Luzerne, Trout, Mirror, Placid, Lake George, Chautauqua, the Finger Lakes, and scores more). But I go steady with a lake and only break up when there’s a very good reason or no other choice.
When I was small, my grandparents and great grandparents lived on a tiny lake (one and a half miles long) near my hometown of Schenectady. On hot evenings in the summer, my dad would drive out to the lake so my mother and I could cool off (there was no AC back in those days, at least, not at my house). Mariaville Lake was rife with bluegills (Dad called them sunnies) and near Grandma’s cabin a choir of bullfrogs croaked, but across the causeway there was a gentle step down some rocks to a clear, relatively shallow area. There, my mom and I dipped into the water and my father taught me how to swim. I’d hunt for crayfish under the rocks (though I really didn’t want to find them!) and collect empty clam shells I’d later decorate with colorful paints.
The true love of my childhood, however, was Lake Pleasant, an Adirondack lake between the villages of Lake Pleasant and Speculator, New York where my family rented a modest cabin (there wasn’t even a shower!), for a week for many summers—along with my aunt, uncle, and three cousins. Here, I learned to seriously commit to a lake, to the raspberries on the other side of the large, sandy rocks, to the path down to the lake where I’d invariably stub my toe at least twice each summer, to bedtimes with my cousins when my beautiful aunt would tuck us in with her gentle voice and flowery scent.
Here we all learned to fish (“Uncle Abe”—aka my dad—and Uncle Ray, my mother’s brother, patiently took us out in a small motor boat, teaching us how to hook worms, and whooping when we snagged a fish—girls and boys alike). We captured minnows in our plastic pails, chased tiny toads in the driveway, and made a yearly trip to the Speculator Department Store (which opened in 1949) at the end of the week (or on a rainy day), where I was allowed to buy a souvenir.
Every year, we went to purchase groceries at Charlie Johns Store (“family owned since 1939”), and also loaded up on red licorice, comics, and magazines. While the dads and older kids fished in the early mornings and evenings, my younger cousins and I spent days on the community beach making sandcastles and cakes (with discarded cigarette butts as “candles”). We played Ring Around the Rosie in the water just next to the docked boats, where gasoline sometimes leaked. (Those were innocent, ignorant, blissful days!) In later years, as my parents aged, my married brother rented a roomy, private Adirondack camp, but only in June when the rates were low. I brought my best friend, and sometimes a boyfriend, but I still fished with my dad, and kayaked. When my father died, that was the end of Lake Pleasant for me. I once made a trip back just to see the place again, and when I stepped onto the beach, I burst into tears. Lake Pleasant was my early love, a lake I could never forget, and would never separate from memories of my childhood and parents. The shores of a lake are imprinted with an infinite number of memories and experiences of lake lovers of all ages.
Time passed and, living in New Jersey, I had children of my own; one day it seemed fitting to find a new lake lover, and to bring my widowed mother along. At Lake Dunmore in Vermont (recommended by a friend), we met a new lake that was perfect for our young boys, three, six, and ten. My husband and I swam with them out to a raft, fished, and kayaked. In the mornings, I strolled down to a corner store to fetch my mother’s newspaper and coffee, and at night, after the boys were asleep, we read and chatted (there was no TV). Sometimes, my mother-in-law (by then, also a widow) would join us. At age six, my middle son caught his first rainbow trout there, and he’s still a fisherman today at 35.
Lake Dunmore was a haven, a place where I could relax and just be . . . until one August day in 2001, when my mother collapsed at the kitchen sink and was diagnosed in Burlington with a rare disease called amyloidosis. She died less than two weeks later. I knew I could never go to Lake Dunmore again; the loss and pain were too great. I would always think of her there (and everywhere else, it seemed).
A few years passed and my heart began to heal. It was time to find a new lover. By now, we had “the internet” and I scoped out (with help of my brother), a cabin on a two-mile long lake near the larger Lake George, again in the Adirondacks. I feared that this lake would never meet my standards, that I would always be comparing it to my former loves, but within a year or two I had found that special lake connection.
I knew where the weeds were for sure (right off the dock), where the bass were (right off the dock), and where the sun set (right off the dock). With one bath, two bedrooms and a futon, the cabin was rather cozy for a family of five (with the occasional girlfriend, and eventually wives) but that didn’t stop me from loving it. Last year, I found a tiny musk turtle on the shore (I thought it was a snail at first), saw a great blue heron walk the dock, and watched ospreys soar. For more than a decade, we’ve come to this lake; it’s a place for our grown kids—now a distance away and on their own—to reunite with each other and with us.
I know it’s not forever, but it’s as forever as I can get. I don’t possess a cabin there and the owner may at any time say she’s no longer renting (just last year my heart skipped a beat when I thought I’d missed the deadline for reserving). Yes, there are other lakes—many, many other lakes—and we could have explored hundreds. But in my heart as I said before, a lake is a commitment. I’ve known each lake of my life intimately and shared that love with my parents, my spouse, and my children. A lake is a place one grows into knowing; it takes time, and patience, and devotion. And so, if I had it all to do over again . . . I would still be in love with lakes.
With an occasional trip to the ocean, which deserves a thundering love all its own.