“Nothing so fair, so pure, and at the same time so large, as a lake, perchance, lies on the surface of the earth. Sky water. It needs no fence. Nations come and go without defiling it. It is a mirror which no stone can crack, whose quicksilver will never wear off, whose gilding Nature continually repairs; no storms, no dust, can dim its surface ever fresh; a mirror in which all impurity presented to it sinks, swept and dusted by the sun’s hazy brush—this the light dust-cloth—which retains no breath that is breathed on it, but sends its own to float as clouds high above its surface, and be reflected in its bosom still.” — Henry David Thoreau, Walden p177
Thoreau’s description of Walden and other lakes in New England came to mind this weekend as I was canoeing and swimming with friends across Lake Cayuga, Ithaca’s own majestic mirror (albeit a crinklier one than Walden, given our weather).
The cold but exciting expedition also reminded me of last year, when I was on the varsity freshman rowing team. In the spirit of Thoreau and the Transcendentalist movement he was such a key part of, allow me to share a romantically nostalgic memory of our days rowing on Lake Cayuga:
Every Saturday morning we would run down to the boathouse while it was still dark, breath fogging before us in the dawn air as we jogged down steep hills, across the highway, and along the railroad tracks. Early sunlight crept across the (often cloudy) sky as we pushed off the docks in groups of nine—eight rowers and one coxswain for each boat. When we were lucky it would be a calm day, and the flat lake, so much like the mirror described by Thoreau, would reflect the morning light and we could easily imagine our boats seen from above as tiny water striders skimming across the surface of mighty Cayuga, leaving behind us “a conspicuous ripple bounded by two diverging lines,” on the mirror, “earth’s eye.”
On clear afternoons during the week we’d watch the light change in the other direction: the sun’s deep orange glow would cast rich reflections on the water, and as clouds gathered the moon would start to rise towards Cornell’s famous clock tower in a scene almost too picturesque to be believed. On these afternoons, Monday through Friday, it was almost possible to imagine that we were a part of the lake; eight oars pushing through molten lava and dripping gold as we sped through the fiery waters to the coxswain’s called commands, which mingled with the cries of geese coming and going.
The southern end of Cayuga Lake contains the Allan H. Treman State Marine Park. Cayuga Lake State Park is to the northwest, and over a dozen other parks, nature centers, and forests surround the longest of the Finger Lakes. Apart from the Cornell crews, the sailing team also practices on the lake, and Cornell Outdoor Education has canoeing and kayaking programs as well. A good part of the beauty of Cornell’s original campus, centered around Libe Slope, comes from being able to see Cayuga below, surrounded by forests. The Ithaca Farmer’s Market weekend location at Steamboat Landing is right on the shore; you can enjoy cultural cuisine and fresh produce while looking out onto the water. The lake also features prominently in the first line of Cornell’s Alma Mater, so there is no doubt that every Cornellian has heard the name, but I wonder if every student has made the trip down to the lake and enjoyed its beautiful–if a bit frigid–waters.
Footnote 1 “You can even detect a water-bug (Gyrinus) ceaselessly progressing over the smooth surface a quarter of a mile off; for they furrow the water slightly, making a conspicuous ripple bounded by two diverging lines.” Walden p177
Footnote 2 “A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature. The fluviatile trees next the shore are the slender eyelashes which fringe it, and the wooded hills and cliffs around are its overhanging brows.” Walden p176