A three day pass to heaven
Family escapes modern hubbub at Lake Lila
By Alexandra Siy, Explorer Correspondent
What do you do after sending 14-year-old
daughter off on a plane to visit
BFF (best friend forever) in Minneapolis?
Take the boys to Lake Lila for three
We’d never been there, but knew it was the Adirondacks’
largest wilderness lake. Not even one motorboat or jet-ski to
intrude on our teen-battered, overloaded, parental psyches.
Located in the William C. Whitney Wilderness, Lake
Lila is a 45-minute drive west of Long Lake village. The
last 6-plus miles on unpaved Lake Lila Road (beware of
big rocks) traverses private lands before terminating at a
parking lot in the woods.
The pamphlets at the trailhead registration board include
everything from campsite locations (there are 22 of them)
to the history of Whitney Park to special fishing regulations.
We took one, signed the registration book and worked fast to
unload the van. After all, there were 29 vehicles in the lot,
and we were worried we might have to paddle all the way
across the lake for a campsite.
My husband, Eric, shouldered the wooden canoe while
Sasha and Rory hoisted packs, grabbed fishing poles and
headed down the 0.3-mile trail to Lake Lila. Leo followed,
wearing his life jacket and carrying a paddle. I took up the
rear, the stereotypical mom with the food.
We passed a couple struggling with an overloaded canoe
on wheels (there are a lot of big roots on the trail), and several
more people going back to the lot for more gear. Just
as Leo started to whine, the lake appeared, island-studded
and white-capped in the afternoon breeze. After another
trip to the lot, we launched the two canoes from the wide
sandy beach and headed for Snell Island (going on a tip
from a nice man who told us the site there was available).
Within 15 minutes we pulled the boats onto the island,
and campsite No. 2 became ours, prime waterfront real
estate, for free. Immediately, the boys went swimming.
Even Leo, zipped into his life jacket, leaped off the rocks
into the refreshing water. Sasha and Rory wore masks and
dove to the bottom, where Sasha found what appeared to
be Harry Potter’s eyeglasses.
Eager for our turn, Eric and I ordered the kids out of the
water and sent them to collect firewood (there’s a plentiful
supply at the west end of the island, thanks to a large windstorm
on July 15, 1995). Our skinny-dip across the lake to
the southern shoreline was exhilarating after the long car
ride, the hasty portage and paddle.
About three-quarters of the way across I noticed a garish
green roof on a mountainside to the southeast. Scanning the
horizon, I realized this was the only man-made structure we
could see anywhere. (The next day, when Rory saw the
house from the canoe, he called it “a blotch in the trees.”)
Eric and I wished we could have relaxed in the water
longer but gave into parental duty and swam back to camp
where we settled into our primeval roles: woman cooking,
man and boys fishing. In the bright, quiet (no NPR here)
of my outdoor kitchen I was utterly content squatting by
the fire, stirring dehydrated beans and rice with a wooden
spoon in a blackened pot of boiling lake water. Tortillas
warmed on hot rock, a simple luxury.
“Mmmm,” said Rory, who usually turns up his nose at
rice and beans.
“Food is better on camping trips,” said Sasha.
Leo brought his plate to the top of the large boulder that
offered a view of the north shore.
“Good idea, Leo!”
Dubbed “Towel Rock,” it became the place for climbing,
eating, hanging out and, of course, drying towels. After supper, Eric and I sipped red wine from paper cups and
watched the sun slip behind the mountains. Sasha’s voice
drifted over the calm water: “I got a strike!”
Eric and I joined the boys in the second canoe, casting
along the rocky shore. We each hooked into a bass. The
fight of even a small fish was exciting.
Lake Lila supports smallmouth bass, lake trout, yellow
perch, land-locked salmon and brook trout. Eric, who
inherited (and passed on) the fishing gene, looked forward
to a full day of paddling and angling. “Tomorrow we’re
having fish for dinner,” he stated, matter-of-fact.
A big, orange moon rose, and Mars appeared, its red
light reflecting on Lake Lila, a fleeting phenomenon
because Mars was so close. The day ended after a raucous
night swim and then toasted marshmallows—absolutely
the creamiest ever.
A summer night on Lake Lila has its own sound-print: a
peaceful wind coming from across the lake, pines creaking,
a loon’s call.
The next morning, Sasha was up and fishing before we
emerged from our tent. After coffee and oatmeal we consulted
the map and made a plan. Eric, Sasha and Rory
wanted to explore the lake (and catch fish), Leo wanted to
climb a mountain, and I’d be happy as long as it remained
sunny. We decided to paddle along the south shore to Shingle
Shanty Brook. We promised Leo we would climb
Mount Frederica the next day.
Shingle Shanty Brook is slow water,
snaking back and forth within an extensive
wetland. Sasha and I (we paddled the old aluminum
canoe borrowed from a neighbor)
noticed bright-red cardinal flowers along the
After two hours we were parched. We’d
planned to filter stream water, thinking it
might be better than lake water, but it was
rusty colored, and quickly clogged the filter.
Still, Eric managed to pump enough for
everyone to have a drink.
The kids were wilting fast, but we convinced
them to press on a little farther, and
ironically, as we paddled around the next
hairpin we found ourselves at the “end.” A
wire strung with posted signs hung across the
stream. A “Notice to Canoeists” on our DEC
guide map informed us that:
“While recent court cases have established
the public’s right to traverse private lands by
boat on specific waters in other parts of the
state, the question of the legal right of the
public to navigate any of the waters that enter
private lands from the William C. Whitney
Wilderness has not been resolved. Landowners
may take legal action should you decide
to proceed by boat beyond state land boundaries.”
We roped the boats to a root and ate our PB&J sandwiches
on a grassy spot under a big tree. Leo spotted blueberries
and like the boy in Blueberries for Sal, Robert
McCloskey’s classic picture book, picked and ate his way
along. Eric and Sasha sprinted ahead as Leo, Rory and I
climbed out of the streambed to a high, sunny meadow. We
took our time, enjoying the berries, the view and the sun.
Eric and Sasha set off on a hike to Lilypad Pond but came
back in a half-hour with the news that the pond was no
good for swimming. So we turned around.
Back at camp, we followed the same routine as the night
before: swimming, fishing, wood gathering, fishing, cooking,
fishing, eating, fishing, star watching, night swimming,
marshmallow toasting, and listening ...
On day three, our last, the sky was threatening and a
strong wind whipped across the lake.
“Today we’re climbing the mountain,” Leo reminded us.
“It’s going to rain,” said Sasha.
What to do?
“If it rains we’ll turn back,” Eric said. “We’ll troll along
We started off across the lake toward the grassy field on
the opposite shore. This was the site of Forest Lodge, the
Adirondack Great Camp of William Seward Webb, a 19thcentury
railroad magnate. At one time Webb owned
115,000 acres hereabouts, which he called Nehasne Park.
Lake Lila, previously known as Smith’s Lake, was named
by Webb after his wife, the former Lila Vanderbilt.
With help from the Adirondack Nature Conservancy, the
state acquired the Lake Lila parcel—7,200 acres in all—in
1979, and the lodge was removed.
As usual, Eric and Rory quickly went ahead. Out in the
middle of the lake the wind gusted and Sasha quit paddling.
The wind turned us around as I struggled to move
forward. Whitecaps sloshed over the gunwales. When it
was apparent that Mom was not capable of making forward
progress, Sasha picked up his paddle. He protested
twice more. We laughed about it later. Going on paddling
strike in the middle of a windy lake!
But wasn’t it worth it? Sasha was not convinced until we
reached the summit of Mount Frederica (named after
Webb’s daughter), where he was rewarded
with chocolate and trail mix and a spectacular
view of Lake Lila.
Mount Frederica is the perfect hike for an
eager 4-year old, not only because it’s quick
(about a mile), but because on the way you
cross an old railroad track, part of the Adirondack
Railroad built by Webb in 1891-92.
Running between Utica and Montreal, the
now-abandoned line opened the western Adirondacks
to tourists and lumbermen.
“Does Thomas ride on this track?” Leo
wanted to know.
In the days to come many stories were
spun about Thomas the Tank Engine winding
his way through the mountains to the
shores of Lake Lila.
When it was time to go, Sasha and I took
the lead, determined to get back to the island
first. The wind was with us, and as we glided
across the lake, we looked back and saw
that Eric, Rory and Leo were far behind.
Indeed, it appeared they were not moving at
all. “I bet they caught something,” said Sasha.
When they finally met us back at the island,
Eric pulled the stringer out of the water. “It’s
a landlocked salmon,” he announced.
At 15 inches, it was a dinner. (The next evening we drank
cold beer and feasted on that sweet fish with friends.)
It was time to leave Lake Lila. Reluctantly, we loaded
the boats and paddled to the beach. It was a Saturday
evening, and a couple of families were gathering their sandals
and towels after a day of swimming and sunbathing.
One of the fathers called to his kids. “Hey, come on and
carry some stuff.”
Everybody grabbed something. Our packs, paddles,
fishing gear, all of it—disappeared. A couple of men took
one of the canoes. On the walk to the lot I learned that they
were from Virginia and that they had a family camp on
Long Lake. The obliging kids were all accomplished
swimmers, sweeping the medals at the Long Lake swim
meet earlier in the week.
That evening, outside the grocery story in Long Lake,
we read the New York Times headline:
LIGHTS GO ON AFTER BIGGEST BLACKOUT,
BUT NOT WITHOUT 2ND DAY OF SUFFERING.
We had missed the biggest blackout in history. We were
on Lake Lila, unplugged and alone, in another world.
Epilogue: What do you when 14-year-old daughter is
back home from her visit with BFF in Minneapolis? Take
everyone to Lake Lila for three angst-free (no kidding)
days where we watched a bear and her two cubs swim
across the lake, and ...
Map by Nancy Bernstein
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