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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 angst-free days!

Adirondack MapWe’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 water’s edge.

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 the way.”

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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