Gorge-ous Ithaca: Lake Encounters

I know what you’re thinking. That I am neglecting something in the tale of my trip to upstate New York last summer. Waterfalls, rocks and way too much geology – enough! The region around Ithaca is known as the Finger LAKES, not the Finger GORGES, after all. Something’s missing!

What about the LAKES?

It’s true, the stars of the Finger Lakes region are its eleven lakes. From above they are long and narrow – like fingers. The city of Ithaca sits at the southern end of Cayuga Lake, the longest of the Finger Lakes at nearly 40 miles, and one of the deepest. Its bottom is below sea level.

I am drawn to water like metal to a magnet, so it’s only natural I’d want to get up close and personal with Cayuga Lake. Plans were being made for a kayaking expedition later in the week. But Sunday after blueberry picking, I had a free afternoon, and I was eager to see more of the lake. Where to go?

There’s a lot to choose from in the Ithaca region. Cornell University owns a lot of land in the area and the Cornell Botanic Garden manages a system of nature preserves for teaching and research. Many are open to the public. These reserves include all kinds of habitat – bogs, meadows, forests and glens. I looked at them all on Cornell’s website – and decided I wanted to visit them all. Did I ever mention I’m horrible at decisions?

The description of one in particular stood out. The limestone cliffs are considered one of the rarest ecosystems in the area. There’s a gorge and a waterfall – practically a requirement in Ithaca – and for good measure, views of Cayuga Lake. Oh, and two unusual ferns. Won’t that be something to tell my friends back home! Ok – Edwards Lake Cliffs Natural Area it is.

The Lakeview Trail sounded the most promising, and that’s where I started out. So there I was, walking through a meadow. Of course.

Meadows in July mean hot and sunny. They also mean wildflowers to photograph! I knew I’d seen this flower before, but couldn’t remember its name. Already I was missing Robb’s plant knowledge; it wouldn’t be the last time on this trip. When I looked it up at home later, I remembered: Birdsfoot Trefoil, Lotus corniculatus.  Native to Eurasia and now common across the US.

Here’s another one I had to look up at home: Deptford Pink, Dianthus armeria. Another European immigrant. Hmmm. Sensing a theme here…

Beyond the meadows, the trail passed through successional shrublands into a blessedly cool young forest.

At last, I came to the edge of the world, and peaked over gingerly. I was standing on a precipice of strange-looking tan rocks. The Lake Cliffs are composed of Tully limestone, a rock I don’t run into very frequently at this scale. The limestone supports a diverse and specialized forest. Locally rare plants hide among oak, hickory, sugar maple and hop hornbeam trees.

It’s a long way down to the lake, something I couldn’t capture well in photographs. Very hard to see the cliff bottom, but I did catch a glimpse of an old railroad bed at the water’s edge.

Somewhere on the cliff faces might have been purple cliff brake (Pellaea atropurpurea) and rusty woodsia (Woodsia ilvensis), the two rare ferns I was seeking – but there was no way to get down to find them.

But, oh, the view! There she is – Cayuga Lake.

I loved the form of this gnarled tree that leaned out over the cliffs, reaching for the sun. And I loved that it kept the sun off while I rested in its shade and soaked up the view.

Moving on…The trails I wandered next went through thick shrub habitat that was once farmland. Little snails hung out, trying to stay cool.

Eventually the trail descended into deep woods in Shurger Glen. At the bottom was Gulf Creek.

Little ledges made for nice cascades.

Downstream was Pocket Falls, a 35-foot waterfall.

This is looking down from above the waterfall. I didn’t get any good shots of the falls themselves, thanks to bad light and very little water.

The trail ended at the top, with a sign that said “No hiking.” Phooey – not allowed to climb down to the bottom of the falls. Obedient girl that I am, I stayed on the trail. Mostly.

After getting my fill of the falls, I headed back to the trailhead, through woods, shrubland and meadows. All in all, Edwards Lake Cliffs was a fun hike through lots of different habitats. The meadow wildflowers were worth the sweat, and the forests offered a cool reprieve. Best of all were the views of Cayuga Lake and the woods and water of Shurger Glen. Never did find those ferns though…

In the following days, I got up close and personal with Cayuga Lake in much more intimate ways – swimming and, at last, kayaking. On Tuesday Ron, Becky, Carol and I took to the water for a kayak expedition. Our water trail started on Cayuga Inlet, which despite its name is a creek. It flows into Cayuga Lake at the southern end.

We were promised sun and no wind, and got gloomy skies and a head wind. That clearly didn’t bother Becky!

Gee, I hope this isn’t a bad omen…

The home of the Cornell University rowing teams.

Carol and Ron watching one of the many cormorants hanging out in the trees. If there’s water, there’s wildlife, even in an urban area. Ithaca is no exception. There were a few man-made osprey platforms along the creek bank and we spied two young ospreys in a nest. They were quiet at first, but suddenly they began to screech. I knew what that meant: feeding time! Sure enough, in flew a parent with a nice big fish.

The entrance to Cayuga Lake and its twin lighthouses.

We didn’t linger long on the lake itself, but scurried for the safety of Fall Creek. Maybe that was because of the wind and drizzle. Or maybe that was because of “Old Greeny”, the local sea serpent. I’ll never tell…

The creek was much calmer, and fun to paddle on. This is the same stream that is home to Ithaca Falls, though we didn’t get anywhere close to that landmark. We traveled upstream until it became too shallow for passage, then turned around.

Becky is a “kingfisher whisperer.” Wherever she goes, they put on a show for her. A great blue heron also made an appearance at the water’s edge.

Fall Creek reflections.

Clearing skies and calmer waters accompanied us on the return journey across the lake and up the inlet. We were tired and hot, but happy. There’s just something about being on the water that buoys one’s spirits.

At last I had gotten to experience Cayuga Lake, from atop the cliffs and in a kayak. That satisfied my curiosity momentarily, but also whet my appetite for more. Neglecting the lake in my tales of Ithaca? Not so, but I’ve only just dipped a toe in the Finger Lakes.