If you like ocean beaches but don’t like driving to them, Lake Ontario is a great alternative.
The smallest of the Great Lakes offers the infinite horizon of the ocean and even some of the sandy beaches, though more often than not you’ll be walking on pebbles and rocks.
The water ranges from glass-smooth to pounding surf, sometimes within the same day.
With a little discretion, four-legged friends can join in the fun on Lake Ontario; dog-friendly beaches are harder to find along the Atlantic coast in the summer.
Figure a 2.5- to 3-hour drive to get from the Capital Region to Lake Ontario, about the same as the closest saltwater beaches in New England and a significantly shorter drive than Long Island or Jersey Shore beaches.
Lake Ontario was a periodic destination for me, my wife and our son when he was younger, and even once when he was in utero — her parents chartered a fishing boat for us one sunny afternoon back in the summer of 1999, when my wife was three months along.
Camping at Selkirk Shores State Park in 2005 was the first visit my son would remember, and it was a perfect end to a fine day. The surf was taller than young Cropley at age 5, the kind of thing that either scares or excites little kids.
He and I charged right into it and started body surfing while mom, a trained lifeguard in a previous life, stood ready to drag one or both of us out by the toes if need be.
The fun faded when the boy got flipped over several times by a breaker he didn’t see coming, but he still had a smile on his face as he played in the shallows.
The next year saw us rent a cabin on Crescent Beach, the slender barrier island that separates Sodus Bay from Lake Ontario. It’s a great setup — placid bay full of fish out the front door, windy lake full of adventure out the back door.
It was here I appreciated how rapidly changeable the lake is, when a midday storm turned the water into boiling whitecaps and consigned us to a “Dragon Ball” marathon on the big-screen TV. But by dusk the water was smooth as glass and I paddled out in the sunset’s afterglow. It’s a supremely tranquil experience to be out in a kayak on a vast body of water as the stars light up.
A much less serene experience in the same kayak came a day later, when our old black Lab swam out to fetch his ball, couldn’t find it and just kept going — straight out.
“He’s swimming to Canada!” I yelled into the kitchen window as I sprinted to get my boat on the bay side and drag it to the lakeside. Wife-mom-lifeguard ran into the water but realized she could never catch up with him and stood waist deep, screaming his name.
But he was either not hearing or not listening, off in the zone old dogs sometimes visit. I finally caught up to him 500 yards out and coaxed him to turn around and swim to shore.
The look on his face as he saw me and snapped back to reality would have been comical were it not for the danger facing him. He was exhausted, could barely stagger out of the water and back onto the beach where a cluster of neighbors had gathered.
Three years later we rented the same cabin again, and the old dog made one last trip to the lake with us, in a manner of speaking. In the evening we slipped his ashes into the water where he’d had so much fun.
The new member of our family, a yellow Lab puppy, wasn’t ready for the water yet — he wouldn’t go in past his shins, and took greater pleasure in antagonizing the cabin owner’s dog, a Doberman that towered over him.
Our son caught 61 panfish off the dock. I circumnavigated our little world there in my new bigger and better kayak, hitting all the coves and getting to know the turtles and muskrats on a first-name basis.
Two years later, we stayed on Sandy Pond. The little boy had grown into a strapping young tween and the little puppy a magnificent water dog in the prime of life.
It’s one thing to watch a round of fetch-the-ball from the shore but quite another thing to be right in the waves as it’s happening, watching a Lab fairly levitate as he leaves the beach and hits the water, searching for the ball relentlessly from the crest of each wave and fighting forward to the next wave.
Again and again, never giving up, never stopping.
How many places can you frolic in the breakers with your son, cheering on your dog as he chases the tennis balls your wife chucks overhead?
In clean freshwater, with no undertow?
And then watch the blazing sun slip into the water that night, no land on the horizon?
It’s one of those days we’ll remember forever.
OUT OF THE WATER
There’s a lot more than beaches in the Lake Ontario region. And that’s good, because as mentioned, it’s not always beach weather.
Here are some sites and sights that stand out in my mind:
Sackets Harbor — A beautiful old place flush with stone buildings and history. There seem to be fewer relics of its military heritage as the decades go by, but it was a major naval center back in the day, and the scene of a battle in the War of 1812.
Fishing — The area is known for fishing, but if you’re a serious fisherman you already know this. For the casual angler, there are lake charter boats available in multiple harbors, pond and river fishing from shore, and fishing in the lake from your own boat.
Sunsets — There’s something about the lake that makes the setting sun a beautiful and varied spectacle — it seems to look different each night. The only explanation I’ve seen is that the light filters through water vapor rising off the surface. So if you’re watching from the east end of the lake, the light waves are traveling through 100 miles of fine mist. (Winter is the flip side, of course: The cold wind catches that same water vapor and turns it into epic lake-effect snowfalls southeast and east of Lake Ontario.)
Nuke — It’s interesting, in a way, to sit in a restaurant and see the posted instructions for evacuating the village in the event of an emergency at the Nine Mile Point nuclear power station in Scriba. A column of steam rising from the reactors’ cooling tower is a fixture on the horizon in the southeast corner of the lake.
Waterfall — Salmon River Falls near Orwell and Altmar is an impressive sight, a 110-foot stoneface with varying amounts of water pouring over the precipice. There are trails to the top and bottom of the falls, and parking along the imaginatively named Falls Road. The river empties into the lake in Port Ontario and is famous for salmon fishing.
Fort Oswego — This star-shaped fortress built in the 1840s is the fourth fortification to stand on the site. It’s not the most impressive coastal fortification in the Northeast but it’s a nice stop on any tour of historic sites. The obsolete fort saw its last quasi-military use in World War II, as a refugee camp.
Safe Haven — A twofer with Fort Oswego, this museum tells the story of the only refugee camp in the United States during World War II, temporary home from 1944 to 1946 to nearly 1,000 European Jews. It was an odd chapter in a terrible time, a token gesture made very late in the war by the American government and only with the explicit promise that all 982 refugees would leave U.S. soil after the war. President Truman later revoked the departure requirement imposed by President Roosevelt, and some of the refugees eventually did become American citizens.
Chimney Bluffs State Park — Along this stretch of the Lake Ontario shoreline, there are geological formations called drumlins, globs of sand and rock that were compressed into mounds under glaciers during the Ice Age, then sharpened to a needle point or knife edge by erosion over the subsequent millennia. Nowhere are the drumlins as tall and as concentrated as Chimney Bluffs. Visitors can hike along the ridge line above the drumlins or the beach below.
The road beckons — That’s about the range of a day trip from the Capital Region. If you’ve got some time, you can keep going — as far west as the Niagara River, the main tributary to the lake, or north to the Thousand Islands region. I’ve traveled the entire U.S. shoreline of Lake Ontario, and there’s lots to see along the way.
They say the Canadian side is pretty nice, too.
Did you know?
- Some little-known details about Lake Ontario, one of the Great Lakes:
- It is the smallest of the five Great Lakes but is the 14th-largest lake in the world at 7,340 square miles.
- Lake Ontario is 15 times larger than Lake Champlain, which for 18 days in 1998 was designated by the U.S. government as the sixth Great Lake in a political maneuver that was quickly rescinded.
- Lake Ontario has 3-foot eels and 200-pound sturgeon living in its waters but nothing really, really impressive — such as Champ, the lake monster first spotted in Lake Champlain by Samuel De Champlain 400 years ago.
- Lake Ontario’s maximum depth is 802 feet, and on average it is the second-deepest of the five Great Lakes; it holds 393 cubic miles of water and would take six years to refill at its average rate of inflow.
- Lake Ontario’s summer water temperature is typically in the low 70s, just slightly cooler than the ocean beaches of Long Island.
- In 1969, the heavily contaminated Cuyahoga River caught fire near its outflow into Lake Erie, prompting an international effort to clean up the Great Lakes; Lake Ontario, downstream of the other four lakes, has benefited.
- The lake for centuries has been a path of commerce and a graveyard for mariners; today, scuba divers explore some of the shipwrecks and modern freighters carry commodities across the lake to and from the St. Lawrence Seaway, gateway to the Atlantic Ocean.