People have been jumping into the Great Sacandaga Lake all summer.
Now it’s almost time for fire. Next Sunday, in the middle of Labor Day weekend, residents of the lake in the northern sections of Fulton and Saratoga counties will light flares and bonfires on their beaches. The flames will form a “ring of fire” around the 29-mile long Great Sacandaga, and put a red and orange glow into the late summer skies.
“It just kind of happens,” said Betsy Emery, who runs the Visitsacandaga.com website. “It’s a tradition that’s been going on for years and years. It’s cool because you can see all around the lake. People spend weeks getting ready.”
The fires will cap a day of picnic-style parties on the lake. In many cases, residents say, several families or groups of friends will visit people who own camps and homes on the lake as summer begins its fade into fall.
“There aren’t a lot of people from out of the area who come, it’s more an event for the folks up here,” said Bob Campbell, who owns the Edinburg Marina and is president of the Great Sacandaga Lake Business Association. “Everybody up here really looks forward to it every year. It really is a spectacle to see it.”
The late Agnes Gilbert helped put the spectacle together. A longtime resident of Mayfield, she saw her first ring of fire in 1988.
“My brother Lucian Gilbert had a camp on Keuka Lake in the middle part of the state and every year around July 4 they’d do a ring of fire around the lake, which is much smaller than Sacandaga Lake,” said Sylvia Parker, Gilbert’s daughter.
“It was awe-inspiring,” said Parker, who lives in the Cranberry Creek section of Mayfield and is president of the Mayfield Historical Society. “You could see all around the lake. Some people had flares, some people had fires from burning brush. It was really special. Mom said, ‘I wonder if we could do this in Sacandaga?’ ”
Parker and her friend Donna Haydon made fliers promoting the Sacandaga ring and tacked and taped notices in restaurants, bars, grocery stores and other public places. The organizers persuaded enough people to set the Sacandaga shore ablaze during Labor Day weekend of 1988.
The shows always begin around dusk, about 8:30 p.m., on the Sunday before Labor Day.
“It runs itself,” Parker said. “People just know. But it’s not on Labor Day. It’s the night before, because on Labor Day, everybody leaves. It’s always on a Sunday.”
End of season ritual
Parker believes the Sacandaga “ring” has become a way to mark the end of summer. “It pulls people together and makes you look forward to another year with friends,” Parker said. “It gives you a good feeling.”
Agnes Gilbert saw plenty of Sacandaga fire parties before she passed away in 2010 at age 92.
“I’m surprised it has kept going, it amazes me,” Parker said. “But it has taken people’s fancies.”
Campbell said the Sunday-night burn also gives people a chance to get rid of pieces of old docks, tree stumps and branches that occasionally wash up on their beaches. “I think people are pretty good about the stuff they burn,” he said. “It’s supposed to be wood, it’s not supposed to be pressure-treated. Not everyone does it [the burn], but if you sit on the shore of the lake at dusk on the night it goes off, it’s pretty impressive.”
Campbell remembers group holiday fires on the lake before 1988. “I can’t remember an instance where something got out of control, which is pretty remarkable,” he said.
There will be a giant bonfire at Lanzi’s on the Lake. Chris Lanzi, who owns the Mayfield restaurant with his four brothers, expects about 400 people for the hot time.
“It looks like a lit-up city, fires all over the place,” he said. “The shoreline’s all lit up, the fires when they start, when they simmer down a little bit and all the glows around the whole lake. It’s pretty impressive.”
Next Sunday will be the only outdoor fire of the year at Lanzi’s. “If we have sunshine, it will be incredible,” Lanzi said. “If they forecast rain, it kind of puts a little damper on things. Last year it did rain pretty bad and I didn’t light the fire, I lit it Monday. There was just a downpour.”
Firefighters may worry a little bit.
“If it’s a dry season, that creates a problem,” said Delano Canfield, president of the Edinburg Volunteer Fire Department. “If we get some rain, there will be no problem.”
Firefighters like to remind people to keep their fires close to the water. “And not make them too large,” Canfield said.
Lanzi added that lack of rain has put large sections of beach near properties. “When there’s no beach, that’s when firefighters worry more,” he said. “Everything is done right on the beach.”
The Hudson River-Black River Regulating District, which maintains and operates reservoirs in the upper Hudson River and Black River watershed — which includes the Great Sacandaga — has no position on the annual burning.
Need for control
Mike Clark, the district’s executive director, said fires are permitted on properties but must be controlled. “I think most of them are controlled and are on the beach,” he said. “It’s more of a public event.”
People take pictures of the late summer blazes. Campbell said there has been some talk about hiring an aerial photographer to catch water and fire together.
“From the air, that would be neat to see,” he said. “I know you’d be able to see the outline of the Great Sacandaga.”