The Great Sacandaga Lake community ends every summer season in a ring of fire.
Hundreds of residents and lakeshore campers build bonfires down by the water on the Sunday night before Labor Day. Fires have ringed the 29-mile-long lake on the same night each year since Sylvia Parker and her friend Donna Haydon distributed fliers to scores of local businesses in 1988. This weekend will be no exception.
“From the shore,” Parker said, “I can count well over 100 fires, and that’s just from my little piece of the lake.”
She said the tradition expands every year, with more and bigger fires.
One of the biggest fires this year will leap skyward from Lanzi’s on the Lake. Owner Larry Lanzi was busy constructing his woodpile Friday afternoon.
“We’ve been working on it for the last two weeks,” he said. “The pile alone is 20 feet high.”
That two-story mound of branches, broken picnic tables and weathered fence posts will go up at dusk Sunday, with the help of judicious amounts of kerosene.
Lanzi tried and failed to describe the scenes of years past.
“You just have to be here,” he said. “It’s an incredible sight. You can see big fires all along the beach out in the night.”
No one is sure how many fires there are or will be — not even Parker, who helped start the tradition.
Her mother, Agnes Gilbert, got the idea from the July Fourth tradition at Keuka Lake in central New York. Parker and Haydon executed it with fliers asking people to light up the shore, and the rest is history.
“We weren’t sure what would happen that first year,” she said, “but it’s been growing ever since.”
There’s a pretty good reason for the tradition’s longevity. Fire mitigates the melancholy of an ending season.
“Everyone goes home on Labor Day,” she said. “Then it’s quiet here through the winter.”
Just hours before the mass exodus, people gather, eat, drink and light up the lake.
“Then it’s bon voyage,” she said.
Parker still lives on the Great Sacandaga. She has access to the beach but doesn’t add to the ring of fire. She hasn’t since her mother died a few years ago.
“It sort of took the joy out of it for me,” she said.
Sunday night, she does plan to walk down to the water’s edge and count the fires in her field of view, an act she considers her mother’s legacy.
“I always wonder what it would look like from an airplane,” she said.
Those looking to experience the ring of fire can stop by Lanzi’s on the Lake or any of the public water accesses dotting the shores of the Great Sacandaga.