'Floating Decks' of New York's Star Lake
Evelyn Theiss, The Plain Dealer
STAR LAKE, N.Y. -- We had arrived at my friend Mary's vacation "camp" -- Adirondack parlance for a summer house -- after a nearly eight-hour drive from Cleveland.
It was my first visit to Star Lake, in northern New York's Adirondack Mountains, but my friend Linda had stayed here before. We stretched our stiff legs as we got out of the car, and Linda said, "The first thing you've got to do is go take a look at the floating dock."
That's what I thought she said, and I wryly thought, "Hmm, someone has a low threshold for excitement." Who hasn't seen a floating dock?
Turns out she actually said "floating deck," and when I saw it, I was intrigued. That floating deck -- which looks just like a backyard deck with rails, except it has a motor -- was my introduction to a slice of culture that makes Star Lake special.
The floating decks, which many of the vacation houses have, are tied up at the shore when they're not motoring around the lake and bring to mind Huck Finn's musings on the wonder of rafts: "You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft."
True, you use these motorized "rafts" on a mountain lake instead of on the Mississippi River. But what a comfortable way to traverse the calm waters -- sitting on a lounge chair on a deck that's wider and much quieter than a powerboat.
We stocked the deck with food and drink and sun umbrellas, and spent a day cruising the lake, enjoying the views from the water -- of rambling camps, tiny islands, the occasional loon and heron.
When we wanted to swim, we pulled up to the sandbar that has become Star Lake's gathering place. All we had to do was push the poles that lock the deck into the sand, then wade from shallow waters into the chillier deep.
For nearly 50 years now, Star Lakers have pulled up the aluminum stakes on these mobile structures and motored around the 237-acre lake. It's not certain who started the trend, though some say it was Richard Witters, a pharmacist, who first put a motor on a deck in the early 1960s.
Now, summer residents estimate that well more than half of the 140 or so "camps" around the lake have them, and they've generally replaced large boats. Jet Skis and other personal watercraft are blessedly rare, from the standpoint of those who love the quiet, and canoes and kayaks provide for a different way to enjoy the water.
Though people have seen the rare motorized raft on nearby lakes, the phenomenon really caught on at Star Lake, and no one is sure exactly why.
It just took.
Most of the decks are about 12 feet by 16 feet, and Styrofoam attached to the bottom makes them buoyant. Some decks are more elaborate than others in terms of amenities; some sport picnic tables, even water slides. The decks move through the water at about 3 mph. According to an article in Adirondack Life magazine, the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles now classifies them as homemade boats.
The sandbar is a natural draw for Star Lakers, with shin-deep water that's perfect for little kids to splash around in. The grown-ups have been known to gather here for twilight poker games. They'll place their tables and chairs right into the water, and when the games end, they putter on home.
Some other things to do in the northwest section of the Adirondack region (besides hiking, canoeing or kayaking) include visiting Great Camp Sagamore, the historic camp owned by the Vanderbilts.
The great camps of the Adirondacks were a favored way for "robber barons" and their families -- and lucky visitors -- to summer in the 19th and early-20th century, and you'll get telling details on just how they did that, with the help of a battalion of workers. We had an amusingly acerbic docent at Great Camp Sagamore who kept referring to the millionaires' hunting as "engaging in blood sports."
Great Camp Sagamore, just south of Raquette Lake, is a scenic two-hour drive from Star Lake. In addition to richly detailed tours, the camp also offers accommodations -- not quite on par with what the Vanderbilts had but with 21st-century comforts.
If you visit Raquette Lake, be sure to take the narrated steamer cruise on the W.W. Durant. You'll hear lots of history, and the views aren't much different from what they were a century ago.
Back then, Star Lake and its environs drew city visitors who arrived by train, via the Carthage & Adirondack Railway. They would spend the summer months at the bustling Star Lake Inn, built in 1882. When American life shifted to automobile travel in the 1940s, and air conditioning made the indoors tolerable, vacation options widened and people no longer relied as much on mountain resorts for a cool escape.
At one time, there were diving boards and a dock on the shore next to the Star Lake Inn, and porches with rocking chairs that encouraged lingering conversations. Today, only a rough stone foundation of the once-lively resort remains.
Now people stay mostly in summer houses or cottages, which they own or rent, or where they visit friends who do. My friend Mary's place, in fact, was once the dorm where many of the hotel employees lived during the summer. Around the 1950s, it was converted into a spacious house with six bedrooms.
Star Lake is a quieter place now than it was 100 years ago, and it's not as fancy or big as famous Adirondack destinations like Saranac Lake or Lake Placid. But its very simplicity is the draw.
Longtime and new summer residents and visitors are sociable; the mobile decks spur conviviality.
And now just as then, clean air and a crystal-clear Adirondack lake soothe a body and soul.