Rochester, New York City Guide
Rochester, NY City Guide

© 1996-2015 Max Lent Communications




Moonlight Canoeing On Canadice Lake

Return to Canoe Stories

©1996 Max Lent

July 23, 1994

Saturday evening we enjoyed an extraordinary experience. We watched the sun set and the moon rise from a canoe drifting in the middle of Canadice Lake. After the moon rose, we paddled along the lake's shore for miles. The moon, the solitude and being in a canoe all worked together to produce in us a feeling of delight and awe.

Canadice Lake is the highest and smallest of New York's Finger Lakes. The lake provides drinking water to Rochester, NY and has many usage restrictions. It has no houses on its shore, no bathing beaches, and only small motor boats with very small engines are allowed on it. From the middle of the lake, it is possible to look in every direction and see almost no sign of the influence of humans.

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The trip had been planned for the night before. We (my wife, Tina and I) were to go with a group of canoers associated with a local canoe manufacturer and retailer, Canoe Country. The threatening weather in Rochester deceived us and we canceled our plans. Large dark gray storm clouds hung low above Rochester. (Other canoers we met on the lake, Saturday night, said that the storms had been local to Rochester and that the weather around Canadice Lake was perfect.)

Mustering up all of our willpower, we declared that we would go canoeing Saturday night even if we had to put our canoe on top of our car in the rain, drive to the lake in the rain, and sit in the rain along the lake shore before being convinced it wasn't a good night to canoe. Saturday's weather also looked unfavorable. Saturday afternoon was windy and storm clouds were, again, hovering over Rochester. It looked like a terrible day for canoeing. Keeping our oath to go out no matter what, we forced ourselves to go and we were not disappointed.

There were a couple of stops to make before leaving the city. We picked up our friend Judy Levy and stopped for dinner at Wendy's. Wind buffeted us as we drove south. The wind was blowing hard enough to turn up the leaves of trees, showing their undersides. The car, with the canoe on top, swayed in the windy gusts. Our expectation was that we were going to sit out the evening in the car listening to a windstorm whistle around us and the patter of rain on the roof.

By the time we arrived at the lake the wind had died down a little. The lake had a breeze blowing on it, but the conditions were not life threatening. The portable toilet at the boat ramp smelled as though it was more than a few days past due for servicing. The stench encouraged us not to dally on the shore. We put in quickly on the west side of the lake and paddled straight out to the center and on toward the western shore. Next, we turned south and into the dying breeze.

The silent beauty of the lake was broken by the sound of a high powered gun being fired repeatedly nearby in the woods. The shots were startling and obnoxious. This was not the first time we heard gun shots. On another moonlight canoe trip on the same lake we had heard shots fired from the same place. It was my impression that the shooter was out to purposely break the peaceful silence of the lake and perhaps insult the senses of the canoers. I imagined what the shooter felt. If the shooter disrupted the silence and tranquility of the lake when canoers visited, perhaps they would go away. I vowed that I would not go away. I only wished that I had some means of stopping the shooting. On another trip to Canadice Lake shooting was not the only sound coming from the shore. We heard cars with mufflers removed racing on the lakeside road. Fortunately for us, the perpetrators of these acts, on both occasions seemed to lose interest in their activities around dusk.

The vista spread before us to the south was impressive. A huge cumulonimbus cloud with an anvil top rose up high in the sky to the south, miles beyond the south shore. Lit by the afternoon sun, it was first white, then gradually changed to pale yellow, to gold, to orange, to red, to gray, to blue, then a pale white. As night approached it became gun metal gray, then black. Every few minutes a flash of lightening beneath the cloud would catch our attention. The bolts of lightening were big and bright and caused us to yell out "wows and oos" when we saw them.

Keeping the canoe on a straight course while paddling into the breeze was no easy task. The breezes from across the water were cool. Warm, still pockets of air provided contrast. With experience we were able to predict when we would pass through warm air by the texture of lake surface. Warm pockets were smooth. Cool areas were choppy.

Two other canoers, paddling solo canoes, had launched their canoes at the same time we launched ours. We watched them paddle close to the eastern shore. Surprisingly, we were moving much faster. Later, when we met up with them near the south shore and offered them cookies. They told us that they were impressed at how fast our canoe was and wondered what brand it was. They were, of course, assuming that the speed of our canoe was related to its design and cost, rather than to its skillful paddlers.

The southerly breeze at the south end of the lake was strongest we had encountered. Since we were as far into the wind as we could go, the gusts didn't bother us. We were ready to let the wind blow us back toward the boat launch if it could. Rearranging ourselves into more comfortable positions with our paddles put away, we drifted and waited for the moon to rise. The large storm cloud we had been observing now partially blocked the eastern horizon. Moonrise would be a little later than expected.

Drifting with the wind, we talked about what we were seeing. The beauty of the setting and the evening encouraged us to point out personal observations to each other. Insects, being blown across the lake, stopped for few seconds on the canoe and on our bodies, then flew off. Bats appeared and fluttered overhead as the evening became nighttime. We guessed that the bats were eating the same kind insects that were landing on us. A lightening bug pulsed a glow as it passed overhead. The sky darkened and the wind slowly diminished and disappeared.

The last rays of the sun faded to near total darkness of night. Moonrise was forecast by a first subtle and then brilliant glow in the northern edge of the cloud we had been watching. A brilliant white edge formed on one side of the cloud and then we saw the edge of the moon. The transition from darkness to moonlight caused us to spontaneously cheer the moon. The moon, fully risen with its reflection on the water, was breathtakingly brilliant.

To celebrate the rising of the moon we opened a package of cookies and a small bottle of wine. Eating stale cookies and toasting with Styrofoam cups, we celebrated being alive and being where we were. We offered our cookies to the other canoers who had joined us to see the moon rise. They didn't take any, but seemed to appreciate the gesture.

Earlier, when we cast off from shore, the western shore was clearly defined. It slowly faded to a velvety infinite black after the last rays of sunlight were quenched. When the moon rose it relit the shore creating vague detail. The eastern shore was now the shore without substance or detail because of its contrast with the moon.

The feeling of being alive was intense. Just being out-of-doors during a sunrise or sunset is enough to bring about a feeling of being acutely aware of being alive. Being in a canoe in the middle of a placid lake throughout a sunset and a moon rise, while watching a huge thunderstorm drift safely away created stronger, more intense, feelings of aliveness. The intense sensory experience of the evening was not unlike a particularly successful meditation.

As the moon rose, its reflection on the water changed from a long white highway of light leading to an inky black shore to soft undulating dapples. On particularly still areas of the lake the moon's reflection was a small single disk.

Judy read from Donald Robert Marquis's Archy and Mehitabel using a pen flashlight to see. One of the other canoers drifted near to hear the reading and, later, paddled off into the darkness without comment.

One of us starting telling moon stories. Tina recalled a memory of summer camp when she was awakened in the middle of the night by older girls dressed as angels. The angels were lit by moonlight. Judy told a story about going ice skating by moonlight as a teenager. I told a story about mooning motorists from a school bus on the way to a high school football game. Later I recounted the story of cross-country skiing on moonbeams one very cold winter night and another about being awakened by moon beams shining in our tent as we camped out on an island in the middle of a lake in the Adirondack mountains.  

We drifted for at least an hour wishing that the evening would never end. Like an orgasm, a spectacular evening only stays good until a point when all of the emotional energy is dissipated, then it's time to let it go. Paddling close to the eastern shore as we headed north, we passed through invisible clouds of fragrances from forest and swamp. The aromas of pine needles, cedar, damp earth, mud, decaying leaves, were particularly noticeable, probably in compensation for our lack of vision.

Judy became concerned about how we would find our way back to the boat launch. The shore was totally black, lost in moon shadows. We joked about having told her earlier how to find the ramp by landmarks. However, those landmarks were no longer visible. The truth was that there was just enough moonlight to see major landmarks. The moonlight provided me with barely visible clues to steer the canoe to within 20 feet of the ramp, successfully dodging a large, partially submerged rock.

The boat launch portable toilet should have been an olfactory beacon to us. It didn't smell any better after dark. The odor was a metaphor for returning to civilization. Walking back to the road to retrieve our car, I was able to see my way by the moonlight shining through the trees. I paused with apprehension before opening car door. Opening the door would cause the car's interior lights to come on and the effect of the moonlight to disappear. I wasn't ready for the moonlight to end. The light from inside the car was bright, brash, and almost blinding. Driving from the road to the boat ramp through the trees I only used the car's parking lights. Tina and Judy were spared, if just for minutes, from the harshness of the artificial light.


We learned the next day that another friend, Gordon Goodman, was also on the lake while we were watching the moonrise. We had planned to paddle together, but he had a dinner engagement and couldn't come early. By arriving late, after sunset, he couldn't find us. He left a message on a sweetener packet tucked under our car's windshield wiper. We didn't notice it until the next day. However, we learned from Gordon, that he, too, had a wonderful time and believed the evening was inspirational.

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