Lake George islands get attention

Ice and waves from powerboats erode 178 specks of land

November 04, 2001|By Dina Cappiello | Dina Cappiello,ALBANY TIMES UNION

LAKE GEORGE, N.Y. - Some are nothing but a single tree, jutting skyward from a patch of rocky land smaller than a boat. About 50 don't even have names.

But for hundreds of years, the islands of Lake George have served as navigational markers, camping grounds and settings for local history and folklore. It is the largest lake in New York's vast Adirondack Park.

During the past 75 years, they have been slowly disappearing - eaten away by the waves generated from hundreds of powerboats and personal watercraft, not to mention the ice that chips away at the islands every winter.

Now, a group of approximately 25 volunteers, inspired to save the islands by a 1998 book written by retired state Department of Environmental Conservation ranger Frank Leonbruno, are armoring the islands so they can withstand the elements and recreation's toll.

Parts of the whole

The premise is that Lake George isn't whole without all of its various parts.

"Each small island lends beauty to this lake," said Leonbruno, who from 1941 to 1983 set foot on each one of Lake George's remaining 178 islands as a Department of Environmental Conservation employee.

It was a passage in his book, Lake George Reflections, Island History and Lore, that prompted John Lefner, a resident of Kattskill Bay, to take the action that, for years, the Department of Environmental Conservation did not.

"I sincerely hope that action will be taken before one single island more is lost to erosion," Leonbruno wrote.

It wasn't until a year before Leonbruno's book was published that the Department of Environmental Conservation began to focus on restoring islands, according to Leroy Ryder, who replaced Leonbruno as Lake George's conservation operation supervisor.

"We didn't have time, money or anything," Ryder said.

And in the meantime, traffic on the lake and the size of boats increased, churning currents that accelerated erosion.

From 1992 to last year, according to the Lake George Park Commission, the number of boats on the lake has grown by 2,486 vessels.

"The boat traffic today is doing more damage than it did in 1960," said Ryder, who has seen islands shrink - but none disappear - on his watch. "Without the restoration, the islands would probably be lost."

While the numbers are by no means exact, since the late 1800s approximately 50 islands have vanished. Today, according to local tax rolls, 178 islands dot the waters of Lake George.

The others have been literally swallowed by water and exist as nothing more than rocky ledges just below the surface.

Missing islands

Among the missing are Willow, Manhattan, Ranger, Shoal and Arrow islands, and one from the Happy Family chain, which was last seen in an 1875 oil painting that hangs on Lefner's dining room wall.

During the past two years, with 50 tons of rock and a team of volunteers headed up by Lefner, the Department of Environmental Conservation has rebuilt one of the Happy Family Islands and Rush Island, which was literally uprooted in 1998 by large chunks of floating ice.

The stones shield the islands from the pounding waves. The state also adds vegetation, the roots of which will spread through the soil and hold the land together.

The pace of restoration is about one island per year. So far, it has cost nearly nothing since everything has been donated. The royalties of Leonbruno's book, which were set aside for the islands, remain untouched.

"You talk to the people and ask what brought them to this lake and its the islands," said Lefner. "But without some maintenance, they are going to be lost."

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