Cayuta Lake is a relatively small lake tucked into the hills of Schuyler County in a region that is either the top of the Southern Tier or the southern edge of the Finger Lakes. The lake covers 588 acres, is two miles long and has a maximum depth of 24 feet. The shoreline is largely privately owned, with many trailers, small cottages and campgrounds lining the eastern shore and larger cottages and houses strung along the western shore. A Department of Environmental Conservation boat launch at the north end of the lake is the only public access to the lake.
We put our kayaks in at the DEC ramp in early August and pushed out onto the warm shallow water through the emergent and submerged vegetation, the water itself green with algae and diatoms. We headed east because the rest of the north end seemed relatively undeveloped, with verdant vegetation coming right down to and into the water.
Later research revealed that the undeveloped tract is owned by Cornell University in nearby Ithaca. The James W. and Helene D. Allen Preserve was donated to the university in 1995 and is visited regularly on class field trips because of its “relatively pristine” vegetation and the ecosystem of inlet, which includes rare freshwater sponges.
Even from a distance we could see that the wetland forest was filled with wildflowers, both herbaceous and on the shrubs that formed the understory. The precise position of the shoreline was blurred by the presence of swamp loosestrife, which arched repeatedly outward from dry ground, diving in and out of the water to create a miniature temperate-zone version of a mangrove swamp. The stems were lined with purple conate flowers arranged in clumps at the base of the whorled leaves.
Behind and among the loosestrife tangle grew dogwoods of some kind. They had flowered already, but their berries had not reddened into their autumnal glory. The leaves, however, showed hints of purple to remind us that summer was fading fast.
Less common than either the dogwoods or the loosestrife were the swamp roses. These were something I had never seen before and it is perhaps a testimony to the undisturbed nature of this tract of land that they are found here. Their flowers were a pale pink that graded to white at the center where the prominent yellow anthers bobbed in the breeze. The roses were about four or five feet tall and seemed restricted to a narrow band just above the shoreline with abundant sunshine making its way under the canopy from the open expanse of the lake.
One flower that we never identified was a large yellow bloom that looked to be in the aster family, perhaps Helianthus. It was three to four feet tall and clearly herbaceous. They seemed to favor the same conditions as the swamp roses, growing among them and being about as abundant.
A really striking part of the palustrine assemblage is the buttonbush. This shrub grows with its feet in the water like the loosestrife, but it is large and woody with strikingly glossy green foliage and globular white flowers. Each bloom is actually made up of innumerable narrow blossoms radiating out from a single center. After flowering the fruit hardens into a rounded disk that gives the plant its name.
In addition to the terrestrial vegetation the broad shoals of the lake itself were filled with plants including emergents like pickerelweed, which sent its purple spikes at least a foot above the water’s surface, and water lilies, whose white blossoms floated on the surface, and bullhead lilies, their sub-globose waxy yellow flowers hovering a couple of inches above the water.
Beneath the surface the shallows were choked with submerged vegetation, a profusion of milfoils, pondweed and elodea. Many of the Web sites crowing about the excellence of the fishing in Cayuta Lake (we saw them jumping almost constantly), complained about the density of the “weeds” in the lake, which inhibited passage by motorboats in the summer.