Throughout 2019, in celebration of Adirondack Life’s 50th anniversary, we’re sharing an article per week from our archives—one for each year since 1970. In 2003, Mary Thill explored the unique floating-dock culture of Star Lake.
At some point in prehistory, hominids came to water not to drink or to fish, but merely to enjoy the meeting of liquid and land. The edge was not enough; soon they stepped onto fallen trees or flat rocks for better views. Eventually they launched, floating out on wood.
The tendency to seek pleasure near and on the water crosses all cultures. Docks evolved from utilitarian places into sunbathing platforms. Sometimes they left shore entirely. Cleopatra and Henry VIII traveled via elaborate barges, and Huck Finn found society most tolerable from a raft in the middle of the Mississippi.
In the microcosm of Star Lake, this evolution has coiled into an informal subculture. Here, docks are boats. For at least forty years, residents on this northwestern Adirondack lake have pulled up the stakes on their shoreline structures, clamped on an outboard and motored into the lake-flower boxes, barbecues and all.
“It’s just such a relaxed life,” says Helen Witters, whose late husband, Richard, may have been the first Star Laker to put a motor on a dock, in 1962. “You can take the whole family out, and you don’t go very fast.”
Star Lake has the schisms typical of any North Country waterfront community; some people love Jet Skis, some detest them. But all agree that homemade dock/rafts are the best way to go. About half of the 140 camps have some sort of rustic aqua-patio. “In fact, you’ll notice there aren’t any large boats on the lake any more,” says Pat Sovay, who grew up here.
On a hot August Saturday, dozens of ungainly wooden squares meander the two lobes of the 237- acre lake with the unhurried dignity of hippos. One Jet Ski, a couple of canoes and a few motorboats are the only other craft.
Richard Witters, the local pharmacist, was architect of many early rafts. He got the idea after visiting a friend who added horsepower to his dock on nearby Sylvia Lake, Helen Witters recalls. The phenomenon apparently didn’t catch on there like it did once exported to Star Lake. Today, Mike Sovay, an education professor at the State University of New York in Potsdam, is the main supplier. He’s built twenty-five of the vessels for neighbors, all of them twelve by sixteen feet. The Witters’ raft floated on discarded maple-syrup barrels, but Styrofoam has provided buoyancy since the mid-sixties. Sovay stacks two wooden frames: a lower compartment to hold flotation, plus an upper deck where people can stand without getting their feet wet. Most putter along at about three miles per hour, pushed by five- to ten-horsepower engines.
Sovay’s own dock is a surprisingly stable double-decker with a curving slide. “I just wish I could’ve built this when I was sixteen. Oh my god, it would have been the greatest toy! It still is the greatest toy!” he says with a grin while loading the cooler for a day on the water with his wife, Johnann, brother Pat and some friends. He sits in a plastic lawn chair and reaches one hand down to steer; the other holds a Laban’s protected by a foam holder that says, “If it’s tourist season, why can’t we shoot them?”
Star Lake is a social place, but it’s not ruled by the seersucker and cocktails-at-five etiquette some shoreline circles revolve around. It’s more serendipitous: Get on the dock, pull up the moorings, latch on to another raft for a drink or a swim, and float away for a change of scenery and company.
The sandbar, an underwater plateau, is the lake’s equivalent of a village green. Here, Mike Sovay and his crew disembark and set a plastic table and chairs in the shin-deep water. Their friend Susan Avery paddles over in a canoe with a bag of alpaca wool to card as she visits with Johnann. Boys play football, splashing and diving to make catches. Bo and Marty Ritchings tie their barge to the Sovays’ and turn up some Lynyrd Skynyrd and Foreigner on the stereo. The Ritchings’ raft features a built-in foam-insulated cooler cleverly concealed inside a bench. A little later the local undertaker, Steve Hawley (aka Digger), and his family attach their raft, painted gray to match their camp. Bo and Marty’s nephew Chris Ritchings and his friend Jeff Beausoleil hitch another platform to the cluster, and it’s a party. They pass the afternoon catching up, swimming, drinking beer and walking across the sandbar to visit neighbors on other rafts.
Classified by the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles as “homemade boats,” these craft have perplexed a few sheriff’s deputies sent to inspect them prior to issuing registration numbers. “They didn’t know what to make of it at first,” Sovay says. “Usually now, though, when they see my name [on the application as the builder], they know what to expect.” One Star Laker hints that the hard-to-define vessels could cause headaches for other permitters: “You pull this bad boy [up to shore] and you got yourself an instant dock.” (Adirondack Park Agency regulations allow maximum eight-foot-wide docks.)
Star Lake’s big hotel and business district have long faded, but on a fine summer day, the heart of town is easy to spot floating serenely on the clear blue water.