Refuge and Renewal on Lake George

A boat floats on Lake George with Pudding Island in the distance.

It’s the fireflies, and the stars, that get me every time. Those winking lights, bobbing along the ground and filling up the night sky with their impossible density, signal an alternate reality to the artificially haloed urban evening I’m accustomed to in the San Francisco Bay Area. In this little corner of the Adirondack Mountains, other signals — cellphone, for one, or car headlights — are spotty, or altogether absent. Much of modern life is filtered out through the dense trees and mountains on the winding approach to Lake George. What remains — a place to run around in the woods — is time-tested and true.

The first summer we were together as a couple, in 1999, my husband, Matt, took me to visit his grandparents at their cottage on the northern shores of the lake, five hours north of New York City. We were young, just out of college, and would not be married for another eight years. But that little wooden cottage, and that liquid-mercury lake — framed by evergreens in the picture-postcard view from the screened-in back porch — would be a touchstone from the first visit.

We returned, year after year. Even after we moved across the country to San Francisco, we came back — sometimes in fall or winter, mostly in summer. But it’s a long pilgrimage now. On our most recent trip, in July, it took two planes and a car — the journey ballooned by hours of flight delays — to ferry our family of four to the lake. My husband said, “Never again.” Then he jumped into the sublime, silvery water. After this baptismal swim, he emerged in a different, more contemplative frame of mind. “Next year,” he said, thoughtfully, “let’s come for a month.”

We like to think of it as a kind of enchanted family hideaway in the hamlet of Silver Bay, on the border of New York and Vermont, that we hope our children will return to when they grow up. And it is but one of a handful of historic little lake towns that are integral to the character of the Adirondacks. But as in other idyllic places, encroaching development is exerting pressure on the region. Recently, in nearby Saratoga Springs — home to the famous racetrack, and to one of the only bubbling mineral springs in the country — residents fought to block a full-scale, Vegas-style casino expansion proposed for the historic town. The project is now going elsewhere. Still, despite the creep of development along the edges of the Adirondacks, there remains a kind of timelessness to be found here, deep within the storied mountain landscape.

Slide 1 of 10

Trees line the shore of Lake George in the hamlet of Silver Bay in the Adirondacks.

Credit...Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times
  • Slide 1 of 10

    Trees line the shore of Lake George in the hamlet of Silver Bay in the Adirondacks.

    Credit...Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times

When my mother-in-law was a girl, she woke to the thwack of tennis balls on the sun-baked clay courts outside her window. This was before her parents bought their seasonal cottage, back when the family stayed on the grounds of the old Y.M.C.A. resort at Silver Bay.

The main inn was built around 1899; there are tidy rows of cottages facing the water and a little harbor full of canoes and catamarans. When Matt was a boy, he spent a week or two every summer gallivanting around the Y campus. You could buy 50-cent ice cream cones at the general store, just up the hill from the spot where Matt’s parents first set eyes on each other. If you ask, my mother-in-law will proudly recite the litany of camp programs she graduated from every year of her childhood: Robins, Crickets, Wee Woozles, Woozles, Chippies, Ravens, Eagles, Falcons.

My son Teddy, 1 1/2 years old, is a Cricket, and Felix, 4, is a Wee Woozle. The same tennis courts beckon. One morning, I ran the mile from the cottage to Silver Bay on wooded, sun-glinted trails, then met up with Matt and two friends who were visiting from Boston for a riotously uncoordinated game of doubles tennis. This is a camp for grown-ups, too: sailing lessons at the boathouse, yoga classes in the gymnasium, basket-weaving and stained-glass in the crafts shop. Bluegrass circles and the occasional square dance are held in an old-fashioned resort atmosphere reminiscent of the 1960s-era Catskills of “Dirty Dancing” fame. The only concession to modernity is wireless Internet.

The local paper is The Lake George Mirror, established in 1880, “Devoted to the interests of the Queen of American Lakes.” In July, its chief preoccupations included coverage of a new electric car charging station — one of only two in Adirondack Park — and a race between paddlers and the Lake George Steamboat Company’s Minne-Ha-Ha ferry.

In the town of Hague, Lauren Parlin runs the Uptown, a restaurant that occupies what was one of the earliest general stores: a regal, peak-roofed building with big glass windows, built circa 1890. Her family has been coming to the lake for six generations. Mrs. Parlin renovated what was a taxidermy and sometime-cafe and opened the Uptown in 2005. Outside the restaurant, Adirondack chairs painted in cheerful colors sit along a creek; inside, dark wood-plank walls, fresh-cut flowers and white crockery set the stage for a shifting menu of what is in season here: farmers’ market greens with pickled carrots, egg-fried rice with ginger, strawberry rhubarb crisp.

“In part, I wanted our family to be able to spend as much time here as possible,” Mrs. Parlin said of their decision to open the restaurant. She and her husband, Ken, have three children ages 26 to 30, and they all help in some capacity. “We lived in the same house in Summit, N.J., for a long time, and my daughter Anna says that of all the places she’s lived, this feels the most like home.”

The Parlins also wanted to offer good, fresh food, a surprising rarity in this part of the Adirondacks. (Menus here tend to be strong in the chicken finger-hot dog-French fry department.) They get meat from farms in Vermont and produce from the southern Champlain Valley, and grow herbs and lettuces in the side garden. The restaurant opens for the season in June; after Labor Day, it is open for private events through mid-October.

September is when locals take over the lake and the water is warmest. “People’s perception is that fall happens in Vermont,” Mrs. Parlin said. “But this area is unbelievable in fall, and the lake is so beautiful in September. I love to see how late into the season I can swim.”

The little towns along Lake George’s northwest shores are notable for their charm and history: Ticonderoga, where the British claimed a major fort from the French; Hague, where the lake’s early boating clubs and hotels sprang up; Sabbath Day Point, where Ben Franklin stopped while trying to drum up Canadian support for colonists during the Revolutionary War. Despite their diminutive size, these hamlets aren’t places where people stroll around and run into one another; out on the water, locals say, is where that happens. The serendipity of who you’ll see and talk to out there is a great pleasure of the lake.

One afternoon, I swam to the next cove and back, and was lazily circling tiny Pudding Island on the return when I heard a boat putter nearby and someone call my name. It was a family friend of my husband’s, someone I have only seen back home in San Francisco. We chatted animatedly for a few minutes, with her sitting back on water skis, me treading water. With some trepidation, she informed me that she was at that very moment preparing to water-ski for the first time in 15 years.

Some things you never forget. We bid adieu, and after just one false start she was up and away, her father piloting the boat in curving elliptical trails across the water, the wake winging its way back to me in a gently bobbing swell.

On a stay here, my family’s moods are dictated by the lake, by turns serene, moody, playful, stormy. Cool water is inviting on a hot, still day; gray drizzle dimpling the surface tells us to bury our noses in a book. It signals us to find calm. Our phones, without cell service, are reduced to rectangular blocks heaped on the fireplace mantel. We watch sailboats zipping to and fro, swimmers lazily splashing at the beach. We walk through forests thick with birch, oak, hickory, pine.

What I remember about my very first visit to the lake was the attentiveness that Matt’s grandfather paid to the morning crossword, each square lettered with unwavering ink. Here there is time for puzzles, books, games and swims. Sometimes this place sifts all that out as well. One evening, the wind kicked up into a sudden thunderstorm, knocking out the power on our side of the lake. The dark fell upon us like a blanket, momentarily heavy and complete. Through the big picture window came lightning strikes that cut the sky into segments, wind that chopped and white-capped the water, rain that lashed the trees. The white-hot drama held our attention. We went to sleep with flashlights clutched in our hands.

The next morning, all was scrubbed clean. We took our cue from the lake and went for a swim.

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