Lake association looks to raise repair funds
By Zachary Matson
Most mornings at the Garnet Lake camp Robert Wolfe owned with his wife, Barbara, he woke early and rowed a sleek sculling boat up and down the placid lake, passing dead tree snags surrounded by the lush slopes of Crane Mountain, Mount Blue and the rising hills of Wilcox Lake Wild Forest.
The couple, who lived in New Jersey, had scoured the Northeast for a summer cottage until landing on a 100-acre parcel on the lake’s western shore. Robert was an avid reader and arrived at camp with a stack of magazines, newspapers and books, sat on the screened porch and puffed on his pipe as he read. Even as his health declined, Barbara recalled, Robert paddled.
“He liked the privacy, he liked the quiet, the water was calm and smooth like glass,” she said.
During decades of visits, Barbara and her husband hardly noticed the small dam at the north outlet they drove across to their cabin.
“We sort of just took it for granted that it was there and it was functioning,” she said.
State inspectors rate the dam as “high hazard” due to downstream risks along Mill Creek; it needs more spillway capacity. If it fails, it could flood nearly two dozen structures and disrupt road and bridge access between Johnsburg and Garnet Lake.
Moonlighting as dam administrators, volunteers with the Garnet Lake Conservation Association, which has owned the dam since 1957, have worked with state and local officials to plan improvements expected to top $3 million.
After Robert Wolfe died in March 2020, his wife and goddaughter canoed his cherished lake to spread his ashes. To memorialize her husband, Barbara donated $500,000 to repair what will become the Robert J. Wolfe Memorial Dam.
Garnet Lake Dam is small, essentially three culverts topped by a town road and bridge, a 10-foot cascade over the 25-foot-wide spillway. The Garnet Lake Conservation Association purchased the dam for $1 in 1957.
Where the 306-acre Garnet Lake now rests used to be a pair of ponds connected by Mill Creek. Logging interests dammed the stream in the mid-1800s for log transport, and by the end of the century, the surrounding hillsides were denuded. In the early 1900s, the lake started to become a popular recreation destination.
“If you see photos of Mill Creek, it’s much smaller and much less inviting,” said Candace O’Connor, a Missouri-based author who has long visited Garnet Lake and wrote “Garnet Lake: A Gem of the Adirondacks.” “You can easily see that the dam made possible some of the recreation development.”
The Maxam family, which owned a hotel and a half mile of shoreline, owned the dam for most of the first half of the 20th century. The family raised the water level and renamed it Garnet Lake as a marketing ploy. During a 1947 storm, the Maxam children stayed home from school to help fill sandbags as residents worked to bolster the dam.
“The water was extremely high, and the situation was dangerous,” Dorothy Maxam Mosher recalled to O’Connor. “At the end of a successful day, we went home exhausted.”
Roy Keats moved to Garnet Lake in 1983, two years after the Army Corps reported the dam did not meet safety standards and suggested removal. At the time, DEC pressed the Garnet Lake dam owners to develop a backup spillway. “I didn’t have an inkling that there were any issues,” said Keats, who chaired the lake association’s dam committee. “Shortly after, I realized the state was complaining, and I’ve been dealing with it ever since.”
An engineer with a camp on the lake volunteered a design plan, and property owners gave up a sliver of land to make room for the auxiliary spillway in 1989. The dam has relied on the auxiliary spillway to handle flood waters nearly two dozen times in the past 20 years.
The state’s latest standards require the main spillway to accommodate larger events, and the association volunteers have been working with DEC since 2014 to develop upgrades, perhaps a near replacement of the dam and bridge. Coordinating with the state, Johnsburg, which owns the road, and Thurman, which contains much of the lake, has not always been easy for the association volunteers.
“I think DEC in a way understands our predicament,” said Anne Bernat, president of the association. “It’s complex and they understand we can’t do it by ourselves.”
While navigating the lake in a small fishing boat, Joe Bernat follows the old channel of Mill Creek. If he veers too far off course, he risks bumping into underwater rocks or snagging on the ghostly remains of an old forest. Bernat estimated as many as 1,000 tree stumps in the lake’s secluded south bay await unsuspecting vessels.
“Things get exciting when you hit one of the stumps and aren’t expecting it,” he said. “I know where the channel is. The only streambed is right underneath us.”
The flowed lands offer a range of habitats, and as Bernat toured the lake on a clear day in June, a pair of nesting loons occupied a small rocky shoal. One attended to the nest while the other dove underwater a few yards away.
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