5. The Rise and Fall
At Sandy Pond, the 1950s began with a jolt. A couple had purchased the beach. They built a dirt road from the small bridge to a parking lot and charged admission, Mrs. Owner collecting.
My mother didn't like the woman's grin. "It's evil," she said.
We joked that she probably lived under the bridge and we labeled the entrance fee “a troll’s toll.”
My mother entertained the idea of a boycott. But resistance was useless.
Times had changed.
OVERNIGHT, Sandy Pond Beach – renamed Sandy Island Beach – became THE place to go. On weekends, the parking lot was jammed with cars from Syracuse and Oswego. Another parking lot opened, closer to the bridge, at the base of a tall sand dune. It quickly filled.
Down the road, yet another parking lot opened. Still not enough space to handle the swimmers-come-lately. Many were forced to abandon their cars along the road, like the good old days. The walk to the beach might be longer than ever, but not as difficult, thanks to the dirt road that had replaced the shifting-sand trail.
Besides, now it didn’t matter how inconvenient it was for some. They had to go to Sandy Island Beach – especially if they were teenagers.
A season or two later the parking lot by the beach had company – a restaurant, restrooms and a small motel. In the process the beach became an obstacle course, impossible to walk without stepping on people or into food.
The Disposable Age had arrived. Trash barrels were quickly filled to overflowing with cans, plastic bags, wrappers, paper cups and food leftovers. The word went out to flying insects everywhere: All you can eat at Sandy Pond!
There also were lifeguards – and a set of rules.
But paradise wasn’t lost. It had moved – about a mile up the beach. There you could be alone at the base of a sandhill, no lifeguards and no rules. The further north you walked, the wider – and lonelier – the beach became.
Even away from the crowd, however, change was brewing. For years, there had been a single cottage on the sandhills, one that overlooked the lake. For the relative few who visited the beach in the old days, that cottage was a curiosity, not an inspiration.
But now Sandy Pond was attracting thousands. Some of them were bound to think a sandhill-based cottage was a mighty fine idea.
SANDY ISLAND BEACH remained wildly popular for several years. My mother quickly got over her hurt; she and my father continued to vacation at Sandy Pond.
In 1953 it became more than ever my summer home away from home; my friends now included licensed drivers. In 1954 I got my license. My friends and I would go to the beach every weekend, with dates or without. It was high school heaven, fondly mentioned two years later by many who signed my senior yearbook.
My parents’ streak of consecutive years at Sandy Pond ended in 1961 when my visit was limited to a weekend leave from Camp Kilmer, N.J., where I was stationed during my six months active duty.
By the next summer I’d be a feature writer at the Akron (Ohio) Beacon Journal. Nine more years would pass before I saw Sandy Pond again. It wouldn’t be a pretty sight.
The way I heard it (and this may be as inaccurate as a five-day weather forecast), Sandy Island Beach was a victim of the era, ruined by “hippies” who moved into a small trailer park that opened up at the end of the lower parking lot.
One of the beach owners died and his widow, with help from one of the trailer park residents, tried to carry on, but vandalism became a problem. The woman sold it to another couple, who discovered the beach was more trouble than they were able to handle.
Just who those “hippies” were, I don’t know. In those days people were so labeled for lots of silly reasons. Their live-in ended the night someone torched the motel, the restaurant and a building that housed a dressing area and restrooms.
When the firemen left that evening, Sandy Island Beach was pronounced dead.
[NOTE: An email from Stephen Kappesser, who lived at Sandy Pond, explains what really happened to Sandy Island Beach.]
IT'S 1971. I’m living in Rhode Island with my first wife and our two young children. That summer, during a visit to my parents’ home in Solvay, I’m overtaken by an irresistible impulse – I drive my family to Sandy Pond.
It’s a perfect beach day – until we arrive. Around the parking lot is a Sandy Pond Stonehenge – blackened ruins of burned-out buildings. The smell of charcoal is everywhere. Beyond, the once-beautiful, white sand beach, is a sea of broken glass, cans and pools of trash around rusting trash barrels.
I make a brief inspection, we leave, and all the way back to Solvay I bounce an apology off my wife’s “Yeah, right!” expression, then babble on about once upon a time.
A year later, my sister, God bless her, manages to go me one better. She talks my parents into returning to the big cottage for two weeks in August. She’s married and the mother of three-year-old Brian, who makes his Sandy Pond debut. My brother-in-law has to work, but he’ll spend two weekends at the cottage. My family is invited, too. Okay, says my wife, but only for a brief visit. Very brief.
Operating out of the cottage is an immediate plus. My kids have their first fishing experience. It’s fun, because every fish excites them, no matter how small. It’s sunny and hot, making the beach a good idea, regardless of its condition. We go with fingers crossed. Pleasant surprise. Sandy Island Beach isn’t dead, after all. You still can’t walk barefoot through the soft sand, but a lot of cleaning has been done by volunteers, including local high school students.
The land remains unsold; I have no idea whether we are there legally. Frankly, I don’t care. My son and I go for a long walk; the upper beach is as clean as ever. We also visit my favorite sandhill; it looks even better than ever. The poison oak that sent two of my cousins home has disappeared. The hill is pure sand. (I didn't realize that, in this case, looks were deceiving. The lack of vegetation was a bad thing, a reason the hill would almost disappear over the next 20 years.)
However, my son is impressed. For sure, he’s hooked on Sandy Pond.
When we moved to New England, my wife expected vacations on Cape Cod or Block Island. Kennebunkport, Maine, perhaps. Or Martha’s Vineyard. But what did she get in 1973. And ‘74 . . . and ‘75?
Grounds for divorce.
TWEET! Another time out! This is for the many people unfamiliar with the Great Lakes. People such as a former Providence Journal co-worker who, when he went to Chicago for the first time, expected to look out at Lake Michigan and see what was on the other side.
The Great Lakes are like oceans. Stand on top of a sandhill at Sandy Pond and look due west. Buffalo and Toronto are out there somewhere, but all you’ll see is water. Lake Ontario is 193 miles long.
Also, it’s seldom flat. There are waves that range from tiny to watch-out-for-the-undertow. I like a rough lake, with waves in the 3-to-6 foot range; my sister prefers it calm. During the course of any two-week vacation we’d both be satisfied.
Which reminds me of my father’s favorite Sandy Pond warning: “Be careful! Last year I saw a bunch of people get sucked away. They found ‘em a few days later in Toronto!”
A complete lie, but one that worked.
It would be foolish to take a surfboard to Sandy Pond, though some have done it. Without success, I’m sure. However, the body surfing is terrific. The waves break far from shore, then rise and break again several times over a series of sand bars.
For my money, the Great Lakes enjoy two big advantages over oceans: (1) freshwater is a lot more refreshing than salt, and (2) the sand is . . . well, simply sand, screened and sifted by Mother Nature. Dig deep into Lake Ontario sand and you won’t encounter creepy, crawly critters.
Finally, from the eastern shore of Lake Ontario are the best sunsets in the world. Sunsets that will break your heart. Trust me. You cannot top them.