Tuesday, August 17, 2004

A long & nice day at Lake Owassa

Saturday was long & very nice day at Lake Owassa. Small lake - maybe a mile & 1/2 long - way up in northwest jersey, not long a ride except we were caught in traffic for the big Sussex State Fair. A WFMU DJ friend has been renting a lakefront cottage up there for the past few summers. Really is charming place, on the side of a hill so that the front door (from the road) enters a nice size family room, off that a small bedroom, kitchen & bath, & the other bedroom is downstairs. Slate steps lead down to the Lake, where there's an old-fashioned wooden screenhouse & a dock. Similar houses all around the lake, a few bigger & winterized, some smaller, most almost hidden back in the trees. It took me back to an older New Jersey, an earlier time in my life. Because of the threatening weather for later in the day not many people showed up. But the weather was fine, just not sunny. I spent a lot of time sitting on the dock with my legs in the cool water. Later, DJ Tamar offered to row me across the lake to a swampy area, & as we went across I was sitting in the stern holding a cocktail. Tamar didn't even break a sweat. Motor boats & water skiing allowed, jet skis not allowed, no motors permitted after dark. If it had been hot I would've gone for a swim. I'm not keen on lake water; I can sense the presence of protozoa. There were children to keep things moving along, Later, us grownups sitting in chairs in the dark by a glassy lake, unfortunately the radio music never stopped long enough to enjoy the crickets, & the frogs I know had to be croaking out there. I drove up from Jersey City with Chris T, who offered to drive me all the way home so we stayed a little longer. The rain started about 15 minutes into our ride home after 11, but we made it OK. No Hurricane Charley.

I would find life at most lakes dull after a few days, but with the big fair up there substituting for a boardwalk, & the roadside stands with fresh corn & other goodies, & a little diner up the road for breakfast, some rummage shops here & there, & the lovely little cottage with the familiar musty scent of a place that's shuttered all winter, & the quiet nights ("We all sleep late," said the DJ's wife), & the small sailboat & rowboat & canoe, & that screenhouse, I think it could be a tolerable week.

I'd never heard of Lake Owassa New Jersey until few summers ago. Lake Owassa is next to Culvers Lake, which I did know about, mainly for the odd Sunday services conducted from a barge, organ & all. On a map, both of those lakes look like ponds compared to Mohawk & Hopatcong. Butfrom its shore, Lake Owassa is large enough & very lovely, a reminder of when northwest NJ really was isolated. Before Interstate 80, when Route 15 was a two lane road (now Rt 181) winding up past Woodport cove of Lake Hopatcong, the "new" development of Lake Shawnee, to the left hand turn down a steep drive to neat Lake Mohawk, where my grandparents had a lakeside chalet among hundreds of larger & smaller chalets on the surrounding shores & hills, each discreetly separated by trees & natural rock. The five mile long man-made lake was conceived, designed & created by a single visionary developer as an upper middle-class summer ghetto. It was a very long drive to Lake Mohawk in the 50's & 60's, we never stayed overnight. I'd rarely gone past Sparta through dairy farm country up to Newton. To this day I have never been to Stokes State Forest. Now Rt. 15 is a four laner to Sparta, & there's not much scenery until you're past Newton. It doesn't feel at all like "Lake country" anymore. But Lake Owassa still does. A privately-owned "association" lake, serious development ended there years ago at under 300 houses. The large majority of those houses are still seasonal, & there are plenty of the old fashioned Pre-WWII lake cottages with their dockside screen "houses." The mustiness of the cottage I visited, common to all vacation places - ocean & lake - that are closed up for the winter, induced a flood of childhood images.

I was surprised to learn that all but the top 2 1/2 feet of Owassa is a very old natural lake sitting in a glacial depression. The rest of it was created by an active beaver dam that apparently has been there for at least 125 years. There is no human dam at all; just some flumes built to control lake depth. The beaver dam is in a swamp at the south end of the lake. Unfortunately, I only got to the edge of the swamp via rowboat; one has to portage any boat over a narrow wooden boardwalk connecting the east & west shores of the lake. If humans had not taken control of the lake, much more of Owassa would probably have silted into marsh by now. In my lifetime, I've actually seen smaller ponds disappear altogether by this process.

Oddly, despite it being a natural lake rather than a flooded valley like Lake Mohawk, the current version of Hopatcong, & all of Jersey's reservoirs, the major legal problems encountered by Owassa residents were over prior ownership of the land under the lake. But the major benefit of Owassa being entirely natural is that the owners' association is not liable for any downstream damage should the beaver dam fail. & so many famiies have been at Owassa for generations that there is a continuity & a tradition of beginning & ending the season that no longer exists at Jersey's larger lakes & over an ever-increasing portion of the ocean & bayshores, which are now suburban communities. Owassa opens summer as a community before the 4th of July with an Association meeting & sailboat races & ends it around Labor Day with the same two events.

I have never been much of a lake person. I was introduced to both lake & seashore vacation ways as a child, through the then elite middle-class culture of Lake Mohawk - my grandfather had been one of the first in on that deal - & the generally egalitarian beaches & boardwalks of Atlantic City & Ocean City NJ. Lake Mohawk was simply too quiet, had too many old people, too many "rich" kids, icky muck on the bottom, no tides, no shells, no big waves, no crowds, & everyone there loved that year after year you were with the same people, & the people were all approximately like you, which meant affluent, middle-class mainstream white protestants. Ocean City had a good deal of this sense of entitlement also, but it really was at the core a small "city" & you got on the beach without needing a personal invitation, or even paying admission at that time. Of course, my love of boardwalks is legend, & that love has a lot to do with my grandmother, who as a young Irish colleen traveled by train from Philly to Atlantic City because you didn't need to bring a lot of money or be a protestant to have fun there. It made such an impression on her that she retired to A.C. in the late 50's, & I believe she never saw the rundown old resort as it really was (you get a strong taste of this in the Louis Malle film, "Atlantic City" & in Bob Rafelson's "King of Marvin Gardens.")

Lake Owassa is so much more modest than Lake Mohawk. Mohawkers (as they referred to themselves) looked down their noses at Hopatcong, with its amusement arcades, public beaches, hanburger shacks, taverns & bait shops, so they probably felt the same about all the minor private lakes that had functional "cabins" rather than swiss chalets, & clubhouses rather than country clubs. According to my mom, Mohawk even had a lively winter scene, which required some kind of effective central heating in one's second home during the Great Depression. Regardless of what it now costs to buy into a Lake Owassa, waterfront or uphill, on the rare occasions property is for sale, the many original cottages show that it is not a community comprised only of wealthy people. The cottage my friend rented had hardly changed since it was built. Kitchen & bathroom appliances had been improved, although both spaces were completely utilitarian. It had a big, ancient, still-working, wood-burning furnace (perhaps there was an electric hot water heater), wood paneling, steep slippery slate steps leading to the lake, & an old floating dock. No rustic fireplace. No additions. No large double-pane picture window overlooking the lake. I didn't see an air-conditioner. I loved the place. It occurred to me that the snobbery of Lake Mohawk, & my boring grandparents, & their boring neighbors with the even larger chalets & pseudo-cabins, & the stuck-up kids who hung out at the "village" (where the diving boards were), had in fact ruined lakes for me. The only lake experience I ever enjoyed, aside from Boy Scout camp, was the one time my dad rented a place for a week at big Lake Wallenpaupak in the Poconos along with a motor boat & water skis. I slept on a screen porch & met some ordinary kids from a nearby semi-permanent trailer camp who like me were into patching up giant truck tubes (free then, expensive now), flipping baseball cards, & collecting deposit bottles to feed our addictions to Nehi soda. The next time I stayed at that Lake, I was in a house back in the woods, miles from a main road, without a boat or a car, tormented each night by the lights & sounds of an arcade on the far shore.

Add YOUR comments here

hi my grandmother has a summer house on lake owassa . i spenet my whole childhood on the lake . i loved it and wish we still had the house
Oh how wonderful to read about Lake Owassa!! My family spent many summers renting one of those "cottages". When I was 12 my parents bought our own home at the lake. I could sit for hours telling stories of the great times and memories. I only wish we too still had"our" house there. I can even remember when all of us "kids" would walk out to the little church every Sunday to attend mass. I'll only tell the good things we did!!!!! What memories!!!!!!!!!!!
my family has had property on Lake Owassa for over 50 years. I love it there!
where on the lake do you have property or houses" we lived next to public dock on the east shore. loved it. went every summer 11/10/08
I just moved to Lake Owassa this past July 1st of 2009, and I love my little house, it has a fireplace, but no closets, that's okay though, because it's a 2 bedroom and i'm only 1, therefore I have a walkin closet! and an enclosed porch where i can keep an extra couch that fold out to a bed for company if they decide to stay over. I have nice heavy drapes to separate the porch from the living room to conserve heat, which can be tied back when I do have company out there. I love this little house! I want to stay here forever! I'm not far from the lake, my landlord's house in right on the lake, and he said I can use the lake and his rowboat any time i like! How nice is that? It's nice and peaceful. I live alone and if I feel like yelling at a tv show, there are no neighbors close enough to bother! It's the best!

Well, if you wanna come and visit this Lake, you won't find one better, that's for sure!
We lived on East Shore in the cove,Cottage Avenue. Who are you?
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