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Massive bonfires ring Great Sacandaga Lake, marking the end of summer.  (Photo:  Brian Mann)
Massive bonfires ring Great Sacandaga Lake, marking the end of summer. (Photo: Brian Mann)

On Great Sacandaga Lake, summer ends in a "Ring of Fire"

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We all know that North Country summers end in ice. Labor Day weekend gives way to an all-too-short autumn, to longer nights, and then to the first snow.

But on the shore of Great Sacandaga Lake, in the southern Adirondacks, locals and seasonal visitors celebrate the end of summer with fire.

Every Labor Day weekend for fifteen years, hundreds of people gather on the shore, building massive bonfires and holding impromptu firework shows.

Brian Mann was on the beach for this year's Ring of Fire and send this audio postcard.

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Reported by

Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

Sylvia Parker's mom came up with the idea of starting a ring of fire celebration on Great Sacandaga Lake.  (Photo:  Brian Mann)
Sylvia Parker's mom came up with the idea of starting a ring of fire celebration on Great Sacandaga Lake. (Photo: Brian Mann)
I find Sylvia Parker in her cottage near the beach on Great Sacandaga Lake

“Come on, this way," she says.  "It's warm — a warm day!"

It feels like high summer outside, as guests and visitors begin arriving for the big celebration.  A few hours from now, this 120-mile long shoreline will be transformed.

"I'm just amazed at how it's grown over the years," Sylvia says.  "I've counted over a hundred fires from what I can see, and I know I can't see all of them."

Sylvia says her mom was visiting another lake in Central New York back in the 1980s and saw a smaller ring of fire celebration.  So in 1988, they decided to try to start a new tradition here.

Sylvia drew up the first hand-made posters publicizing the celebration in 1988.  She and her girlfriends distributed the flyers in lakeside communities.  (Photo:  Brian Mann)
Sylvia drew up the first hand-made posters publicizing the celebration in 1988. She and her girlfriends distributed the flyers in lakeside communities. (Photo: Brian Mann)
"We made this poster up and then we traveled around the lake," she recalls.  "In every grocery store, every bar, every pole that we could find, we put one  of these signs up."

To say the idea caught on would be an understatement. 

A mile or so down the shore, I find David Young putting the finishing touches on a mountain of wood that he says will send flames towering into the night sky.

"Probably a fifty-foot plus fire."  His bonfire is built of scrap wood, old palettes and parts of a trailer he dismantled. 

Right next door, Gary Hanson is admiring the woodpile that sits on the beach in front of his camp – imagine a giant teepee made of logs and scrap.

"There is like 110 wood palettes and trees and limbs," he says.

It don't get much better than this, man. When you got all your friends and family around?
Ed Norman is picnicking next to a wood stack that’s decorated with little odds and ends.  He says his family uses their bonfire fire each year to mark more than the end of summer.

"Everybody here has to bring a piece of wood or something to throw on the fire, either something that happened terrible to them or good.  We throw it on the fire, touch it off, and it burns up."

Dusk settles over the big lake.  It’s gorgeous, with a single sailboat set against the far hills.  Sylvia Parker watches from her beach as the first bonfires flare up on the far shore. 

She bends to light her own fire and people cheer.  Back down the shore, those mountains of wood are all lit – like a chain of signal fires, crackling and popping.

Glenn Vaillaincourt stands back, admiring the pyre he built the way an artist admires a canvas.

[Note:  Glenn Vaillaincourt's name has been corrected.]

"It's smoking hot right now, many.  I sweating!  I'm melting!"

Families launch Chinese lanterns into the night sky.  (Photo:  Brian Mann)
Families launch Chinese lanterns into the night sky. (Photo: Brian Mann)
The bonfires are the big attraction, but there are also impromptu firework shows up and down the lake – and I find Ed Norman’s family launching Chinese lanterns, glowing red and green and yellow into the night sky.

"It don't get much better than this, man," Ed says.  "When you got all your friends and family around?  Look at this!  Look at the people!"

People here love the fact that this all just kind of happens.  There’s no planning committee, no real organization. 

Sylvia Parker’s mom got the ball rolling, but a decde and a half later, the lake just kind of throws its own party and people come with coolers of beer and truckloads of wood.

The only downside is that when the bonfires die out and the embers cool, summer here on Great Sacandaga will officially be over. 

People will pack up their swim trunks and sunscreen, close up their beach cottages, and head for home.  

Standing with a beer in his hand, Glenn Vaillaincourt tries to be philosophical when I ask him if he's ready for summer to be over.

"Not really," he laughs.  "But you know, all good things come to an end."

 

Note: The Associated Press reported after this story was filed that: Rick O'Dell, owner of Sunset Bay Vacation Resorts on Sacandaga Lake will "no longer take part in the traditional "Ring of Fire" after state officials doused his plans for an end-of-season bonfire last weekend... he canceled his bonfire after officers from the state Department of Environmental Conservation told him he couldn't light his huge pile of wood because it was too big."

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