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Letchworth, NY: A river runs through it and keeps it singing


ATTRACTIONS: Letchworth State Park, 35 miles south of Rochester, N.Y. Park entrances are at Mount Morris, Perry, Castile, Portageville. Hours: 6 a.m.-11 p.m. daily. Cost: $6 per car; (585) 493-3600 (visitor center); (800) 456-2267 (cabin and camping reservations).

Balloons Over Letchworth, Castile, NY, offers rides at sunrise and sundown April through October. Cost: $199 per person; (585) 493-3340.

Wolcott Farms Trail Rides, Trailside Lodge near Glen Iris Inn: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Fridays through Sundays, through Columbus Day; other times by reservation. Cost: $30 for 30 minutes; $55 for 60 minutes; (585) 786-3504.

Adventure Calls Outfitters offers rafting rides 10:30 a.m. Tuesdays through Fridays June 28 to Sept. 2 for $25 per person; flexible departures Saturdays, Sundays and holidays April 2 to Nov. 13 for $27.50; (888) 270-2410.

LODGING, DINING: Glen Iris Inn, Middle Falls, Letchworth State Park, has 16 rooms. Rates: $80 to $175. Restaurant entrees: $17.95 to $22.95; (585) 493-2622.

INFO: Call Livingston County Tourism: (800) 538-7365.

Letchworth, NY: A river runs through it and keeps it singing

It's a choice locale for nature lovers

Published in the Asbury Park Press 08/14/05

Livingston County is on the edge — the western edge — of New York state's Finger Lakes region.

It has two lakes, but the water that makes it sing is the Genesee River. Flowing north from Pennsylvania, the Genesee meanders and plunges through the "Grand Canyon of the East" on its way to Rochester and Lake Ontario 35 miles away.

Letchworth State Park, astride the gorge, is one regional getaway with lots to do. Towering waterfalls kick up rainbows in their mist. Manmade stone walls vie for attention with 600-foot cliffs. Deer peer from the edge of the woods. Beavers work the edge of the river and herons build nests in tall trees.

People get in rhythm with nature here. Slow trail rides on horseback, paddling through stretches of friendly white water and hikes down paths to the river's edge put you in touch with what's right in the world. At sunrise and sundown, you can float above it all in a hot air balloon.

My day began before sunup when I checked with Balloons over Letchworth at 4:35 a.m. to find out if the weather would let passengers go up.

"Good morning!" a recorded voice announced. "It looks like we're going to have a beautiful day for a balloon ride. See you at 6 a.m."

I was staying in Geneseo, a town seven miles from Letchworth, but almost an hour's drive from the launch site. The narrow park is 17 miles long and the speed limit is 35 mph. I headed out in the dark for the park's northern Mount Morris entrance, radio blaring to keep me awake.

My eyes caught movement to my right, then to my left. The moon was full and so were the woods — full of deer. They were everywhere.

I turned off the radio, opened the windows and slowed to a crawl to take in the sounds, smells and feel of the place. Enchantment was in the air.

Free as a bird
Shortly before 6 a.m., I arrived at Balloons over Letchworth.

This was my second attempt to float above the area. On an earlier trip, I was thwarted by bad weather. But today was perfect and trucks with equipment rolled in promptly at 6 a.m.

Eight of us watched as big fans inflated two 450-pound balloons. Then, we climbed into baskets — partitioned to distribute our weight — and with a roar of propane torches, rose into the now blue sky, watching trucks and people below shrink before our eyes. Safe in our nest, with no sense of swaying, we hovered above Middle Falls as the Genesee River plunged over the 110-foot precipice.

Once in the air, the wind has its way with you. There's no steering a hot-air balloon. If it tracks the river gorge, owner Sean Quigley dipped down next to the falls. This day, we moved noiselessly above trees to a ridge that fell away to a breathtaking expanse of fields striped with bean plants.

As we wandered with the river, company vans followed on the road below. After about an hour, Quigley found a freshly mowed field and set down.

We helped the crew squish air out of the balloons, punched them back into their bags and rode a van back to the launch site. Quigley popped the cork on a bottle of champagne and we toasted a beautiful morning.

Quigley said that tradition dates back to the 1780s in France when some men filled their balloon with hot air, went aloft and soon landed in a farmer's field.

"Afraid of evil spirits, the farmers pitchforked the balloon and ruined it. The next time the men went up, they took champagne and the farmers cheered," Quigley said.

Geocaching for novices

Cheering is what my husband, Herb, and I did when we found our first cache, a box of trinkets hidden in the woods. The sport of geocaching was new to us and so were the handheld GPS (Global Positioning System) receivers we carried into the woods for a treasure hunt in hiking boots.

Here's how it works. Geocachers pack stuff (everything from pens to rubber bugs) in a container, hide it and post the location's GPs coordinates on the Internet. Then, other geocachers search for the quarry. Simple idea, but it's not easy.

Here's how it works. Geocachers pack stuff (everything from pens to rubber bugs) in a container, hide it and post the location's GPs coordinates on the Internet. Then, other geocachers search for the quarry. Simple idea, but it's not easy.

With help from park manager Roland Beck, we found two caches. One was buried in a hollow tree. The other was in a film canister behind a reflector on a park fence.

According to the geocaching Web site, there are 187,082 caches hidden in 216 countries and the number grows daily. Beck said 30 are in Letchworth.

Of course, you can take great hikes here without gizmos. There are 65 miles of trails. But geocaching may be the magic that reconnects a generation of game players with the great outdoors.

"Two boys were looking for a cache the other day and came upon fawns that had just been born," Beck said.

Happy trails

We found colts, not fawns, when we pulled up to Wolcott Farms' corral near the park's Trailside Lodge for a horseback ride through the woods.

My horse, Bonnie, had given birth to TJ a week before. He followed her on our 40-minute trail ride, nursing whenever he got the chance.

Tina Wolcott led the ride from atop a huge gray horse, encouraging us to talk to ours.

"It helps you relax and keeps them from getting bored," she said.

She also had good advice every time we headed down a hill.

"Lean back, heels down, toes to the horse's nose," she yelled, which kept us from inadvertently kicking the horses' sides and making them run.

Running came later, when we donned life jackets and boarded Adventure Calls Outfitters' rubber rafts to run some of the Genesee's more gentle rapids.

"Picnics to go"

The park is named for William Pryor Letchworth, who experienced enchantment the first time he saw rainbows in the mist of the falls in 1858. He built a home here and called it Glen Iris after the Greek goddess of rainbows.

His home is now the elegant Glen Iris Inn, with lustrous parquet floors and unique lithopane windows he brought back from Europe. In the heart of the park next to Middle Falls, the inn has 16 guest rooms and a fine dining room open for lunch, dinner and "picnics to go." The menu capitalizes on a bounty of regional fruit and vegetables, including cranberry almond bread pudding with vanilla custard sauce.

Letchworth donated his 1,000 acres to the state of New York in 1907, launching what is now a 15,000-acre park. His legacy also pays homage to Mary Jemison. Known as the "white woman of the Genesee," Jemison was kidnapped by Shawnee warriors when she was a teenager, then adopted by the Seneca people of western New York. She chose to remain with the Senecas for the rest of her life, raising seven children from two Seneca husbands along the river here.

Two years before she died in 1833, Jemison moved to a reservation near Buffalo. Forty-one years later, moved by James Seaver's 1824 account of her life, Letchworth brought her back to her land.

Jemison is buried on the bluffs above Middle Falls beneath a statue depicting her journey to the Genesee Valley with her second child, Thomas, on her back.

Peter Jemison, an eighth-generation descendent of Thomas, now manages the Ganondagan Historic Site 40 miles away in Victor, NY It preserves and interprets Seneca traditions.

As I headed home, a whimsical Paul McCartney song called "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey" played on the radio. Its familiar chorus celebrates "hands across the water" and "heads across the sky." It was the perfect soundtrack for this locale.