Her name was Helen, and she loved the Lake.
In the early 1950’s, with a bachelor’s degree from SUNY Brockport, she was a physical education teacher at Monroe High School in Rochester. She worked summers as a counselor at Camp Onanda, the YWCA camp on the west side of Canandaigua Lake, now known as Onanda Park. Helen was the camp waterfront director, and in that role, she would lead a group of young girls eight miles by canoe to West River at the South end of the lake where they would spend the night camping among the mosquitos and other creatures that live in that wild, swampy landscape. No cell phones and limited comforts. Then eight miles back the next day.
One day in the summer of 1955, a young man drove from Rochester to Camp Onanda to take her for an early morning breakfast – their first date. She would fall in love with the young man, Fred, who would become her husband the next year. They would raise five children together.
In 1966, Fred took Helen to a bluff near Seneca Point, a few miles south of Camp Onanda, to show her land he wanted to buy and build a cottage for the family. She looked at the steep cliff and thought of her four young children. “No, thank you”, she said. Fred bought the land nonetheless, with a new vision of building a lake side resort to complement the ski area he helped found just a few miles away. That bluff is now home to Bristol Harbour Village, in the Town of South Bristol. Ironically, they would soon live on that bluff with their children and reside there for nearly 50 years. There she taught her family to love the Lake.
In the late 1960’s, like many rural towns around the Finger Lakes, South Bristol had no zoning code and no laws to prevent the proposed resort. However, there was strong public opposition, and soon the Town, along with many across the Finger Lakes, moved to adopt local zoning ordinances that would regulate development along their shorelines. Bristol Harbour, however, was grandfathered and approvals were granted by the New York State DEC after meeting strict requirements for wastewater treatment.
The public opposition also led to citizen groups forming to stop Bristol Harbour. At one point, Fred offered to sell the land to a group of neighbors for what he paid for it, but they declined. One such citizen group became Canandaigua Lake Pure Waters Association, a parent organization to today’s CLWA.
Helen’s simple “No, thank you” in 1966 would have an impact on events that influenced regional zoning regulations and the evolution of groups interested in the health of watersheds across the Finger Lakes. Her decision also led to a beloved waterfront community and golf course, both enjoyed by thousands over the years.
Her name was Helen. She was my mom, and she taught us how to love the Lake.
In Honor of Helen O’Hara Sarkis
August 6, 1931 – January 31, 2022