ITHACA, N.Y. — Cayuga Lake Floating Classroom, now called Discover Cayuga Lake, has its finger on the pulse of the lake.
“We found hydrilla twice. The first time one of our interns found it, because we were preparing a plankton sample for a program,” said Bill Foster, the Discover Lake Program Director. “She looked at one, and said ‘I’ve never seen this before.’”
Encouraging people to have familiarity with the lake, having that little bit of knowledge to know if something is awry, and more importantly being able to do something about it, is how Discover Cayuga Lake hopes to engage citizen scientists.
Soon, they’ll be able to extend their programs to more individuals: they are in the process of acquiring a new boat, the M/V Teal.
“We had this amazing supporter step up and purchase the Teal for us, with the understanding that we would raise funds and purchase it from him in turn,” said Foster.
They have almost completed their $180,000 goal, and have launched A Boat for Everyone campaign to make the final push to get out on the water the first week of May.
The new 63-foot cruiser will be handicap accessible and allow Discover Cayuga Lake to work with larger groups, and support eco-tourism and volunteer lake monitoring efforts.
One of their goals, Foster said, is to give more of the community access to the boat, including a financial aid program, to help Ithacans feel like they have a personal stake in the lake itself.
Foster himself is an Ithaca native. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Engineering from Cornell University, and worked with the U.S. EPA in Philadelphia for 16 years working in water resource management.
“I got a chance to fund people doing really cool projects … while I was sitting behind a desk,” Foster said. “When the time was right, I ended up coming back this way and trying to get involved in environmental education and stuff outdoors.”
The community-driven aspect of that environmental education is of utmost importance, he said.
In the past, the Floating Classroom program has served nearly every school district in the Cayuga watershed, from Seneca Falls down to Newfield. The program has also supported student interns every summer who can focus on environmental science, but also on tourism and marketing.
With the new boat, DCL hopes to be able to bring classes from as far as Auburn or Binghamton, funded by their expanded tourism program. From sunset cruises and wine and cheese cruises, to hands-on educational programs for family groups, Foster said they plan to offer a range of public tours and charters.
“It’s going to be light eco-tourism. People will get on the boat and have a great time and a variety of experiences and get off the boat just a little bit smarter,” he said.
DCL’s main mission, however, is about creating educational opportunities. Every year, the DCL has managed a $20-25,000 scholarship for classes and community organizations to be able to charter the boat at affordable rates. As revenues increase with a larger boat, Foster also hopes to add additional opportunities through the local paddling and sailing communities.
“It’s not just about raising money for the program, it’s creating access opportunities for kids and making this lake part of their lives. The idea is they all have a common experience being on the lake,” Foster said. “If we want to sustain the lake, people have to think it’s a part of their lives, and there’s not much access to the lake for most people.”
Within five years, Foster said he would like 20 percent more of the community to feel like they have a stake in the boat.
Floating Classroom finds a home
In 2002, the first watershed management plan for Cayuga Lake, called the Restoration and Protection Plan, pulled together communities around the lake in an effort to sustain it. Among those communities was a small group of people who wanted to teach people about the lake, on the lake, based on a similar successful program in Lake George.
Dennis Montgomery purchased a boat and started a tour business to support an education program. Over time, the program grew and evolved, gaining not-for-profit fiscal sponsors including Wells College, which allowed Floating Classroom to transported 1,500 students on the lake every year since 2003.
On a Floating Classroom cruise, kids learn about the local history, and then perform mini-labs, looking at water clarity, lake temperature, and plankton samples to get a snapshot of the lake.
Since 2014, Floating Classroom/Discover Cayuga Lake has been a project of the Center for Transformative Action affiliated with Cornell. That same year, Montgomery, who was an instrumental part of the program, passed away. The program continued to charter his boat, but began looking for a replacement in 2017.
The journey from Liberty Landing to Cayuga Lake
DCL brought the M/V Teal up from Liberty Landing Marina in New Jersey Harbor. The crew spent two days coming up the Hudson River, and five days to journey through the locks of the Erie Canal.
They got all the way to the north end of Cayuga Lake to the guard gates, which can be lowered to shut down water flow. At the very last gate, it turned out that the Teal was eight inches too high to get through the guard gate to its final destination.
“After coming all the way up here and sort of worrying about how big the boat was but not having any problems, we’re like 18 inches from the lake!” Foster said.
To get through, they had to saw the top of the pilot house off of the 43-ton boat.
Currently, the boat is in back in dry dock at the north end of the lake, waiting to have its top replaced again for the summer boating season.
Despite the hiccup, Foster said the trip was so engrossing that he “took two books to read and read four pages the whole week.” He hopes that once the Teal ready to go, they can set up a yearly trip take kids down the canal to experience it for themselves.
Feature photo provided.