Spending time in the past, the present, and the future of the glorious Lake Waramaug
Photographs by Visko Hatfield and Vi Owens
Passing glistening water, gloriously restored historic homes, and multi-million-dollar mansions under construction, it’s hard to fathom that a few decades ago, Lake Waramaug was choked with algae, thick as green paint, its shorelines sparsely dotted mostly with simple summer cottages and boat houses. “Hands down, it’s the nicest lake in Connecticut.” says homeowner Doug Hamilton, driving in his convertible along the slim, serpentine roads that hug Litchfield County’s Lake Waramaug.
Even in recent years, as many lakes have been banned for swimming and watersports on sweltering summer days because of toxic algae blooms, Waramaug has remained a gleaming exception, due to the diligence of two organizations: the Lake Waramaug Task Force, formed in 1975, and the Lake Waramaug Association, honoring its 100th anniversary this summer.
“There’s so much to celebrate,” says association board member Richard Kleinberg, whose children mark the third generation of his family that’s grown up here. The nonprofit group is looking to increase its membership, and plans a centennial picnic on July 22 from 5:30 to 9, where all are welcome. Other commemorative events include creating an online lake history archive, planting 100 trees, and saving 100 acres around the lake. “There’s never been a more important time than now to preserve our land,” says Kleinberg. “Development is happening at an unprecedented rate, and we need to protect this unique natural setting.”
(Pictured Susie Payne and Richard Kleinberg––board members of the Lake Waramaug Association.)
Meanwhile, the Task Force continues its fascinating work to curb the growth of algae and weeds. “To think this used to be a dying lake, it’s something, how far we’ve come,” says Tom McGowan, the task force’s executive director, touring a new hatchery on Arrow Point that’s raising zooplankton – microscopic organisms that eat algae. He explains that the state made a disastrous mistake in the 1970’s when they released alewives into the lake, which they had thought would make for bigger and more sport fish, such as bass. Instead, the alewives ate the zooplankton - natural predators of algae - and the algae “went wild.”
“The hatchery, brainchild of “our genius guy,” limnologist Dr. Robert Kortmann, began last spring raising and releasing zooplankton into the lake, and water clarity has already improved significantly,” McGowan says. With an annual budget of $250,000, funded by local, state and Federal governments as well as private donations, the task force has done a dizzying array of other things to keep the lake fresh, including: releasing 3,000 brown trout every year to eat alewives; sending scuba divers down to hand-pull harmful invasive weeds; and reducing the amount of phosphorous flowing into the lake from local farms and household cleaning products.
Perhaps most effective of all has been the layer air system, which produces a bubbling, cauldron-looking effect in spots around the lake, something local kids call “monster water.” It’s a network of 6,000 feet of piping along the lake’s bottom, connected to four aerators that, in summation, mitigate algae.
(Pictured on the right, Doug Hamilton in his wife's electric boat.)
The Roxbury writer Ann Leary says she was so impressed by the work of the task force, she based one of her characters on its members. The setting for The Children, released in paperback in June, is on a fictional Lake Waramaug, and she and her husband, the actor Denis Leary, bought a house on the lake for inspiration. They purchased the one-acre property six years ago for $1.1 million, renovated it, and sold it for $2 million last year. “I’m sort of obsessed with Lake Waramaug,” Leary says. “The old gentlemen rowing along silently every morning, the people fishing in summer, ice fishing in winter, the sunrises, sunsets; it’s all so enchanting.”
The 680-acre Lake Waramaug, named after the Indian chief in 1725, is the second largest in the state after nearby Bantam Lake, and surrounded by the towns of Washington, Warren and Kent. At various times, there have been nine inns around its border; all but one, Hopkins Inn, have been torn down and/or converted to private homes. It used to be mostly summer residents, but now people want fully heated, year-round homes, with motorboats. They love its beauty and the two private clubs on the lake.
And while it may seem exclusive, there are still opportunities for visitors to access the lake. The Lake Waramaug State Park in Kent has 72 sites on 95 acres, and rents kayaks, canoes and paddle boards, and the boat launch at the Washington Town Beach issues a limited number of permits to trailered motor boats, depending on availability.
There’s also a little-known oasis at the southwest end of the lake called Mount Bushnell State Park, where Chief Waramaug spent his summers. It’s 214 acres of preserved land, with no signs or designated parking areas, only mystical caves and rock formations, majestic trees and songbirds. (For directions, Google it.) Looking out across the glassy clear water, McGowan clasps his hands and smiles. “I think the chief would be pleased.”
By Alex Burns
5,000 acres, maximum depth 89 feet
Boating with boat dock, fishing, park, playground, picnic tables, concession stand, many public beaches.
1,000 acres, maximum depth 26 feet
Two beaches, swimming, fishing, camping, boating, sailing. Bantam Lake Ski Club is a waterski organization. Sunfish regatta is held here every summer; Bantam Lake Yacht Club; races every Sunday afternoon; French Cup Race over Labor Day; “around the lake” race on July 4.
650 acres, depth 43 feet
Camping, lake fishing, car-top boating, picnicking, Kent public beach, boat rentals (canoe/kayak).
190 acres, depth 23 feet
State boat launch
Mount Tom Pond
Boating (non-motor), fishing, hiking (stone lookout tower at summit) , picnicking, scuba diving, public beach.
Hiking, public fishing, public boat launch
North Spectacle Lake Pond
Only accessible to lakeside property owners
South Spectacle Lake Pond
Fishing, kayaking, canoeing. No motorboats