Category Archives: Park Personnel

Gathering Memories at Grafton Lakes State Park

It’s July 1st, 1971. Nelson Rockefeller is governor of New York State, “It’s too Late” by Carole King is number one on the music charts, and gas is 40 cents a gallon. In the eastern part of the state, just shy of the Vermont border, a new state park opens in Rensselaer County, welcoming swimmers onto a monumental 1,000-foot beach.

Michael Hogan is an 18-year-old lifeguard at the new Grafton Lakes State Park, earning $1.76 an hour to keep watch over that beach with two other lifeguards, Sandy Town from Pittstown and Paul R. Jones, who everyone called “Buzz.”

Recalling the day 50 years later for the Grafton Lakes State Park’s new oral history project, Hogan remembers that his team performed a simulated rescue that aired that evening on an Albany television station covering the park opening, which was attended by State Parks Commissioner Dr. Sal J. Prezioso and other dignitaries.

Located in the heart of the Rensselaer Plateau, the new park included five lakes, 1,850 acres, a concession stand, and a park office. Hogan worked at Grafton for seven years, and now is retired and living in Rensselaer County.

This dawning of a new park was followed shortly by the end of another era at Grafton, when the Dickinson Fire Tower was shut down in 1972 after 48 years in service. One of the tower’s observers, who looked out from atop the 60-foot tower for signs of fire, was Grafton resident Helen Ellett. She was one of a handful of state female fire observers and was assigned to Dickinson from 1943 to 1965 to call in signs of fire in that heavily forested region.

Helen Ellett, top, sight down her orienteering equipment in the cabin atop the Dickinson Fire Tower at Grafton Lakes State Park.

According to Linda Laveway, Ellett’s granddaughter and another participant in Grafton’s oral history project, Ellett was a staunchly independent woman. Long days in the tower were no deterrent for Helen who felt pride every time she raised the American flag, knowing that through her work, she would be helping to save people’s livelihoods and possibly their very lives.

Helen Ellett was one of five women hired to be fire observers at Grafton between 1942 and its closing in 1972. When Ellett was hired in 1943 at age 29, she earned $100 a month, and was a young mother with a daughter. She usually rode one of her horses eight miles to work from where she lived in Grafton. At the tower, she was kept company by her dog, Tippy, and for a short time, her pet raccoon, Soggy.

Tippy and Soggy enjoy a moment.
Helen Ellett and her trusty ride to work.

In 1965, she wrote about her experiences in an article titled “Sitting on Top of the World,” in which she described her initial training by a ranger to use spotting equipment to estimate the location of a potential fire. When she returned to the tower the next day alone and began to climb, she had to  “admit the 81 steps seemed like Jacob’s ladder going to heaven … I finally reached the top and tried to open the lock with one hand to hang on with the other; I have never looked but I would not be surprised if my fingers left imprints on the steel railing. That was a long time ago. After a few trips up and down, I didn’t mind at all.”

In her last year of service in the tower in 1965, Ellett reported nine fires and 209 visitors to the towers. At that time, she was earning $122.09 bi-weekly.

After being shuttered for years, the Dickinson Fire Tower was restored by the Friends of Grafton Lakes State Park and reopened in 2012, giving visitors the sweeping vistas that Ellett and other fire observers had. Now a popular hike at the park, the tower was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2011 and is the last remaining fire tower in the county.

Helen Ellett, bottom center, helps cut the ribbon at the 2012 reopening of the fire tower to the public.
A visitor takes in the view at the fire tower.

How quickly 50 years have passed since opening day of the beach and park! Grafton Lakes park has now expanded to include more than 2,500 acres, 25 miles of trails, and six lakes, along with a new Welcome Center. The park spans both sides of Route 2 and is a favored place for kayakers, canoeists, and those who like to fish.

Amenities also include biking, boat launches and rentals, equestrian trails, fishing, hunting, pavilions and shelter rentals, playgrounds, and showers, During winter months, there is snowmobiling, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.

Over the last decade, about a quarter-million people a year annually have visited the park, so over five decades, totaling many millions of visits since 1971.

There is something for everyone at Grafton Lakes, no matter the season. Check out this slideshow below for some ideas…

With so many visitors and so many memories, Parks staff at Grafton is encouraging those who want to participate to come forward and share these tales for posterity in a mini-movie that will debut on the park’s beach the evening July 1st to mark the 50th anniversary. The event that day will also include an art gallery, historical walks, a photo scrapbook, and interpretive panels.

Those who want to visit the Dickinson fire tower will have a chance to meet Linda Laveway, take in the dramatic view, and learn more about her grandmother and the days of the fire observers. Retired, Linda still resides in Grafton and is an active member of the community.

Park staff will hold video interviews for anyone with Grafton memories during April and May. To participate in the oral history project or any 50th anniversary activity, contact the park by email: graftonlakesadmin@parks.ny.gov or phone: 518-279-1155.

You can follow Grafton Lakes State Park on Facebook here. Hope to see you there July 1st as we look back over the last 50 years and make new memories for the years to come!


Cover shot – Kayakers paddle past the beach at Grafton Lakes State Park. All photos by NYS Parks.

Post by Tamara Beal, Environmental Educator, Grafton Lakes State Park

Grafton Lake State Park is holding an event May 1 for I Love My Park Day. Find details here.

Learn more about the history of the Dickinson Fire Tower at Grafton Lakes State Park here..

Hope Floats Onto A State Parks Beach

Bill Bohach often walks the beach as manager of Orient Beach State Park at the wild eastern tip of the North Fork of Long Island, checking for erosion left by powerful ocean storms.

When he saw what had washed up one day in December of this year, along a remote section of beach about a mile from the park’s swimming area, he knew it was special. But there was no way he could have known it was the beginning a Christmas miracle for a family still grieving the loss of a daughter in a drunk-driving accident.

Bohach recognized that the simple wooden sign on a post, which bore the name “Erica Lee Knowles” and the word “Alou” meant something, to someone, somewhere. “The letters had been made with a router, so I knew someone had taken time to make it,” said the 21-year Parks veteran employee.

The weather-beaten memorial sign that Parks Manager Bill Bohach carried off a remote beach at Orient Beach State Park at the eastern tip of Long Island’s North Fork. (Photo Credit- NYS Parks)

So, he picked up the waterlogged sign, carried it the mile back to the park, and took it to the maintenance shop to dry out, placing a note on it warning not to throw it away. Next, came internet sleuthing by Jorge Eusebio, a parks aide, who Googled Erica’s name, and quickly learned of her 2012 death as a passenger in a Rhode Island car crash.

“Once I saw that, it made my mission stronger, to find out whose sign this was,” said Eusebio, who started with Parks in 2017. He located what he thought might be a relative’s name on Facebook, and sent a private message, but got no response. He persisted, locating another name and sending another private message about the sign.

Eusebio had located a cousin to Shiela and John Priore, Erica’s parents, who lived in Georgia, but were heading up to New York for the Christmas holidays in a few days. And Eusebio learned from them that they had placed the sign as a memorial to Erica on Black Point in Narragansett, Rhode Island, a few miles from the accident scene. Black Point is on Block Island Sound about 45 miles east from Orient Beach.

Sometime this year, the memorial had disappeared, apparently the work of vandals who cut the post and discarded it … by throwing it into the sea.

And from there, it had floated, borne by currents and winds, to wash up months later at Orient Beach. The map below shows Orient Beach State Park, on the eastern tip of Long Island’s North Fork (left) and Black Point in Narangansett, Rhode Island (right).

“There are no words to convey how much Bill and Jorge’s act of kindness has meant to us. It was our Christmas miracle,” said Shiela Priore.  “Anytime we get to share Erica with this world is a good one.  On top of recognizing that the cross meant something but to take the time and effort to search for us leaves me speechless.  Our family is forever grateful.  We feel as if Bill and Jorge honored her life and her memory.”

Erica was studying journalism and women’s studies at the University of Rhode Island when she was killed at age 23. The driver in the car she was in was later sentenced to prison time for driving under the influence of alcohol.

Erica L. Knowles (Photo Courtesy of The Priore Family)

Now that the memorial is recovered, Shiela said the family plans to have it placed at a family home on Martha’s Vineyard, a favorite place of their daughter’s where her ashes were spread.

And what of the word “Alou” that is on the sign? “It is how my kids said, `I love you’ when they were small children,” said Shiela.

Both Bill and Jorge recognize their roles in the amazing chain of events against long odds that the memorial would ever again find its way back home to the Priore family. And see the lesson that there is no telling how far a compassionate act might travel.

“I think during these difficult times, this is a message that everyone needs to hear. No matter how it might look, there is still hope,” said Jorge.


Cover Shot – Beach at Orient Beach State Park (Photo Credit – NYS Parks)

Post by Brian Nearing, Deputy Public Information Officer, NYS Parks.

A poem about the ocean by Erica L. Knowles (Courtesy of The Priore Family)

More About Orient Beach State Park


Orient Beach State Park is a natural wonderland of waterfront with 45,000 feet of frontage on Gardiner’s Bay and a rare maritime forest with red cedar, black-jack oak trees and prickly-pear cactus. Its natural beauty earned designation as a National Natural Landmark in 1980. Other natural attractions in the park include the saltwater marsh and marine wildlife. Great Blue Herons, Egrets, Black Crowned Night Herons, and Osprey are common sights in the park, leading to its recognition as an Audubon Important Bird Area.

Targeting a Watery Invader at Lake Taghkanic

Thanks to a “hands-on” kayak mission against invasive water chestnut this summer at Lake Taghkanic State Park, this popular lake ought to be clearer of these aquatic invaders for next paddling season.

And timing is critical in dealing with water chestnuts, floating plants which can rapidly spread to create dense patches that can clog a lake, damage the native ecosystem and make it hard for canoeists and kayakers to paddle.

Water chestnut (Trapa natans) is one of the several Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS) that are monitored in hopes of reducing abundances in state waterbodies. Widespread in the state, water chestnut is now found in 43 counties.

The aquatic invasive water chestnut can be found in 43 countries across the state. Counties shaded green are known to be infested. (Photo Credit – NYS Department of Environmental Conservation)

Invasive species, like water chestnuts, are organisms that are non-native to an area, typically causing harm to human health, the economy, and the environment. If left unchecked, AIS can spread quickly from one body of water to another, threatening biodiversity and potentially impeding recreational opportunities.

The key to battling the an infestation discovered this season at Lake Taghkanic in Columbia County was to remove hundreds of plants before going to seed. Water chestnuts are annuals, and thus must reseed themselves each year to propagate.

Anyone who has been out along a shoreline and came across a strong, spiny, star-shaped brown nut-like “fruit” or seed pods has found a water chestnut nut. Bearing four sharp spines or points, each nut contains a single seed that can produce 10 to 15 stems.

Anchored to the water bottom, the plants have submerged, feathery brownish leaves on stems that can grow up to 15 feet long. On the water’s surface, these stems come to an end with a floating rosette, or circular arrangement of leaves. The leaves are triangular shaped with toothed edges.

These clusters can float on the surface due to buoyancy bladders connected to the leaf stems, forming dense floating mats that can be nearly impenetrable. Each rosette produces about 20 of the hard nut-like fruits in the late summer and early fall which, after dropping from the plant to the water bottom, lay in sediment over the winter to sprout in the spring

You can imagine the concern when water chestnut showed up in Lake Taghkanic State Park, a park focused on boating, swimming, water sports and beach activities. Controlling water chestnut at the park was vital to support these recreational opportunities as well as the native fauna of the lake, including one rare species known there.

Due to the fast-growing nature of water chestnut, it is important to control newly introduced infestations as soon as possible, also known as “early detection, rapid response” (EDRR). If left unchecked, patches of water chestnuts can spread prolifically.

A map of Lake Taghkanic, showing the area of water chestnut infestation highlighted in green. (Photo Credit – NYS Parks)


Water chestnut is an invasive species of high concern for many waterbodies in New York State, having potential ecological, economic and health impacts. The plant can form dense mats on the water’s surface, greatly impacting the organisms below. These layered mats can block sun and oxygen from submerged plants, resulting in a die back of native species and fish populations. Recreation is also inhibited by dense patches of water chestnuts, making it difficult to swim, boat, kayak, or fish. The spiny nuts often drift to shore, creating an additional hazard for pets and people to step on.

Effective control of water chestnut depends largely on preventing seed formation. By manually removing the plants in mid-summer before mature seeds can drop, managers can halt such potential reproduction.

At Lake Taghkanic, staff from the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historical Preservation, state Department of Environmental Protection, and Capital Region Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management (PRISM) worked to rapidly respond to the infestation. This team of ten individuals were well-versed in the control of invasive species, and several team members had prior experience manually removing water chestnut.

Held July 16, the pull was led by Matt Brincka (NYS Parks Invasive Biologist), with other participants including Falon Neske (NYS Parks), Lindsey DeLuna (NYS Parks), Lauren Gallagher (NYS Parks), Rebecca Ferry (NYS Parks), Kristopher Williams (Capital Region PRISM), Lauren Mercier (PRISM), Lauren Henderson (PRISM), Steven Pearson (DEC), and Catherine McGlynn (DEC).

The team navigated to the water chestnut infestation in kayaks, maintaining social distancing and wearing face coverings when necessary. When manually pulling water chestnut plants, it’s important to reach as far down the stem as possible to pull the root system from the bottom sediment.

At Lake Taghkanic, water chestnut was mixed in among lily pads, presenting a challenge to pulling by hand from kayaks. (Photo credit – NYS DEC)

Once pulled, the water chestnuts were collected in garbage bags, drained, and weighed. Within a day, more than 100 pounds, or from 300 to 400 plants were removed! The information was recorded for upload to iMapInvasives so that the infestation of water chestnuts can be tracked.

Afterward, the team also surveyed the 3.7 mile lakeshore to ensure there were no other visible water chestnuts. Parks staff developed a control plan that will include monitoring and hand-pulling at Lake Taghkanic annually in order to deplete the seed bank (seeds can remain viable for several years at the bottom) and keep the problem at bay.

Over the years, NY State Parks has organized and participated in several invasive species pulls, additionally having a seasonally staffed AIS Strike Team and Boat Steward program. Reader more about these programs in the posts below.

Selkirk Shores State Park has been one focus area for State Parks staff in efforts to control a water chestnut infestation. In 2015, about 240 bags of water chestnut were removed there, visibly reducing the biomass by 40 percent. During the 2016 season, another 12.5 tons were pulled out. This removal resulted in a decrease in abundance of water chestnut during from 2017 through this year, further maintaining the value of this State Park.

Prompt invasive species responses, such as water chestnut pulls, work towards ensuring recreational enjoyment and preserving natural ecosystems in our parks. Early detections of invasive species are often reported by patrons.

The next paddling season may be months away, but remember: If you believe you have found a new population of an invasive species at a State Park, tell a park staff member or reporting it in iMapInvasives will ensure that swift eradication action is taken.

Protecting Our Waterways

You may have seen them in a park near you, these super heroes and heroines in disguise. Since 2008, New York State Parks have deployed Invasive Species Strike Teams. These Strike Teams conduct invasive species surveys and manually remove non-native invasive plants in areas of significance. The goal is to protect native plant and animal … Continue reading Protecting Our Waterways

Cover shot: Members of the removal team spread out in kayaks on Lake Taghkanic.

Post by Lauren Gallagher, State Parks Water Quality Unit

Nature Education At Letchworth During COVID

On the second weekend in March with spring in the air at Letchworth State Park, maple sap was being boiled down into tasty syrup in the newly built sugar shack at the park’s Humphrey Nature Center. Maple weekends were coming soon, and many gallons of syrup were needed to treat hundreds of visitors expected for outdoor education programs in one of western New York’s most popular State Parks.

But the next day, the sugar shack at Letchworth went cold. Because of emerging COVID-19 pandemic, Parks workers were told to immediately start working remotely from home. So public events at State Parks like Maple Weekends were cancelled. And a completely booked public field trip season at Letchworth for May and June disappeared as well.

If people could no longer brought to nature by park naturalists, perhaps those naturalists could bring nature to people remotely?

Immediately, newly hired NYS Parks Corps member Conrad Baker tapped prior video production experience to make a weekly video series called ‘Nature Detectives,’ for Letchworth State Park’s Facebook page. The approximately five-minute videos invited viewers, especially kids, to use their senses, or ‘nature tools,’ to make observations, or ‘notice nature clues’ about a mysterious plant, animal, or fungus found outdoors. Then, the video solved the mystery and encouraged viewers to find the same species in their own neighborhoods.

Conrad Baker tees up a video for the Nature Detective series on the NYS Parks Facebook page. (Photo credit – NYS Parks)


While using these  videos satisfied the Park’s short-term goal of providing some safe, educational public programs,  none of the Nature Center’s field trips were happening for the foreseeable future. But within this challenge lay an unexpected opportunity. Now unable to deliver in-person programs as usual, Environmental Educator Elijah Kruger could use the sudden schedule vacancies to adapt existing field trip lesson plans into safe, immersive, virtual programming. With   Baker at the camera, Kruger took to the field.

Letchworth State Park educators and interpretive staff Mike Landowski, Steph Spittal, Karen Russell, Sandy Wallace, Doug Bassett, and Brian Scriven reviewed draft videos and gave crucial program design advice.

There are currently five virtual field trip videos on the NYS Parks YouTube channel. The playlist is accessible here.

Since previous records showed that the topics of Geology, Mammals, and Invasive Species were the most in-demand field trips, those videos were made throughout April and May, and released June 1. Next came more scientifically complex field trips about the natural world and the human relationship with it. A field trip on Forest Ecology was released Sept. 18. Life of the Monarch butterfly is the most recent to go up.

Normally, an in-person Geology field trip group would hike about three quarters of a mile between several gorge overlooks, with the trip taking about 90 minutes.  But using video, viewers can move instantly between overlooks and cover the entire field trip in detail in 20 minutes. This work pushed the limits of cell phones, birding cameras, free editing software, and existing office supplies that had to take the place of top-end video gear.

A Mammalogy field trip group is often stationary, sometimes even inside the Nature Center. An educator invites the field trip group to see and feel up-close details of mammal furs and skulls to learn more about their adaptations and roles in the ecosystem. On video, such furs and skulls are presented next to real-world outdoor signs left by these animals. Close-up cutaway shots were key to highlight the animals’ homes, scat, and habitats. Deep detail in teeth, bones, and furs were only visible by building on the right cutaways.

Previously, in-person Invasive Species field trip groups never hiked through the territory now covered by the Invasive Species virtual field trip. This third field trip video was an opportunity to use cutaways and editing to visually capture complex, multi-stage forest succession changes, like deer overbrowsing, in which deer damage the ecosystem by eating away at all the young trees and shrubs.

And some improvisation was needed to get the right shots. By using rubber bands to attach lenses to cell phone cameras, close-ups showed fine details in macro shots, like crawling ticks and the hemlock wooly adelgid, a tiny insect that threatens the health of helmlock trees.

Previously, a Forest Ecology field trip group would walk about a half-mile of forest trail around the Nature Center, noticing content-relevant animals, plants, fungi, and environments along the way. Field trip video now assembles a kind of “best of” experience, with exceptional examples of lichens, woodpecker holes, short-lived fungi and quick glimpses of animals from miles apart and over several weeks into one cohesive experience.

The Life of the Monarch video is the culmination of skills and tools picked up from the four previous videos. The segments are carefully assembled from footage that was shot miles and weeks apart. Close-up cutaways show monarch butterfly handling and tagging. Footage of feeding caterpillars, time lapses of metamorphosis, and slow-motion videos of butterfly releases tie together the story of these creatures’ lives and how they benefit us in unseen ways.

The pandemic encouraged our environmental education staff to do what they do best – adapt and use the tools at their disposal to serve park visitors with safe, enjoyable, educational programs. In-person programming is now resuming with safety precautions. Still, teachers are already starting to request virtual guided field trips, where park educators join classes via video chat to answer questions and match virtual field trip video content to their class lessons.

So, what was born out of necessity and imagination has now become a regular part of Letchworth State Park’s mission to bring education nature programming to anyone, no matter where they might live.


Cover shot – Letchworth State Park Environmental Educator Elijah Kruger with a Monarch butterfly. (Photo credit – NYS Parks)


Post by NYS Parks Corps member Conrad Baker

Drawing Today’s History to the Page

For decades, comics have been a gateway into the world of reading for many children. During today’s challenging times, creating personal comics can also help young people chronicle their unique view of the history-making COVID-19 pandemic, according to an artist who also helps students discover history at the Clermont State Historic Site.

In 2016, Emily Robinson, a professional comic artist and the site’s School Programs Coordinator and Camp Director, founded History Comics Club, a unique program that connects underserved youth with their local history, builds an interest in art and writing, and helps create a sense of place at our historic site for students and their families in the community. Each student learns to draw their own comic while learning about the history of the Livingston Family.

Seven successive generations of the family left their imprint on the site’s architecture, room interiors and landscape. Robert R. Livingston, Jr. was Clermont’s most notable resident. His accomplishments include drafting the Declaration of Independence, serving as first U.S. Minister of Foreign Affairs, administering the oath of office to George Washington, negotiating the Louisiana Purchase and developing steamboat technology with Robert Fulton.

Clermont State Historic Site, which remains closed to the public during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo Credit: Friends of Clermont)

Thanks to funding from Friends of Clermont, History Comics Club has provided the program to more than 1,000 students from age 7 to 17, resulting in the program’s publication of five books of their collected comic art and prose.

“Drawing requires the students to look at the history represented at Clermont, from clothing and how homes looked, to pets that lived on the estate,” said Robinson. 

As part of her work to help introduce students to Clermont’s history, she created a series of comics from the point of view of the family dog, Punchy, who gives a “tour” of the mansion in his own inimitable way. View some of it here

Punchy the dog makes an appearance at the Hudson Children’s Book Festival in 2018 to introduce visitors to the history of Clermont.

During the pandemic, families are sheltering at home, and many children might feel anxious over what the future might hold. Art can be a powerful way of processing that anxiety and interpreting ongoing events through their eyes as part of a historical record.

“Art can be a great healer,” said Robinson. “It doesn’t matter how well you draw or write, it’s about being creative and conveying information.”

Emily Robinson’s comic version of herself urging students to consider creating their personal comic or other record of their experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As a child grows older, each piece of art will provide a window into their younger years, said Robinson, who recalled being in fifth grade during the September 11th terrorist attacks.

“I remember the confusion of those early days, and how my own teacher used art as a creative outlet,” she said. “I struggled writing the script for the COVID-19 comic, because I wanted to address kids in a way that wasn’t patronizing but didn’t scare them. They’re already stressed out; art should be a welcome window to self-expression.” Robinson continued, “I hope kids will feel pride that their artwork could help inform future historians’ understanding of life during the pandemic.” 

It does not take many supplies to start creating comics at home, a drawing pad and something to draw with. Robinson suggested that students may start with a basic sketch book, which includes stencils and general information on how to draw expressions and symbols. But almost any kind of white paper, like computer printer paper, will do.

During the last four years, Robinson has taken the program to the Hudson City School District, Germantown Central School District, Rhinebeck Central School District, and the Starr Library in Rhinebeck, as well as the Hudson Valley Writers’ Project in New Paltz. She also has presented on the program at the Hudson Children’s Book Festival and in 2018 hosted a panel at Comic Con in New York City.

Clermont’s Historic Site Manager, Susan Boudreau, is extremely proud of the program and what it offers to area children: “As I’ve seen over the life of the program, the art of making comics can make a great impact on the lives of our students. No student needs to have any artistic experience to participate, and some find that they are quite talented, which is so empowering. The openness of the comic genre encourages students to explore their own identities, fears, hopes, and dreams, which is a wonderful gift in these uncertain times.”

Emily Robinson, under her pen name Emily Ree, is best known for her young adult graphic novels, Anarchy Dreamers and Marshmallow Horns. You can see more of her work on her websites, EmilyRee.com and AnarchyDreamers..com.


Cover Photo: Emily Robinson’s comic representation of herself wearing a protective mask. All photos from New York State Parks.

By Brian Nearing, Deputy Public Information Officer, New York State Parks