CGP Community Stories

Mike Empey, November 8, 2017

Title

Mike Empey, November 8, 2017

Subject

Otsego Lake
Fishing
Lake Guide
Lake Trout
Whitefish
Zebra Mussels
Boat Launch
Thayer's Farm
Canadarago Lake
Smelt
Legacy
Public Policy

Description

Mike Empey grew up around Otsego Lake, spending his summers swimming and fishing. He made a living working in local restaurants and as a licensed guide on the lake. In the mid- 1990s, Empey participated in the lengthy debate over whether to construct a public boat launch on Otsego Lake. This effort was unsuccessful, but the debate continues to this day as more and more people wish to have better public access to the 13th largest public body of water in New York State. Mike Empey is active in protecting the quality of the lake and protecting the rights of sportsmen who use Otsego Lake through his participation on different environmental boards.

Creator

Aubrey Kirsch

Publisher

Cooperstown Graduate Program, State University of New York-College at Oneonta

Date

11-8-2017

Rights

Cooperstown Graduate Association, Cooperstown, NY

Format

audio/MP3
43.8MB
audio/MP3
28.8 MB
audio/MP3
13.4 MB
image/jpg
2MB

Language

en-US

Type

Sound
Image

Identifier

17-011

Coverage

Upstate New York
Davenport Center, New York
-2017

Interviewer

Aubrey Kirsch

Interviewee

Mike Empey

Location

State Hwy 23
Davenport Center, NY 13751

Transcription

AK = Aubrey Kirsch
ME = Mike Empey

[START OF TRACK 1, 0:00]
AK:
This is Aubrey Kirsch, interviewing Mike Empey for [the] Cooperstown Graduate Program's CGP Community Stories, on November 8, 2017 at his home in Davenport Center, [New York]. My first question for you is, how has your work as a lake guide and cook, contributed to your perspective on the environment?

ME:
That's a big question. As far as I know, I was the first legally licensed fishing guide on the lake which I was very proud of. I worked long and hard to get to that point. Working as a cook in the Otesaga [Hotel] in the morning, I could look out and see my friends going out fishing and seeing other people enjoying the lake. I've always loved water and I've always loved fishing. It's been a very important part of my life, so I wanted to get out and I wanted to get out of that kitchen and I wanted to do something else with my life. Now as it turns out a lot of opportunities in Upstate New York is part-time work. So that was something that also filled in. I never made a lot of money at it. I never became a big successful guide with tens of thousands of dollars of equipment, but I still did provide a service and it was mostly to tourists and it worked for a while. That got me involved with other issues around the lake. I think I became more aware of the history and legacy and stories, which I hadn't known about. I grew up there, I learned how to swim in Otsego Lake in 1952 and we used to picnic up there. My family would picnic up at Springfield Landing, and I remember watching with my brother and father the brown trout on the opposite side of the lake, a half a mile away, in the evening jumping out of the water to catch bugs that were falling from the willow trees. It was a unique thing, every couple of minutes you'd see a trout of ten to twelve pounds clear the water, and in the imaginative eyes of a young boy that memory persists to this day.

So, I have memories of the lake going back to when I was a child. I've seen the lake change in many ways, good and bad, over the course of my life. The environmentalism, I think, is out of growing up in a beautiful area. I don’t think it’s a stretch that you have to grow into that, I think that it’s a part of your nature to start with. We live in such a beautiful area with a lot of resources for people to enjoy.

AK:
You mentioned that you were the first legal guide?
M:
In the modern era, I'm sure there were guides going back to people in canoes. I made an effort because that's just my nature. And it wasn’t a difficult thing to do, it was just a few small speedbumps and hurdles. There were courses that you take and navigation, Coast Guard motor safety, first aid, wilderness training, and stuff like that. It was an enjoyable thing for me to do. It was almost like a hobby to start with. I guess overall since I didn’t make a lot of money and I wasn’t successful, it was more of a hobby. One of the interesting things is that working as a cook in and around restaurants and a restaurant manager, in many places in Cooperstown and around the lake, I developed relationships with the motel owners and property owners and some of the tourists. And when I became a guide and wanted to put my boat on a dock around the lake of some kind, I approached the people that I knew that might be interested and I carried my own insurance and a rider on the insurance that would protect them from liability and I made a very good business proposal, I thought, to maybe eleven different places around the lake and I got zero response. I wasn't expecting that, I was all ready to go, I thought that that would be the easy thing to do.

What I took away from that was that a lot of the people I was dealing with were not the ones that built these properties and built them up. Rather, they had inherited them, and they were not seeing how the system worked with a working man trying to improve his lot in life and build up into something that is equivalent to owning a motel or having a business on the lake. That was the lesson I learned there, that there had been a change in the generations, and the people that inherit the money aren't necessarily of the same ilk of those people that built those businesses up.

AK:
To go along with the job theme, what were your duties as a guide on the lake?

ME:
The duties were protecting my client and providing them fish, so that was pretty obvious. Eventually, a few of my friends and myself, all fishermen, we were allowed to put a boat dock down at Brookwood Point and we had that for a few years, which was really nice. It’s now pretty well known, but at that point it was a fairly undiscovered gem of the lake. It was the last undeveloped parcel point on the lake where you could actually go out and look across the lake like it was two hundred years ago. That lasted for a few years and we helped them clean out their garden and take care of the grounds down there, which I encourage anybody to enjoy Brookwood and go down there and take a walk and see what's going on down there. It was a dream of mine many years ago. I had a very serious motorcycle accident and as I was recuperating in New Jersey, I found out I could get a dollar permit, a hiking permit and a fishing permit, for the city of Newark Watershed in north New Jersey, which is a forty-thousand-acre parcel of land that nobody knows about, a few people at that time, that allowed me to hike and fish. I taught myself how to fish there and at that point of my rehabilitation of my life, my soul, and my spirit, became very important to me. I think that's why fishing and being outdoors has continued to be a very sustaining part of my psyche. I don’t know if that answers your question about the duties of a guide, but I think they are pretty self-explanatory overall.

I never reached the point, the critical mass, where I had enough money. I was raising my family, I was working as a cook, it's not a good paying job, I was mowing the lawn, taking care of a house, and doing all of the things a dad would do. My ex-wife had the career, I was always the support role, I was Mr. Mom. So, by the time my feet hit the bedroom floor in the morning at 6:20, for the rest of my day I didn’t have to think about my responsibilities, it was all laid out. Every day was the same, Groundhog Day.

AK:
You mentioned having the boat dock originally. Was that your inspiration to get a public boat launch?

ME:
No, not at all. The history goes back—I'm glad you asked that question. When I first moved to upstate New York, it was just to get out of the city. My family is from up here. A more affordable way of life, I wasn't sure what I was doing. New York State was cleaning up lakes, and one of the lakes that they cleaned up—and it was a fantastic story—was Canadarago Lake. It was one of the most polluted lakes in the state; it was an open cesspool, and the DEC [Department of Environmental Conservation], contracting with Cornell University, came down and did a major project. It was the Clean Water Act. They installed a state-of-the-art sewage treatment plant in Richfield and they cleaned that lake up. It was a model. The fishery, the Walleye, the Tiger Muskie, the Perch, it was a fantastic job that they did. I helped as a volunteer with that. I volunteered with some of the guys that worked with Cornell in the shocking boats, with netting, and as a fisherman with keeping a diary. So that was very enjoyable to me, that was something that, in another lifetime I would have been a fisheries biologist for sure. I had a good friend and he was in charge of the program, coincidentally he worked for Cornell, Dr. David Green, retired now, a fisheries biologist and PhD. I volunteered with him and he became a good friend and mentor.

I took that experience, and it was a great experience, when I started to become interested in fishing Otsego Lake and getting back to my roots there from the 50s. At that point, there was a controversy already. Someone had proposed, I think the DEC had proposed a boat launch for the [Glimmerglass] state park, which was initially part of the plan. What happened was, when they built the park they put in a leech field and septic system before they put the beach in. When they put the beach in and trucked in all of that sand, they ran over the leech field and they crushed a lot of the pipes and there was a cauliform bacteria event the following summer and then the state became the boogeyman and the DEC became an enemy to the people and the environmentalists and other people on the lake for that one incident. Some years later they are proposing a boat launch and the people are going, "Oh my goodness, look at the history here with the state!"

I went to a forum over on the west side of the lake. It must have been up by the [Glimmerglass] opera, and the DEC biologist, retired region four fisheries biologist, Kay Sanford, was there and he was speaking very eloquently about the need and the right of fair and equitable access to the lake for fisherman and the public in general. He was attacked savagely by 99% of the audience who were sitting there with three-by-five file cards with questions written on them. It was virulent, and I admired Kay Sanford and I still do. He was a mentor as well, but his demeanor was always on an even keel and he could debate with the best of them and he did. That got me interested. I was in shock to think that I always bring all the goodwill that I had experienced over on Canadarago Lake to Otsego Lake, and it was not to be well received. I realized that we had a problem there. So that began my interest in Otsego Lake in terms of public policy.

Over the years the access for the lake has eroded tremendously and a lot of people in Upstate New York and other places think it's a private lake, but it's the 13th largest public body of water in the state and it exists, the management of it, exists a lot through public funding and fishermen's dollars. The issue, we lost this huge fight in the 90s, but the issue will come back again because we still have the problem with access that never really was resolved. So, it continues to be a problem to this day, probably worse than it was thirty years ago. It's still up in the air.

AK:
To go with the clean-up of Canadarago Lake, what fish currently reside in Otsego Lake, including the invasive species?

ME:
[laughs] I never thought it would change. I actually have a tag in a letter from the DEC from the first legal lake trout that I took out of Otsego Lake in 1977 and the letter from Kay Sanford, retired region four fisheries biologist, was bemoaning the fact that it was an oligotrophic lake, which means that it's a low nutrient lake and the growth of the lake trout at that point was one inch a year. So, for me to catch a 21-inch lake trout, which was the legal minimum and they were stocked at ten inches, that fish had been in the lake ten or eleven years before it reached legal size. That was a very poor growth rate. You’ll have to remind me of the question.

AK:
What type of fish reside…?

ME:
At that point it, historically, you were looking at lake trout in the lake, and whitefish. They are all glacial epoch fish, they come right from after the glacial epoch. They are the two main fish of concern in the lake that people were looking for. There were other introductions, the tullibee or cisco was introduced and provided a fishery for a number of years in the last century. It's been a series of problems with invasive species in the last thirty to forty years. There was one introduction of smelt in the early 70s which actually helped the fishery and provided a lot of opportunity. They stocked land-locked salmon in there. There are still a few brown trout, but they don't stock them anymore. What they are stocking now are lake trout. I don’t know that they want to continue that, and they are also working with lake whitefish, which is another native species of the lake. Canadarago Lake is completely different. I compare the two lakes like they are two sisters. One is the friendly blonde and gregarious, open and friendly, and will serve you a beer. That’s Canadarago Lake. The tall, austere Ice Goddess that is Otsego Lake that is not so friendly to the public, you have to know someone to get in the door [laughs].

A:
Can you tell me a little bit about how the invasive species got there?

M:
Looking back, when I first became aware of zebra mussels, and that was 25 years ago maybe, I used to fish up in Quebec and so much of their economy depends on tourism and fishermen. It's a huge thing up there, they do corporate fishing trips and lodges up there. They got right on it with steam washing and chemical treatments for it. You couldn’t move around a boat up there from body of water to another. We were just negligent, that’s all I can say, that we didn’t address these problems earlier. There have been a number of invasives; I think the first one of real importance was the alewife and the sowbelly. They drove the smelt out and supplanted the smelt and ruined the eating quality of fish in my estimation because they are hairy and very oily. We began to call the lake trout “slime buckets” because you couldn't even keep them on a table to clean them, they would slide off onto the floor. It became a very oily fish.

The smelt were also an introduction, but I don't consider them a real problem. I thought that they were a good forage base especially for the land-locked salmon that used to be prolific in the lake. I could go out there and target the land-locked salmon in the spring and catch a limit of three. It was wonderful. That was a wonderful thing. Ironically, the whole debate over a boat launch, I’d say the sportsmen's groups lost. We won the battles, all of the important issues were decided in our favor, but it was the people that really didn’t want to see boat traffic on the lake and they had the political clout to prevent that. But after the whole issue was decided and we’re not going to get a boat launch, there was an effort by private individuals in Cooperstown to stock the lake with walleye, which they thought were a native species and are not.

But they did raise some money, tens of thousands of dollars in a five-year program to stock walleye into the lake. There's no walleye fishery of consequence in the state—any lake, Oneida Lake, you could just go on—that aren't infested with zebra mussels. So, when they stocked the walleye in Otsego Lake, they might as well have sent out an invitation to the zebra mussels, a welcome mat on the boat launch in Lakefront Park. It was shortly thereafter that there were the zebra mussels. That's been a big problem. The zebra mussels are filter feeders and filter out the small microorganisms that alewives depend upon. The density of alewives in Otsego Lake—with acoustic testing—was greater than it was in some of the Great Lakes, for instance. So, there was a huge biomass of alewives out there and when the zebra mussels, over the course of time, ate their food it starved [the alewives] out.

The lake trout fishery that was prolific. Fish that used to grow an inch a year started growing ten inches a year. In the spring I could have put a ten-inch laker in there and in two years came back and it would be almost ten pounds. The fishery was fantastic. When the alewives were in there we were going crazy. I could catch a hundred pounds of trout in the morning, going out on the lake with downriggers and lead core and it was great. Now, hindsight being 20/20, I wonder if we had won the fight over a boat launch that, there are still concerns over boat washing on the lake, that if we had won that issue and we had a parks and recreation boat launch in the state park, that we could have managed a little better to keep at least the zebra mussels out and who knows what else is on its way next. That's what I'm afraid of because it seems like it’s a cascade event here with invasives in the last 30 years. It's really deeply disturbing to everyone. Whether you drink the water, fish in the water, ski in the water, or swim, I think we all have the same concern environmentally.

A:
How has the water quality changed in Otsego [incorrectly pronounce] lake?

M:
Otsego Lake! The water quality! Well, that's a debatable thing, if you talk to the people in the field station, and they have the long-term data, I don’t think that the quality of the water for drinking purposes has really changed over the course of time to any significant degree. But I'll tell you a story, I knew a man in Cooperstown, he's dead many years, his name was Doug Sullivan, a native of Cooperstown. He became one of the first certified scuba divers after World War II when scuba diving was a new thing. He contracted with the Village of Cooperstown to inspect their water intake pipe that you can see. It runs twelve to fourteen hundred feet out to about 30 feet of water up by Fairy Spring, that pipe is in the water. He was to clean out the screening and check the pipe. He went out diving, by himself, and he gets down to that intake pipe. The intake pipe was over an artesian spring, he said it was maybe 15 feet in diameter, and was sandy, just like Weeki Wachee Springs or something you can imagine on a film. It was a huge artesian spring, which these streams feeding into Otsego Lake don't account for very much of the water in the lake. Most of it is spring fed. They put that pipe out there because it was over this big artesian spring that had so much water coming up and the volume of water and pressure that in order for this Mr. [Sullivan] to clean off and do the work that he had to do, he had to tie himself off with a rope to the pipe.

We live in a karst geology. It’s a very fragile limestone, that is easily erodible and brittle, so these limestone caverns and spring systems will often collapse and that, over the course of time, is what happened to that artesian spring. It's no longer there, but you can say that the water quality coming into the system in Cooperstown is very good. I would assume that it’s very good. I think the problem that they have now are the zebra mussels clogging up the intake, clogging up that stream and getting into that pipe. It's a real problem for water managers anywhere that you have zebra mussels. They will attach themselves to the pipe and grow like barnacles.

It was never proven and it is hotly contested to this day the effect that fishermen and fishing boats [have] on the lake in terms of pollution. There was one very famous episode that I was involved with. Well, I can't say it’s a very famous episode, but to me it was noteworthy. They had a young man that was a yacht designer, and he had written a book about pollution from gasoline engines in lawnmowers and motor boats and stuff like that, and he came to Cooperstown and was very well received in the court house, there had to be a few hundred people at this thing. He was presenting all of this damaging information about outboard motors and pollution. I had some help in the background. I will just say me because I was the contact person and kind of the lead for all of this. I had engineers that were providing information to me. In this man's book, on page whatever it was, 47 say, had a huge mathematical error exponentially to the millions or billions, because he was not a scientist. Instead of dividing he multiplied or whatever, and this was pointed out to be by an engineer, an engineering firm that specialized in marinizing automotive engines for boats for racing. So, I had all the credence in the world, professional credence, and he pointed this mistake out. So, after this man gave his presentation at the court house, I had the opportunity to ask him, could you please turn to page so and so and look at this number and tell me, shouldn't you have done this instead of this? And I felt badly, one of the things I never wanted to do was effect anybody's ability to make a living. I didn’t want to get personal about this at all, and I watched him just melt. I watched his crestfallen face and realize that he made a huge error in his book that wasn’t peer reviewed by any scientists, that's the thing.

I'll deal with facts, please, but facts are not the truth, always. The truth escaped, because the truth is we still need public access, convenient access, and safe and fair access to a public body of water. I think that when they categorize the fishermen up there as polluters, I think that they do a lot of damage to everyone. That destroys the legacy that I’m so concerned about. I mean that’s what I’m hear talking to you about, my feeling about a legacy of fishermen fishing on that lake going back to the colonial era, to day one of the formation of that village. That's in danger of being lost, that that legacy is disappearing. No one seems to really care, and no one is really taking note of it. But it’s in my mind and it’s in my heart, having grown up around that lake and spending all the time I have on the lake. One of the things I'll say as a side note, I worked as a volunteer on Canadarago Lake. I’ve been in every square inch of that lake, literally, in October fishing walleye, hundreds if not thousands of hours on that lake. The same is true on Otsego Lake, and why it’s important in a way is that back in the early days if you rented a boat and there were eighty boats for rent at Thayer's, you had a five-horsepower motor on a fourteen-foot boat and you would put-put-put-put-put-put, it was an adventure if you made it down to Three Mile Point in a day and made it back in a day of fishing, you were exhausted. There used to be separate groups of fishermen; Richfield, Springfield, Cherry Valley, Cooperstown, they didn't mix, they didn’t like each other. "Get back up in your end of the lake!" You know? But I fished out of Thayer's and I was the last man to have a locker up there, me and a man, Doug Sullivan from Unadilla, and friends with Rufus Thayer and then I had the dock down in Brookwood and I fished the south end of the lake with my friends from Cooperstown. So, I like to think that I'm one of the few people who has actually fished intensively both lakes, north, south, east, and west. I know them all intimately and a few other small lakes around as well, but looking back it’s amazing to me that I did spend as much time, and found as much time, raised my family, and had the opportunity to get out and enjoy being on the water. It's always been very restorative to me, it's a spiritual thing, it really is, even though there's an outboard motor involved [laughs]. I can't row all these places!

AK:
Can you tell me more about Thayer Farm?

ME:
The Thayers, Willy Thayer was the legend of the lake. I think I told you that he had a ballpoint pen he would had out as a souvenir with his name on it, a little bit of ego involved there, and there were the lockers dow there, and after World War II it was a hugely popular place. Eighty boats for rent, 80 lockers, and they were full. People came down there almost year-round, ice fishermen as well, and there was a poker game going on. Willy Thayer would carry around, you know the expression he had a roll big enough to choke a horse, because it was a cash business and it cost so much to rent a boat, people would pay him cash. So, there was a poker game, all kinds of typical men's club things going on. I wasn't a part of that, I just heard these stories. They also had a little general store at the top of the hill there, across from the farm where you start to go down the road that goes down to the lake. Their mom ran that little roadside stand there with candy bars from World War II, you never wanted to buy a candy bar. I made that mistake once, and two old coonhounds, woof woof, big black and tan ones. I don't know the actual breed of the dog, but that was certainly country. It had that old-time feel, like you were stepping back when you went to Thayer's. That’s part of the thing, having grown up upstate here, locally, that was one of the real enjoyable things about going to Thayers’ was that feeling that you were stepping back in time.

[START OF TRACK 2, 0:00]

ME:
Willy died, and we didn’t know what was going to happen to the boat house and the rentals and the whole thing. His brother [Rufus] who had been the farmer and wasn’t involved with the boat rental business much at all, they were both bachelors, he took over and he ran it for a few years. He had congestive heart [failure] for a while. I knew he had been ill. I don’t know how many years, it’s difficult for me to say, that he ran that himself, and it eventually just ran him down. It's an awful lot to do and keep up, but I admired both of the men and learned a lot about stories of the lake. I would fish with Willy. Willy, in the winter time—I could go on for hours about the stories—would fish for perch and back when the lake was a oligotrophic, low nutrient lake, perch were the main forage base at the time for smaller fish and bass. They wouldn't get very big, generally speaking they might be this big [gestures with hands], five or six inches long. And he would go out and set up a line of tip-ups, 50 feet apart and sit at the end of the line and he would jig for perch. If a tip-up went off, then he would relocate if he thought that was where the perch were, he would just start jigging down there. Somedays he would catch three or four hundred small perch, take them back and clean them, and give away and sell the perch meat. You could probably get an ounce off of each fish. That’s the kind of guy that Willy was.

He told me a lot of stories and they were generous to me, I think because I was a local, hardworking guy and I worked in the restaurants locally we all kind of knew each other through the grapevine. They were always very generous. They used to rent me a boat and motor for five dollars a day, so I was very privileged, I think. The lake had low productivity, so lead core fishing line was the thing that people used before down riggers. You pulled it with your off hand. You kept one hand on the tiller of the boat, and the other hand you pulled the lead core fishing for ciscos in the morning, the tullibee, which they used to sell for a dollar apiece to the restaurants in Cherry Valley and in Cooperstown, you used to be able to get them off the menu. In Sherry's Restaurant you could get a cisco, you could get a fresh herring dinner. There were a lot of guys out there, a lot of older guys especially, that did it in their retirement, they would go out there and were just trying to pay for their gas money catching ciscos, but it was a lot of fun. A lot of the rentals for Thayer at the end there, were guys going out to fishing the ciscos. I kind of lost my thread there a little bit.

There's so many stories of Willy and Rufus. Rufus wasn’t a fisherman. I took Rufus out to catch his first lake trout through the ice, in his entire lifetime he had never caught a Laker through the ice. One of the things specifically—I love Thayer Farm—was that Rufus caught a small Laker and he kept it up in the spring house, the milk house up on the hill, it was his fishing barometer. He would throw a pellet or piece of bread into the tank with the Laker in it and he thought if the Laker took that bread right away it was going to be a good fishing day. If it ignored it or didn’t eat it right away, he thought, "Well, maybe, it's not gonna be good fishing." That was his fishing barometer, he actually kept a little lake trout in his milk house up on the hill. It had a nice country feel to it, and I'm sad, in a way, that it's off the tax rolls and not a farm anymore. And I'm certainly not happy that there isn’t a place that the public can reasonably get on. The insurance is what drove him out of business with the boat rental. And whatever happened to all the stuff that was down there? I don't know. They [the Thayer brothers] were so honorable and ethical that when someone died, and they had a locker that had a lock on it—everybody a had a lock with their locker with their fishing equipment in there—they would never touch that. It could be 20 or 30 years after the guy passed but they’re not going to do anything, hoping a family member comes down to reclaim the equipment. I don’t know how many lockers were down there at the time that Rufus passed away and it got turned over to whoever and what happened to all the old things. I love the old fishing stories and equipment and guys. Again, that is what I'm concerned about, that legacy, that story, is not anywhere really that I know of. There's little bits and pieces here but it is a big story, the history of the fishing and the fishermen and the fish in Otsego Lake.

When I first started there forty years ago, it was sterile, slow growth rate. The trout would grow an inch a year and they would grow slowly, and so they might be in the lake 15 years before they got to be five pounds and then they could start to feed on the smaller whitefish that were in the lake. When they could eat those, it became an all-you-can eat buffet. Then the growth rate took off exponentially, so you could get 25-30 pound trout. Here’s the growth rate growing up very, very, very, very slowly. When they get to the size that they could eat whitefish, it went like this in the later part of their life, but still you’re looking at a 20-pound trout that was 20 years old or older. So that is significant. You could be a 20-year-old fisherman catching a 20-pound trout back then and it was the same age as you. Your lives were in the same parallel course, that to me is significant.

At those times, you would see in May before the lake stratified, you could come down the lake on Route 80, you could be out on the lake in a boat and you could see these huge lake trout, you couldn’t see the trout, but what they would do to feed on a whitefish that say was three or four pounds, they would hit it, they wouldn’t go up and grab it. They would butt it with their head and stun it, so now that whitefish is stunned and it comes to the surface like this. Those big Lakers follow it up and then they would play with it and do whatever they did with it and get it to a point where they could get it into their gullet. And you could sit and watch that for 20 minutes on the surface of the lake. It wasn't uncommon at all in the springtime to see that. We might see that again now because the whitefish are making a resurgence. The other baitfish are down, and it’s almost like it was again 40 years ago. We have come back to the beginning again, which I think is good in a sense. We got rid of the alewives, especially. They were a horrible nuance, and I probably know the men that put them in there. I probably know the men, for sure, that put smelt in there back in the 70s, because the smelt were an introduction at the time of the first OPEC gas crisis in ’72-’73, and there were local guys in Richfield that used to go up and smelt up north, either in Caroga Lake or in Fulton Chain. Then with the price of gas they couldn’t afford to do that, so they went up into the Fulton Chain and collected smelt, the eggs and the milk in a bucket, and they dumped them in Canadarago and Otsego [Lakes] both, back ’72-’73, somewhere in there, and they took off like wildfire in both lakes. The smelting in Canadarago Lake before they really managed the lake you could walk down to a stream in the springtime and take a net, a smelt net, and dip it in. It would be full. You didn’t need to turn on a flashlight, you could dump it in your bucket and go home. That’s how thick the smelt were. And Otsego Lake was very good. Now they are making a resurgence. They are filling a void again. I think the smelt in Otsego Lake, which is tremendously interesting for fishermen because of the land-locked salmon, that’s their favorite food. If you have a lake that produces a good smelt population and you have the land-locks in there, you are going to have a tremendous fishery, a really appealing fishery.

But they don’t want that in Cooperstown. They don’t want that public, they want all the benefits of management through state funds. I mean, it’s a SUNY Biological Field Station, the taxpayers, everybody’s got a dollar in. We stock the lake, the lake is stocked through sportsmen’s dollars. The fishing licenses are what provide the stocking for that lake. Now there’s debating [among] the fisheries biologists here, who don’t know this history in region four, which is in Stamford and Schenectady, they don’t realize this history and the importance of it. There was actually discussion about not stocking the lake, to discontinue stocking the lake, not realizing that that’s a policy decision that would affect the future management of the lake. If you don’t stock the lake and you don’t have the fishermen’s dollar in there, the fishermen don’t have a seat at the table, now do they? So, to me it’s an underhanded back door way of making the lake a private lake, which I don’t want to see. It’s not a private lake, it shouldn’t be a private lake. It’s a public body of water, the 13th largest public body of water in New York State. It deserves good management, good policies, not just for the special interests but for all of us.

We would all like to see, if you were a hiker you want to see your favorite spot in the Adirondacks for hiking only, someone else is a snowmobiler, an ATV guy, somebody else wants to build a ski area. There’s got to be a fair balance of uses of the lake. I don’t think that the fishermen were a threat then, or now, or ever with reasonable practices. They kept the boat launch out, but did they keep the invasives out? No, and the fact is that what they considered a boat launch in Lakefront [Park] down by the Lakefront Motel on Fair Street is not a boat launch, according to the DEC, because they charge a fee to wash boats there. I’m all for protecting the lake. I’m all for protecting every body of water against invasives. I think we should have been a lot stricter 25 years ago, but people show up on the lake early in the morning or late at night and no one is there to monitor that. We can educate ourselves so much, but we really should be stricter and more aware of protecting our natural resources if they are going to be there.

Some of these other lakes, the Great Lakes are horrible. The spiny water flea, the goby, the Asian carp, zebra mussels, all of these things that have exploded in the last 25 years. We’ve been asleep at the switch as far as I’m concerned. I don’t describe myself as an environmentalist, I describe myself as a sentient human being with a heart [laughs]. I don’t think it’s a political thing at all, it shouldn’t be a political thing at all, I think we all agree on that.

A:
On the topic of maintenance, what is your opinion on erosion and runoff around the lake?

M:
Oh boy, well you know I’m not an expert and I’m not trying to be. I have seen where on both the east and the west sides of the lake were storm events and other events where we’ve had erosion. And that was instrumental for the whole program of the buoys out in the lake. There’s a 200 foot no wake zone and they maintain those buoys. I’m actually on the water quality committee, Otsego County Water Quality Committee, so I’d say it’s an expense to maintain those buoys and put them out there. Sometimes I think its just a PR thing in terms of they were concerned with boating traffic causing erosion coming off the shorelines, the waves causing siltation coming into the lake, which of course is a problem. Going back historically, though, and they put this squarely on the back of fishermen and fishing boats, there’s a ton of recreational boats out there now and not very many of them are fishing boats the way they used to be. I can go along with that, sure, let’s not erode the shoreline like that. But to be honest about it, if you look back, the real causes of that erosion historically have been manmade events where they’ve raised to lake level to protect the water intake in the Village of Cooperstown. I haven’t gone back personally to check this out but I know it’s true, is that back in the 50s, the last time they raised the lake level, there was a tremendous fish kill. It silted in spawning areas for walleye that used to be there historically, and I think that’s what brought an end to what had been an excellent, maybe the best in the state, walleye fishery, was those events.

Speaking to people who were there at the time, including the Thayers, there were tens of thousands of whitefish, the lake whitefish that died at that point. We didn’t understand then the effect that siltation [had], some of the things we would do on the lake, how it would affect the fisheries and the water quality of the lake, but it certainly did. Yeah, sure, we ought to be concerned about siltation and erosion into the lake. I think that most of it, if you look at it in modern terms, could be mitigated. The OCCA [Otsego County Conservation Association] and the [Biological] Field Station are on top of this stuff for 50 years, in the case of the field station. And, the Soil and Water Conservation District and the Water Quality Committee, if there is not an awareness of this stuff around Otsego Lake, there’s not an awareness anywhere. My involvement with it was that they were trying to put it on the backs of the fishermen and the boating public, which was not fair and not necessarily true. There were other mitigating factors and I can say honestly that the worst events were to protect the water quality and the drinking water of Otsego Lake [laughs], that they inadvertently, that other things came along with that they couldn’t anticipate at the time. I don’t want to be labeled as a polluter of the lake and again, the [hydrocarbs], I can go on about this for hours, if you go out in March and you drill a hole in the ice when spring is coming and the ice is melting and all of that water is rushing down the hole that you drilled. You drill a hole today, you come back tomorrow and it’s going to be black. There are going to be all kinds of particulates that washed out of the air that are now in your water. That came from the air, that’s where that came from, atmospheric particulate matter, mostly hydrocarbons and soot. What happens to that stuff? Generally speaking, when the ice melts it floats on the surface and washes down the river and it’s out of the lake. They used to have very polluting motors, boat motors. They were geared so they would run rich and you could troll with the thing and see a plum of smoke going down the lake. As ugly and unappetizing as that is, even then, most of that stuff washed out of the lake, which isn’t a good thing either. It’s someone else’s problem then. We weren’t polluting the lake with boat motors, compared to some of the other problems the lake has for sure. I don’t know if that answers your question or not.

A:
Oh no, it did.

M:
It did?

A:
Yes.

M:
Okay.

A:
How do you think we can balance economic development and environmental protection?

M:
I don’t know. I can say that man is the number one invasive species and we are facing real problems in terms of our quality of life with an expanding population. In my lifetime, that’s what I think. I think it’s a difficult thing to consider, but I’m also a glass is half full type of personality. I think that if we put the resources and the political will into policies that we can do anything we want to do. I grew up with JFK [President John F. Kennedy]. I was a young man when he said we could go to the moon by the end of the decade and we did. That was hugely inspiring, and we just lack the will. Our politics, both sides, progressive and conservative, are failing us, because I don’t think that they’re addressing the issues in a substantive way that people want it to be. We want these things, we want a quality of life and we want to protect the environment as well.

Having said that, if you go back a hundred and fifty years locally around Cooperstown, the economy was driven by agriculture and tourism. I don’t think much has changed; the agricultural part has changed. But Delaware County and Otsego County, the family farms are going by the board, but we are still the fifth largest agricultural producer. In the western part of the state, agriculture is a growth part of the economy out there. I think that we could bring back hops here, in terms of the economy we have a lot of water, wonderful artesian water. Some of these people drill wells and they are getting hundreds of thousands of gallons a day. We could be Belgium [laughs]. We could have craft breweries all over this county. In my mind I have some ideas of how we could drive the economy up here. I don’t think we’re ever going to see heavy industry and I don’t want to see heavy industry. Oneonta has the rail yard and they could do something there, but I don’t want to see heavy industry, I want to see everything else that we could possibly do. We have the resources and we have a labor force. People say, “Well, everybody is leaving” and we talk about that and that’s always been the case. Your children grow up and they move away, don’t they [Laughs]?

The farms here have disappeared. Delaware County has the land acquisition by New York City, so they are buying up that old farmland that will lay fallow, I guess, forever. Otsego County? Let’s grow our hops, let’s have our craft breweries. I don’t like, I worked in Cooperstown for a generation, and I saw the whole baseball thing take over, and that doesn’t please me. I don’t want to see it to turn into New Jersey like it has up in Hartwick Seminary, suburban sprawl. I remember it when it was different, when it was small town up here. I have very fond memories.

I knew a Tunnicliff, probably the last Tunnicliff to live locally, Henry Tunnicliff. He lived on Tunnicliff road in Springfield in the Town of Warren. This was going back to the early 60’s and I knew him when I was a young boy as well. He had a farm that he ran off the grid, he had two draft horses and a dog named Yummy, and he drove a car. He was a tall Englishman and he wore a flannel shirt buttoned up to the neck with a little bowtie and the English cabby’s hat on and the galluses or whatever you call suspenders, work pants and boots. He was a throwback and ran his farm all mechanical, nothing gasoline driven. He liked his place which was a Tunnicliff place going back to the colonial era with kerosene. I have such memories going to see Henry Tunnicliff and he took me out to this place and showed me this artesian spring out behind the house. That’s why when you see old houses out here you’ll always find a spring. He said, “This is the headwaters of the Susquehanna, right here!” That spring of course is now grown in, I went back to look, and somewhere in the early to mid-70s, he died in the 60s, and the house sat vacant and then some vandals burned it. We lost all of that history that was in that house, it was a remarkable history that was lost at that time. The last of the Tunnicliffs, Henry, “Henny,” he didn’t have a tooth in his head. And he would always come to my aunt, who was a spinster aunt, and I was a boy, 13 or 14 years old, and he would do odd jobs for her and chores. She would call him Henny, and would invite him over for dinner. I used to help her out in the summertime, I would stay in the summer as a boy. [She would ask him], “what would you like for dinner, Henny?” And he would go, “Porkchops,” didn’t have a tooth in his head. He would sit there and gum those porkchops right down. A rotten big jaw flapping, but what a nice man. Real people, and when they would hear a car go by, day or night, they knew who it was. [ Announcer’s voice] “Well he’s going into town to probably get his paper or go to the post office!” All that small-town stuff, it was wonderful.

A:
Since we are coming to a close, I’ll ask you two or three more questions.

M:
Sure

A:
What would a public boat launch offer the community now on Otsego Lake [pronounced incorrectly]?

M:
Otsego.

A:
Otsego [correctly].

M:
You’ll get there [chuckling].

[Laughter]

Well, it would address those continuing problems, I mean, the problems were well defined 25 years ago. A lack of adequate safe access to the lake for the public. That’s still a problem. There was a settlement reached at that point where access would be provided through several of the marinas and motels up along the lake, including Sammy Smith’s, the Bayside, and maybe several more, and the Lakefront. Those have largely gone by the board and there was actually a law passed by our local state senator. He proposed a law and it was passed in the legislature, limiting a potential boat launch to the size of the boat motor that would be used. So, I see no reason why we can’t go that route now. It would address the need for access to the lake and it would also offer an opportunity to control the invasives a little better without a cost to the village and the volunteer organizations like the OCCA. They could hand that part over and use their money for other things. There is excellent potential, there was a study done by the Otsego County Planning Department back in the 90s some time, I have a copy of it, and it’s available through the Planning Department in Cooperstown. They did the study as though every single property on the lake was potentially available for boat launch, and they went around, it’s 47 pages or something like that or longer. In terms of the state park offering a boat launch they said that the western end of it, there’s a pavilion there, I don’t know what they called it, they called it something other than pavilion, but the western end of it offered excellent feasibility, that’s a quote, “excellent feasibility” quote-unquote for a boat launch. That report was then handed over to [phone rings] to the Otsego County Planning Board. [Phone is answered by Mike’s partner Carol] which is different than the Planning Department, the planning professionals. They tabled that, it never saw the light of day. That report still exists, it says that the state park offers excellent feasibility despite everything you are going to hear in Cooperstown for a boat launch. We’re not asking for much, we are just asking for a little bit. And that little bit is important in a lot of ways, the way I’ve just described also to protect the legacy of the fishermen and fishing and that history that is in danger, to me, of being lost. I think that since the park is run by the Office of Parks and Recreation and Historical Preservation, that it fits in their mission and they ought to be aware of that and work with us to protect that legacy. I don’t know if there is anything else I can say on that.

We shouldn’t have lost, but we did. We fought the good fight. I did all of that with a rotary phone in my living room in Richfield Springs and yellow legal pads and a lot of passion for it. I went to eight meetings or so a month, because I didn’t want to miss anything and the woman who was working with the OCCA against me is now a very good friend of mine. I used to curse her because she never missed a meeting and her homework was always done. She’s an ace, she’s a wonderful woman and, “Oh, Theresa’s here again, oh my goodness.” But now some of the people that I fought with 25 years ago have come around to a different way of thinking about it.

I think that in the crudest form you got what is considered to be the tree hugging environmentalist, spandex wearing, latte drinking people in Cooperstown versus the farmers and the sportsmen and the deer hunters. I hate to have it come down to that; I hate to think of it. But in some ways, that probably defined how the two sides thought about each other. A bunch of yokels against. . .and my feeling on it, especially regarding the lake and history, is that the people I represented, the locals here that go back generations and generations and generations. There had been a focus group, that’s what the state called it. It was up in Cooperstown High School. “Okay, everybody get together, both sides, and everybody gets, you, you, you, you get a paragraph or a sentence to say and then you sit down.” They just wanted those little snippets, that sociological type of thing. So we all show up at the high school in Cooperstown and the first person to speak was Henry Cooper and Henry Cooper went on for 15-20 minutes about the legacy of the lake and the history of the lake and everything like that and it just took the whole thing and turned it inside out and upside down. It was a terrible event after that.

Duration

30:23- Track 1
30:00-Track 2
13:55- Track 3

Bit Rate/Frequency

192 kbps-Track 1
128 kbps- Tracks 2 & 3

Files

Citation

Aubrey Kirsch , “Mike Empey, November 8, 2017,” CGP Community Stories, accessed September 19, 2018, http://cgpcommunitystories.org/items/show/309.