An old iron bridge, closed to cars for many years, takes hikers over the Seneca River, to Howland Island, a few miles north of Port Byron, NY.  About halfway between Rochester and Syracuse.



The island is a state “wildlife management” area, 3,500 acres, near the better-known Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, 10,000 acres, run by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Like so many words connected with the federal government, “refuge” is used ironically, since they allow hunting and trapping.

“Wildlife management” seems more honest, with its suggestion of headhunters, cutthroat competition, and getting the ax.  Or maybe, like, letting the animals run things, which seems to be the current political trend.  Howland is hunting land, and not a park, but most of the year, it’s a great place to just walk and bird watch.  The rifle & shotgun “downsizing” season for deer would be the exception, and in late November/early December, you don’t wanna go near the hunting areas.

Waterfowl season, it’s pretty safe, just stay away from the ponds, wear orange, and I always remove the plumes from my Tyrolean hat.

Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium)  Which despite its name, turns reddish or coppery in the fall.  Now that I no longer have to mow a lawn, I’ve grown enthusiastic about grasses.


Howland is just barely an island, almost a peninsula most of the year.  The channel on the longest, northwest side is narrow in some places, hardly more than a big ditch, except during the spring floods.  But the river along the south shore is pretty broad and impressive.




The Seneca River begins in Geneva, as the overflow from Seneca Lake, and then wanders more-or-less northeast, picking up water from a number of creeks, and most of the Finger Lakes.  North of Syracuse, it helps to form the Oswego River, which empties into Lake Ontario.  It was a trading route for the Iroquois, and then for the colonial fur trade, and for almost two hundred years, sections have been dredged and “canalized” as part of the Erie Canal system.

So today, you can cast off your boat from, say, Watkins Glen, on the southern end of Seneca Lake (42° N), only thirty miles north of the Pennsylvania line, and sail, by way of canals, Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River, all the way to the North Atlantic, at Nova Scotia or Newfoundland (49° N).

(Or you could reach the Atlantic by way of the Mohawk River, and then south on the Hudson River to New York City.)

(Or, if it’s a really small, inflatable boat, you could put it in a duffle bag, go to the Trailways station in Elmira, take a bus to Patchogue, then take the ferry out to Fire Island, and row into the Atlantic from the beach.)

(And the buses do have WiFi now, and I’m guessing the St. Lawrence River doesn’t, unless you’re really close to Montréal.)

(If you do choose that St. Lawrence route, remember, when asking for the WiFi password as you float past Montréal or Québec, they pronounce it “le wee fee.”)

(I’m not trying to tell you which is the best route, you know, but if you did take the bus to Patchogue, you could stop by Flo’s Luncheonette, and have waffles, before you get back in the boat.)

(But for heaven’s sake, wait half an hour, after the waffles, before you go onto the ocean.)


a calm backwater along the eastern border of the island


Waffles, yeah.  I have not had waffles since I moved to Milwaukee.  It is getting cold, and time for waffle long johns, and for waffles.  Where was I?


cellphone snap of a heron enjoying lunch

I’ve walked around the island many times, and am often struck by the relative scarcity of game.  I’ve don’t recall ever seeing any grouse, pheasants, or rabbits, or even their tracks.  Despite the hickory trees, even squirrels make themselves scarce.  A few whitetails, groundhogs, and ducks, but there are way more deer, geese, and turkeys in the surrounding farms, than that woods and ponds here.  So maybe word gets around, and the animals actually avoid a designated hunting zone?


A young painted turtle was flipped over, next to a culvert, and looked pretty disgruntled, but it cheered right up once we got it right-side up, and set it on a nice patch of mud


Some acreage is leased for growing soybeans, but no one lives on the island anymore.   Woods, fields, sandy hillocks, ponds and marshes.  Settlers in the early 1800’s spent a lot of time draining the swampy areas, and then in the 1930’s, the Civilian Conservation Corp reversed course, and spent a lot of time creating ponds and marshes, for waterfowl.  The CCC barracks later housed POWs from Rommel’s Afrika Korps, who worked as farm labor ($.80/day), and in a nearby Procini & Rossi pasta factory.  (Apparently, things worked out peaceably – I’ve never read of any escapes, or trouble of any kind.  Although, being German, they insisted on straightening the elbow macaroni.)



On a walk in October, it seemed surprising to find dozens of orange butterflies, fluttering around with the falling leaves, almost like they were trying to blend in.  ¿I think they were Question Mark Butterflies?  (which seem to have a varied appearance, depending on which book or website you’re looking at), but please let me know if that guess is wrong.



The very green frog, is named appropriately – Northern Green Frog.  He blew a lot of money on that camouflage outfit, feeling pretty fly, as frogs said back in the ’90’s, but now he finds he’s no longer blending in, as the leaves and ferns turn brown.  You know the song sung by Kermit on the Muppets, right?  I had to look up the writer, Joe Raposo, and I had no idea it was covered by Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Van Morrison, Shirley Horn, Lena Horne, Diana Ross, Della Reese, Ray Charles, etc.


It’s not that easy bein’ green

Having to spend each day

The color of the leaves

When I think it could be nicer

Bein’ red or yellow or gold…


There is absolutely nothing spectacular about Howland Island. It’s just a pleasant place to stretch your legs. There are generally a couple of people fishing in the river, and on a typical day, when it’s not hunting season, you’ll probably have the place pretty much to yourself.


Looking at that frog reminds me.  Did you know our military now has at least ten types of camouflage, for different situations?  The Navy has a uniform for the desert, which is a bit mystifying, unless your ship was going really, really fast when it hit land.  Or maybe, once in a while, the sailors just like to get as far away from water as they can?  And according to the Washington Post, the Navy wanted to distinguish their uniforms from the Marines’, so their desert pattern is green.

Maybe “sand” was too obvious?  I guess if the Navy guys are green, and sticking out like a sore thumb, they could hunker down, and pretend they’re frogs?  Just abnormally large, Northern Green Frogs, who tragically, have become lost in the desert.  Technically, that kind of camo’s called “mimesis,” trying to look like something else, rather than “crypsis,” avoiding detection.


A discarded snakeskin almost made me jump out of my skin


Well, I had been feeling kinda good about this post, actually staying focused & on track, but now somehow we’ve wandered into a discussion of Muppets and camouflage?  I suddenly thought, wasn’t the inventor of waffle irons named Howland?  That would be a nice coincidence and a good wrap-up.  But I was thinking of Elias Howe, and it was a sewing machine.  But I’m sure some people are aware of another Howland Island, a tiny coral lump somewhere in the Pacific, where Amelia Earhart was headed, when she disappeared, kind of like the thread of this story.  The airstrip there was another New Deal project, done about the same time they were constructing the ponds on our local island.

The Pacific’s Howland Island, now managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, is one of only ten remaining territories still claimed by our country, under the Guano Islands Act of 1856.  That law is still on the books, allowing us, the citizens of the U.S.A., to take possession of any unclaimed islands, as long as they (the islands) have a really big pile of bird excrement.  No kidding.  And on that note, I’m gonna go get some waffles.


Washington Post May 8, 2013  “U.S. Military has 10 Kinds of Camouflage”


Finger Lakes, FLX, Nature, NY, Uncategorized, Upstate New York

Walks Around the Finger Lakes. October. Howland Island.


35 thoughts on “Walks Around the Finger Lakes. October. Howland Island.

  1. Lovely photos, Robert. I’m still trying to get my head around the navy camouflage for the desert. Perhaps it’s remained green because it’s never been used, so no one realised it didn’t work too well?

  2. Inquiring (bilingual) minds want to know: do you have to pay a wee fee to use le wi-fi?

    The reddish grass you asked about certainly looks like little bluestem, which I’ve enjoyed photographing at that late stage in Texas each fall.

    Maybe you should start a comic strip called Mimesis and Crypsis, with two characters that are hard to see.

    • That’s an interesting idea, and I take it as a compliment, thank you. The area does get tourists, but for winery tours and boating, not sure if those folks would be interested in history or nature. But a very interesting idea – and after all, you can only visit so many wineries, distilleries, microbreweries, cideries. I’ll actually mention this to my sister, who’s more personable and knows plants & science stuff, for a supplemental summer job. (She grinds up leaves all summer, and tests them for disease at the state ag station, I think this would be more fun)

      • Even way over here in Texas, New York State has run occasional commercials playing up its subsidized business development zones in economically depressed areas. I wonder if a company that offered tours would qualify for that sort of subsidy.

    • Hi Kevin, thanks, yeah, I think going up the Hudson and the Mohawk would be pretty cool. Although when I moved here to Milwaukee, there’s a lighthouse museum with a huge chart of the shipwrecks on the Great Lakes, thousands of them, apparently a pretty dangerous place sometimes! Like Gordon Lightfoot’s “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”

  3. I was gonna comment on the wee fee as well, until Steve beat me to it.
    I don’t know if your query about the butterflies is wrong, but it might be questionable. Like your post, I’m not sure where this comment is going, and that’s no guano.

  4. Ah, those old iron bridges … there are two that cross the Saranac River near my family home, appearing frequently in my past experiences and memories. One was replaced with something more modern that barely registers as a bridge when you drive or walk across it; it seems more like a big sidewalk now. The other, while still there, is now closed to pedestrians and vehicles — which is unfortunate because from that one you had a great view of the river, as the bridge was probably 80-100 feet above the water. Too bad the states don’t think of them as historical sites, sink a little more into preservation, and at least keep more of them open for walkers and hikers.

    I always liked the deep red rust … gave the bridges real character and texture, especially in the fall when the light was low, the reds and oranges were accentuated, and the trees turned colors nearby …. like in your pictures!

    • This bridge, despite 0 maintenance, seems to be in decent condition. I was sorry NYS didn’t take over the high RR bridge at Letchworth, over the falls of the Genesee River, one of the highest trestle bridges in the east. It’s been replaced by a new bridge, and the old one has been totally dismantled.

  5. OKaaaaay, now my head is spinning! And it’s a delight. I’d like to follow you on most of your meanderings, but I want to get back to the beauty of the images – really, there is great beauty there. I like the bridge supports against the foliage, the Seneca River’s utter stillness, and the butterfly and frog especially. I think you have to see the underside to distinguish question mark from comma? I don’t remember, but I used to delight in these kinds of butterflies back east. Not so many here, but we have lichens. 🙂 I love your ideas for ways to access the big waters. Have a waffle for me – I have avoided those for quite a while now. :-0

  6. Thank you for the reminder about waffles! I haven’t had any in a while. I wonder if I could make waffles without a proper waffle maker. I guess I’ll have to try it on my blog. Cheers!

    • I was in an art gallery recently, and they had a manhole cover, that they were inking up and making prints, that to me, looked like giant waffles. I don’t want anybody to fall in a storm drain, but if you cleaned one up, and put it on your barbeque grill…

  7. Those are lovely pictures at the beginning of the essay, from the bridge and of the placid waters. This reminds me of a former very fond acquaintance of mine from photography forum stuff on the web (regretfully who I lost touch with over the years as a result of my sporadic disappearances from the internet) who lived on a bend in the Seneca River. Her place had a broad, grassy lawn which sloped gently to meet the water and I swear not once did I ever see a scene from the river in that spot that didn’t resemble a mirror pond. Oh what a place to live.

    • It’s a pretty low-profile river, and unless people live in the immediate neighborhood, they often haven’t heard of it. It passes through the village where I grew up, in the form of the Cayuga-Seneca Canal, and because it’s “canalized” it always seemed very tame to me, no exciting rapids or floods. But I appreciate it much more now. Sometimes I do wonder if growing up near these meandering creeks and rivers has affected my mental processes! 🙂

  8. I’ve just been looking at those first three photos of the bridges. Perfection. They didn’t even need CorTen steel to get that wonderful patina. If I had a chance to visit the area, I certainly wouldn’t waffle.

    Down here, we judge the severity of hurricanes by the number of Waffle Houses that are left once the winds die down. Come hellish winds or high water, Waffle Houses just keep on pouring that batter — at least, as long as they can. The FEMA Waffle House index for judging the severity of a hurricane is a real thing.

    Now I want waffles.

  9. So did you find a good place for waffles in Milwaukee?
    Your butterfly shot is wonderful. I like the way the yellow leaf brings out the yellow on its wings. Anglewings, (Commas and Question Marks) and Mourning Cloaks will all surprise you by coming out on warm winter days. They feed on sap from trees and over winter as adults. The lovely frog is a leopard frog, a real favorite of mine and a denizen of Illinois Beach State Park. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need some waffles.

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