Paintings in Place: Lake Pocotopaug

Posted on December 6, 2015



If you draw an “X” through a map of Connecticut, your two lines will meet at a point just west of Lake Pocotopaug, which sits in a depression among the hills of East Hampton. Known locally as Belltown USA, for a history of bell manufacturing that extends back to the early 19th century, the town still hosts some industry—at least one bell manufacturer remains—though many of its factory buildings have fallen out of use. The character of this quiet town is enhanced by its proximity to the lake. No matter one’s immediate preoccupations, the lake is never far from one’s consciousness, just as a character in a novel or film remains present while momentarily off-screen. A glimpse of reflected light between houses, or the sound of an outboard engine; these are reminders of the lake one comes to recognize. The life of the lake permeates the life that surrounds it.

Wider at its northern end than its southern, Lake Pocotopaug is a long oval turned slightly askew, the sharp Spellman Point cleaving the northern end into two wide bays. On a map, it has the shape of a moth seen in three-quarters view, so that its left wing, nearer the viewer, is larger than its right. Dammed at its southern end to provide water for American Distilling, a witch hazel manufacturer, the lake runs into Bevins Pond, where it was dammed again to power Bevins Brothers Manufacturing, a bell foundry. From there, runoff travels down Pocotopaug Creek, meeting the Pine Brook Creek a few miles to the south and soon spilling into the Salmon River. This, in turn, feeds into the Connecticut River, which carries its water southeast to be deposited, eventually, into Long Island Sound.

A boat tour of the lake is as much a tour of its properties, with homes that present themselves to the water in the way that non-lakeside homes present themselves to the street. The most regular sign of such an orientation is the docks, which—in the summertime—emerge from each home as regularly as driveways. To these are tethered every type of watercraft: pontoon party boats, canoes, kayaks, rowboats, sunfish, and small pleasure and ski boats. The density of boat traffic out on the water waxes and wanes to some secret principle. The small sailboats are the prettiest of the lake’s fleet, and the quietest. Ski boats make themselves known both by the sound of their engines and the site of rooster tails they throw back into their own wakes. Twice-daily dips in the lake, mandatory in at least one home, offer the palette a taste of algae and gasoline.

The lake is ringed by properties so unique that each must be the very personification of its owners, a source of endless speculation to the Pocotopaug circumnavigator. There are water-ski palaces, three stories of wide lake-facing picture windows stacked atop drive-in boat bays, in which twin-engine ski boats sit elevated in slings—perfectly-calibrated machines resting between uses. Such homes and their boats refer to each other reflexively, just as the nearby cottage and the modest canoe tethered to its dock do.

The home familiar to me could be pictured, then, as the partner to its boats; a sky-blue dual-hull 1970s Glastron powered by a 115 Evinrude, with blue seats and silver-trimmed windshield, a squat fiberglass rowboat, a sunfish with the color all but bleached from its sails and an aluminum canoe. During the summer, when the house is open, the power boat bobs at a mooring fifteen feet from shore, and the rowboat bobs along the dock, its stern kept from bumping it by virtue of a small yellow anchor tossed up onto the lawn. The sunfish and canoe wait in their storage below the raised living room, ready to be dragged across the lawn and pushed from the stone retaining wall into the lake at a moment’s notice.

This house, like others on the lake, follows the custom whereby the American flag it flies is taken down at sundown, to be raised in the morning and flown during the daylight hours. The flag flies from a holder secured to a vertical corner post, about ten feet above the lawn. At this height, it is visible from the north-facing living-room windows, so that it frames the right-most part of one’s view as one looks out to the lake—to watch a water-skier carve a wide arc through the bay, or to check on the progress of a fisherman. The flag goes with the house as naturally as the boats do. It is a symbol, to be sure, but also a comfort in its physical familiarity, the way that all other objects in the house are: photographs; a piano; a deck of cards beside a cribbage board and beers in the second fridge.

Above the living room is a long attic, recently converted from a storage space to a spare and quiet guest room. It is furnished with a low bed and a dresser, two bedside tables, and two chairs, placed next to the lakeside window. Watching from here, tucked under the pitched roof, one can indulge a voyeuristic pleasure in watching the lake impossible from other vantage points. On the ground floor, views out are as likely to accommodate views in, so that to sit and watch the lake from the living room or kitchen is to participate with the lake as actively as fishing or boating on it are. But from the guest room, one can look out without being seen, or even lie on the bed and listen to the lake, as I have done on late summer afternoons.

In this season, if the day is clear and the angle of the sun on the water is right, the lake will even lay its claim to that secluded attic guest room, projecting an image through the Venetian blinds onto the sloped ceiling by the window. Here one encounters a profound accident of nature, where the very symbol hung outside the home is projected back in, as powerful and alive as ever.