First published in The Record, Aug. 12, 2018
47 miles from manhattan, a bucolic paradise
On land, Joan LaDuke is slow.
Two new hips and severe arthritis make sure of that.
But now she settles into her green canoe, takes her wooden paddle in both hands, and gives the smooth surface of Lake Gerard two quick chops. The canoe scoots forward. As soon as the tail clears the dock, she lifts a custom St. Croix rod above her head, flicks it, and lofts her turquoise plastic bait 30 feet.
It lands exactly where she intends, near the rocky shore, in the still-dark shallows.
She paddle-chops the water. She casts. On her sixth attempt, she hooks a little perch.
She reels it in, fish and fog bouncing across the water’s gray surface.
She steadies the fish over the canoe, frees it, tosses it underhand back into the water, chops twice, casts again.
It is Saturday, a few minutes before 6 a.m. The lake is silent. Over her shoulder, the sun rises above the beach. LaDuke first saw this place when she was 4 months old. As a girl, she used to take her tiny sailboat out on this lake and beat the boys at sailing.
“I still have the trophies,” she said.
Now LaDuke is 78. On land, she is slow. On water, she's fast as ever.
“When it wobbles, they hit it,” she said of her plastic bait. “And the minute they hit it, you’ve got to react.”
Relic of a lost age
The New Jersey Highlands is a series of ancient ridge lines, a low-rise parapet that traces the roof line of the Appalachian Mountains. Between the broken-down mountains lie valleys that run northeast to southwest. In the valleys lie little lakes.
Many of the lakes once resembled Lake Gerard, in Hardyston, said Julia Somers, executive director of the New Jersey Highlands Coalition. Their shores were lined with tent sites and cabins that attracted people from Paterson, Passaic, Newark and New York City — people who eschewed the Jersey Shore but still found ways to escape the summer heat.
“We think that tourism in New Jersey is all about the shore,” Somers said. “It’s not. It’s much easier to get to the Highlands than it is to go down the shore, I assure you.”
In the beginning, most of the cabins were uninsulated shells, too cold to serve as winter homes.
“My dad came up here in 1931,” LaDuke said. “He had a tent, an old army tent on a wooden platform. We came up here and camped all summer.”
After World War II, the culture of many of New Jersey's lakes changed. Cabins with wells and outhouses were replaced with insulated homes with running water and full baths. The lakes became full-time, year-round communities. Some small homes mutated into mansions.
“The lakes nearby, they were very much like us,” said Billy Barrett, 74, who bought a cabin on Lake Gerard in 1984. “But they’re all residential now. They’re not vacation destinations anymore.”
The rules changed, too. Instead of paddling in canoes, people who fish other Highlands lakes gas up their outboards and power across the water, leaving wakes of rocky waves, smelly exhaust and buzz saw noise.
As the day warms up, Jet Skis howl.
“The Jet Skis! Oh!” said Barrett, who lives in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. “I think people on some of these lakes have come to regret letting those things in.”
Once typical of New Jersey's summer lake communities, Lake Gerard is now an anachronism. It consists of 74 houses, all of them cabin-sized. Most are occupied only during the summer, Barrett said, and all residents must prove they maintain a primary residence someplace else.
Gas-powered boats, now a familiar sight on most New Jersey lakes, are banned. The fastest way across the lake is by paddle board.
“These kids get out here and race these paddle boards,” LaDuke said. “They can get from one side of the lake to the other in three or four minutes!”
The return of children to Lake Gerard is the biggest thing to happen here in generations.
A quiet lake grows quieter
When LaDuke was a girl, all the serious stuff happened in cities. She went to school in Paterson. Her father left home at 4 a.m. for Passaic, where he owned an Esso gas station on Broadway, returning late in the afternoon.
Lake Gerard was the place for fun. Here she rode her bicycle, sailed boats and played kick the can with dozens of friends. At night they caught fireflies.
“We probably had 20 kids on this side” of the lake, said LaDuke, whose father built his cabin by hand in 1950. “Oh, boy, did we have fun.”
Gradually the fun died down.
When Barrett started bringing his family to the lake in 1984, “Our son Jack was the only kid on the lake. It was a lot of older people.”
At first, it was a simple matter of old families getting older, their children moving on.
Then Lake Gerard became the site of one of the longest landlord-tenant disputes in New Jersey’s history.
Vacationers on Lake Gerard own their cabins. But they rent the land from the Gerard family, which owns the lake and the surrounding land, about 600 acres in all, said Harriet Gerard, a member of the family.
When LaDuke’s father first arrived, he paid the Gerards $250 a year to rent a lakeside plot. By the 1980s, each of the 74 tenants was paying $962 in rent, Barrett said, leaving the Gerards less than $75,000 a year to maintain the beach, the community building and two dirt roads, and to monitor the lake’s water quality.
The Gerards offered a new lease with higher rents. Tenants worried it was a step toward removing them from the property and developing the land, Barrett said. They refused to sign.
So in 1991, the Gerards sued to evict them. The fight rose to the state Supreme Court. It didn’t end until 2010, with a settlement that both sides describe as cordial and permanent.
“It’s peace, which is a good thing,” said Gerard, 56, who lives in Oyster Bay, New York. “You go to a lake property because you want to relax. And how can you relax if you’re angry all time?”
The Gerards won a significant rent increase, and assurance that the community's character will not change.
“It’s a very rustic, natural environment,” Gerard said. “And that’s the way we’d like it to stay.”
The tenants won the right to stay.
“It gives people a sense of permanence,” Barrett said.
With the lake’s future secured, young families felt it was safe to buy in, bringing their children to the lake.
“It’s really wonderful to see kids enjoying the lake and hearing the laughter,” said Barrett, who’s seen about 20 cabins change hands. “It’s a rebirth.”
New blood means a few more generations may get the chance to learn Lake Gerard the way Joan LaDuke learned it.
“They’re a spectacular secret that many people don’t know of,” Somers said of the Highlands lakes. “You don’t need to go to New England to have a glorious summer. It’s right here in our backyard.”
Knowing the way
LaDuke usually starts fishing by 5:30 a.m. She is happy that children have returned to Lake Gerard, but she prefers to fish alone.
“People are up for the weekend, and people will be on the water today, and the kids will be out,” she said. “In the morning, it’s just peaceful.”
After three-quarters of a century, she knows the place well. There’s good fishing to the north, off in a cove shaped like a catcher’s mitt, but she doesn’t go so often anymore.
“We called it the beach run,” she said. “You go down to the beach and then there’s a left-hand turn that goes way down into that cove. And if you leave here at a quarter to six, by the time you get back here it’s 8:15, and you’re fighting the wind the whole way.”
Blueberry Island still has blueberries. Snake Island once had more snakes, but now they get chased around by an oily little muskrat who likes to burrow into the rocks.
South of the islands, three rocks poke from the water like the three sisters of Orion.
“The fish like it there,” LaDuke said. “Always have.”