A few weeks ago, I was using Google Maps to search for lakes north of the city. Most seemed to have your typical lake names, like Green Mountain Lake, or Harmony Lake, but one in particular caught my eye…
Does New York really have a Nuclear Lake??
Of course, the first image to pop into my head was the Nuclear Lake from The Simpsons, complete with three-eyed fish jumping about and a pipe openly dumping radioactive waste.
As it turns out, this actually isn’t all that far from the truth. In 1958, an experimental nuclear fuel research lab was set up on the shores of a lake in Pawling, NY, by Nuclear Development Associates. According to this 1955 NY Times article, the remote site was chosen because “it was the largest convenient and available tract that was not crossed by public roads and could be adequately guarded for secret experiments,” which would involve “uranium and other radioactive materials.” How reassuring!
All was apparently fissioning along just fine until the early 1970s, when two serious accidents occurred at the site. First, in 1971, a rubber stopper came off of a plutonium powder container, contaminating a lab room with radioactive material. Then, in 1972, a chemical explosion occurred in the building adjacent to the lake (pictured below in this NY Times article), causing an unknown amount of plutonium powder to spew out into the air and presumably onto the surrounding grounds. Nuclear Lake had earned its name.
Little seems to be known about the accident, though local legend has it that at least one person died, and that there was a cover-up. In the comments left to this Nuclear Lake post, one local recalls his mother, a nurse, saying that one of the victims came into the hospital with his watch melted down to his bone; another rumor has it that the ambulance he was transported in is buried on the site (you can read about a horrifying accident at a similar facility here).
A clean-up commenced at a cost of $3,000,000, and the land was deemed safe for “unrestricted use.” The company closed down the plant shortly after, and the land was sold to the National Park Service for inclusion into the Appalachian Trail. Though documents were found that suggested the company may have also been dumping radioactive waste water into the lake, a Nuclear Regulatory Commission study gave it a clean bill of health in 1994.
Of course, I had to visit Nuclear Lake for myself.
Last weekend, I drove up to Pawling with a few friends and my fluffy-butted dog Lulu. We parked at the trailhead and headed into the woods.
It didn’t take long before we began spotting the ubiquitous white blazes signifying the Appalachian Trail, painted every few trees (sadly, we didn’t see any thruhikers – perhaps it’s too early in the season?).
We continued deeper into the forest for about 20 minutes, seeing numerous squirrels, chipmunks, and woodpeckers, though surprisingly, not a single mutated turtle of either the teenage or ninja varieties.
Finally, we arrived at the Nuclear Lake loop trail, which circles around the lake to rejoin the AT on the other side.
Starting the trail, we soon came across the first remnant from the former lab: the original access road leading to the site, which appears to still be maintained. Crazy to think this was once a guarded road for a nuclear lab conducting secret research for the government.
Shortly after, we spotted a chain-link fence through the trees surrounding the former lab site.
Finally, we began to see water. We made our way through an opening in the trees…
…and arrived at the shores of the disgusting, grimy, pollution-filled Nuclear Lake.
Kidding, of course! Nuclear Lake is absolutely gorgeous, with nary a Swamp Thing or Gil-man to be found. In fact, many thruhikers on the Appalachian Trail describe it as one of the most beautiful sights on the entire trek.
But what about the former lab site? From our vantage point, we could see the area at the south side of the lake, surrounded on both sides by chain-link fences (all buildings have since been razed).
To the left, we could also see a floating barrier in the water. Any idea what the purpose of this is?
Hoping to take a look at the former lab site up close, we continued hiking around the lake, eventually rejoining the Appalachian Trail and heading back south.
Finally, we arrived at the insurmountable chain-link fence, clearly in place to prevent anyone from accidentally entering the contaminated grounds and inadvertently turning into either an Amazing Colossal Man or a 50-foot Woman, depending on your gender.
Kidding again. Actually, the fence is quite easy to get around, and seems only in place to prevent people from driving onto the former lab site.
Here is where the lab would have been…
…and if you can forget the possibility of getting a little plutonium dust in your sandwich, it really makes for a fantastic picnic location.
Here’s the picture of the abandoned lab again to give you a sense of where it was once situated:
Today, there’s no trace of the former buildings save for what appears to be a foundation off to one side (possibly remnants of the former waste disposal building?).
Stepping further back, it soon became clear that the entire area we were standing on was an artificial hill, made all the more obvious when you went down the slope on the far side:
We found a hatch set into the top, and while I’d like to believe it leads to a Dharma Initiative-like room (what were the numbers again??)…
…a better guess would be that it’s an access point for the dam opening at the base of the hill:
All in all, we had a beautiful two-hour hike, there were no unwanted mutations amongst the group, and about the only suspicious thing we came across were these oversized dandelions just outside the lab site (I suppose there are worse things in the world than mutant dandelions).
If you’re looking for a fun and relatively easy hike, Nuclear Lake definitely makes a great option. Despite Google Maps’ estimate, it only took us about an hour and twenty minutes to drive up to Pawling. We did the Nuclear Loop side first, but I’d actually recommend starting with the Appalachian Trail portion, which gives you the best views of the lake and plenty of picnic spots early on. You can find more info on the hike (including where to park) here.
PS – On the way back, I highly recommend a stop at Heinchon’s Ice Cream Parlor about 10 minutes away on Route 22 South.
Founded in 1923, the place is as old-fashioned as it gets. In fact, I think the sitting area literally qualifies as an actual parlor.
Head all the way to the back of the house for your ice cream – the mud pie was amazing.
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