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On the Bowl – A photographer finds serenity and beauty on this Berkshire body of water

It’s 5 a.m. Cup of coffee in hand, I look out the kitchen window to check the sky and see a faint, rose-colored glow. It’s a good sign. At the end of my road, I pause. Left or right? I turn right. Stockbridge Bowl has won the coin toss again. On mornings like this when I have no set assignments, serendipity rules. At the boat ramp, three fisherman are motoring out, intent on the first catch of the day. They are shrouded in fog, silhouetted against a vibrant pink sky. Picture perfect. Again. “Early risers are rewarded” is a career-long motto of mine, and after hundreds of sunrises here, the Bowl has seldom disappointed me.

That was almost not the case.

In the spring of 2002, we had just closed on a house in Lenox, leaving behind the Garrison on Hudson era of our lives. My attorney shook my hand and said with a knowing smile, “When people move to the Berkshires, they feel like they are coming home.” His words held great promise, and at his suggestion I set out that afternoon to scout one of his favorite places. I remember standing on the public boat ramp, saying to myself, “I don’t get it. It’s really more of a pond than a lake. Where’s the excitement, the mystery?” I was used to paddling on the Hudson as it coursed through the mountains of the Highlands. Just up river from my home, I’d traversed turbulent waters known as Hell’s Gate—and now I was going to be kayaking on a 372-acre bowl?

Evidently, Lake Mahkeenac did not take it personally. Returning the next morning at dawn, I pushed off from the shore, and the game for my acceptance was on. The water was like glass—no wake from a passing freighter to negotiate here. It perfectly reflected the clouds in a now-crimson sky. A startled heron took flight just ahead and drew my eye to an oncoming rowing scull. I was amazed that power and speed could look so effortless. As the rower crossed my path, the sun broke over the hills and presented me with a stunning silhouette. It was an awe-inspiring moment capped off with a gentle greeting of “good morning” as he rowed by. Later, pulling my kayak from the water, I realized that Stockbridge Bowl had won me over; I had found my new home on the water.

I wasn’t the only one. Lake Mahkeenac is a gathering place. Skaters and ice fishermen begin the yearlong season. In late spring and stretching across the summer, the Bowl teems with life. Rowers and fishermen alike launch before dawn. Kayaks slip into the lake shortly after them, and Camp Mahkeenac awakes to Reveille. Cottage owners, many of whom have been there for generations, enjoy coffee on their docks. Soon, waterskiing classes begin, the sails are raised at the Mahkeenac Boating Club, and everywhere across the lake there is laughter and swimming and people practicing the art of relaxation. After sunset, the glow of lanterns dot the shore, and families gather for cocktails before dinner. On a warm summer’s night, there is nothing quite like drifting out onto the water as the Boston Symphony serenades you from nearby Tanglewood.

 Daybreak in summer is short-lived but stunning. The transition from orange ball to blinding white light happens in a flash. If these sunrises are like a handshake, September and October’s invite you to slow dance. Fall stakes its claim to the Bowl after Labor Day, when the air begins to cool and morning fog allows the orange glow of dawn to linger longer.

This peaceful embrace welcomes you to autumn, soon followed by an explosion of energy that enters en mass onto the scene. The annual Josh Billings RunAground Triathlon, this year on September 15, has arrived. Squadrons of speeding bicycles are flung aside at the boat ramp. Teams of men and women rush racing boats into the lake for two marathon laps and then sprint to a road-race finish.

The motto of the Josh Billings is “To Finish Is to Win,” a saying that connects with me when I am photographing daybreak on Stockbridge Bowl. Just being present in those moments when twilight turns to dawn makes me feel like I have won the day’s race and am indeed at home in the Berkshires.




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