Summer may be over but not for these lake lovers

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Photo credit: Ed Staebler

The seasonal changing of leaves doesn’t change anything for these local hard-core waterskiers. Summer’s watersports aren’t over until they say it’s over. About one-fifth of North Salem’s homes surround Peach Lake, and to those who live there, Suzie Spillane is a staple to the energy that makes up this lake community.

Two to three times a day, residents view Spillane taking her counterclockwise laps, an unwritten but widely accepted rule around the private lake while offering her beaming smile and genuine “peace sign” to anyone she passes. Spillane's presence on the lake is so expected that neighbors get concerned when she isn’t there. “There was one year that I realized it was well into May and she wasn’t out yet. I worried that something had happened; that she was injured or sick or something. But then I heard that her boat was in for maintenance and that made more sense,” chuckled neighbor Sandy Mackenzie. “Sue is always out there. You can count on it.”

Perhaps fatefully introduced to Peach Lake, Spillane and her family spent memorable summers beginning in the early 70s at her husband’s family cottage located in Pietsch Gardens. Their love for the area motivated the family to eventually become full-time residents. This mom of five and woman now close to retirement age appreciates the good fortune of living in North Salem and the opportunity to connect to nature, the community, and her dreams. Memorialized in her high school yearbook, Spillane chuckles recalling how she wrote that she loved waterskiing. “I had never been,” she admits, “but I guess I just knew I was going to love it.” In her mid- 20s, while spending summers on the lake with her family, she tried waterskiing for the first time and fell in love as predicted.

Spillane, along with what she describes as the other “hard-core” skiers, take any and every chance they can to get out on the lake for a few laps. When asked what, if anything, could keep them from daily skiing, Spillane replies, “nothing, other than lightning.” Even rainy days don’t keep Spillane and friends from their passion. “You just toss on your goggles and go!” she advises. Fellow skier and Peach Laker, Jay Moore, agrees and proudly displays a short-sleeved wetsuit pulled from a storage area in his boat for when the cooler temps arrive. “I’ve got a full wetsuit for late in the season too,” he boasts.

Why are they so willing to endure all weather conditions? “Endorphins!” cheers Spillane, “exercise and endorphins!” As she jumps into the water to get ready for a few laps, her smile beams back at driver, husband Tom. He acknowledges her delight and says, “every day is her birthday. Every day she gets out on the boat for a run is like a gift to her.” Spillane gets herself situated while bobbing up and down, wearing a life jacket and one ski. Before jumping into the cool lake waters, she emphasized that what is most important to her is respect. “Respect the lake, the water. Even though I can swim and do it a lot, the jacket matters. There are more swimmers lately which is wonderful, just wonderful, but boaters need to be careful.”

Spillane’s husband and driver, Tom, uses his rearview mirror to monitor skiers. Photo credit: Ed Staebler

Spillane holds the tow rope in both hands and offers a few tips to the driver while their spotter, Booger, a pup lucky enough to be rescued by this adventurous couple, looks on. Everyone is ready as she gives the go. Tom punches the engine and lifts Spillane swiftly above the water where she immediately looks like she is soaring. “It’s all about the driver,” he declares, as Spillane shows off her veteran moves. She exudes nothing but strength and agility. Her first lap is a warm-up that includes squats and bilateral stretches. “Like any sport, it's so important to warm up. There are no set times or pre-planned amount of laps. I just keep going. I don't want to stop, especially when the water is so good.” As she skis, her head tilts back to bathe in the water that blesses her body with the experience. She offers her identifiable “peace sign” to neighbors as she passes and cheers while pointing to an osprey with a mouth full of fresh fish.

Favorable blue-sky conditions coupled with calm wind and no other boats creating additional wake produce a gloriously flat surface. Spillane takes the turn on her third lap when Tom shares that he never knows whether “we are going to run out of fuel or she is going to drop.” This time, after her third go around, Suzie rejoices as she ceremoniously drops the tow line and points to the sky in celebration. Booger, the faithful spotter, runs up front to signal that her ride is over for now. Fellow skiers Jay Moore and Mike Rodriguez pull up next to the boat after Spillane’s run, commenting on the conditions as they look over the deep blue lake reflecting the sky above. “It's the best it's been in a month,” Moore announces. “We were fighting the water and wind the past few days.” Does that keep them from skiing? Absolutely not. But those less than favorable days make this hard-core community of skiers appreciate when they get the good ones.

Spotter pup, Booger, keeps a close eye on Spillane. Photo credit: Mike Rodriguez

Waterskiing is a full-body exercise. “It works everything!” Spillane confirms. One of the sport’s many benefits is the delivery of those celebrated endorphins, “[Waterskiing is] my nourishment, my medicine. I meditate on the water,” Spillane says. Tom agrees and explains that “there is no space to let your mind wander. It gives you this space of peace, to clear your head.” A full spectrum of arm and shoulder muscles engage as you hold the tow rope. Core and seat are necessary players to hold positions not only to rise out of the water but also to stay balanced on top. Finally, hip and knee joints continuously flex as you traverse over the wake and other lake conditions. While this sounds like the ultimate workout, this team of skiers agrees that it’s more about connecting to the enjoyment of the sport and the nature around you. What other sport do you get to “fly alongside an eagle!” celebrates Spillane. The boys in the other boat nod along in total and blissful agreement.

Blue sky days paint the perfect backdrop as Mike Rodriguez takes a lap around Peach Lake with driver Jay Moore. Photo credit: Stephen Rankel

It is clear their love for the lake goes beyond sport. This team of skiers speaks with reverence and respect for Peach Lake agreeing that the health of the lake is the most important thing. “The supervisor [Warren Lucas] is the best,” Spillane announces. “He is up on all the water issues and that support maintains healthy, happy lives.” She looks up at the sky again suggesting that it’s not just for the gain of the residents of Peach Lake but for the ecosystem as well that thrives in this healthy environment.

The boat heads back to the dock to pick up waterskier, Ed Staebler, and give Booger a bathroom break. When asked if Spillane ever taught waterskiing, she replies, “I have always wanted to.” The answer surprises Staebler. “Did she just say she has never taught waterskiing? That’s how she is,” he chuckles. In our short time together, it is clear that Spillane prefers to shine the light on others meanwhile it is her light and love for the sport that radiates on to those around her. Staebler reflects on all the people around the lake community who were inspired and coached by Spillane over the years. “Whether you know Sue or not, she’s taking you. If you are even standing near the edge of the lake, she is going to teach you. Everybody goes. Everybody gets up.” Rodriguez confirms that it was seeing Spillane waterski that gave him the motivation. He started two to three years ago and is now part of this elite group of talented skiers.

Spillane coaches a new waterskier. Photo credit: Mike Rodriguez

Deciding when to pack in the season is always a heart-wrenching moment for this crew. November 1st is usually the latest they can push it. “Once you get me started, it's hard for me to stop,” says Spillane. “It’s rough for all of us to stop.” Moore nods in agreement. There is a big space to fill in the winter months as the health of their boats and docks are usually the forces driving the decision to stop. Outdoor sports like hiking, snowshoeing, and swimming at Ridgefield Recreation Center keep Spillane sane while she waits out the coldest weather. Moore stays connected to the lake with ice fishing, ice skating, and sailing his ice boat. Peach Lake offers year-round recreation, but to these sportsmen, nothing compares to waterskiing. However, when asked what Spillane loves most about North Salem, her answer? “EVERYTHING!”

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