The Cow

The first call came about six o’clock on Monday evening, April 17, 2000. Someone living just a bit north of Borodino, a small hamlet on the east side of Skaneateles Lake, had looked out their window and seen something in the water that astounded, and then alarmed them.

It was a clear, mild spring evening, still light out; their eyes couldn’t be deceiving them. They called the Borodino Fire Department, which called Skaneateles Fire and Rescue. Six firemen rushed to the boat, piled in and headed out onto the lake, and, drawing close, they must have been torn between nodding at the truth of the call and shaking their heads in disbelief.

A cow was swimming the lake. Not just in circles, but going for the crossing, headed for the western shore. It was one of Dick Withey’s dairy cows, from his farm on East Lake Road. It was said his cows get out all the time, but this was more than “out.”

Perhaps my experience is limited, but no cow I have ever seen has appeared to be built for swimming. And the lake in April, hundreds of feet deep, spring fed and just recently emerging from under 10 inches of ice, is very cold. And while it’s longer than it is wide, anyone thinking of crossing it has at least a mile of open water to cover. But the cow swam.

No one in the boat had ever seen a cow swimming in the lake. Nor had the Skaneateles firemen ever practiced a ‘drowning cow drill’ to prepare for this event. They have pulled dogs off sinking boats, but not cows.

The more historically minded that evening might have recalled Daniel Burroughs, the first merchant in Borodino, who some time in the 1800’s, on a bet, swam from Mandana, on the west shore, across to Pork Point, a distance of some three miles. But he had a reputation as a swimmer, and there was money at stake. This cow had no such incentive, that we know of.

Amazingly, under escort, the cow made it across to the shallows on the west side, right near Judge Major’s camp. But it died there, on the shore, probably of hypothermia and exhaustion. Farmers pulled its body from the water; farmers can do anything. They are the true nobility here, but I digress.

The following day, I asked the Village Historian if she knew of any earlier cow crossings. She did not. I asked if perhaps it was the lure of the west side, said to be a tonier place to live. She thought for a moment, and said, “Well, the grass is always greener… and the cow had been looking at it for years.”

* * *

Since writing this piece, I have read about deer swimming in the lake — quickly pursued by hunters in boats — and about the time, September 18, 1838, when William Beauchamp saw a hog swim a mile. Apparently the cow’s attempt was not without precedent.

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