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Lake Ronkonkoma starts tradition with weekend-long princess festival

Dozens of local artists and vendors lined Lake Shore Road displaying their wares, including dreamcatchers, wood carved signs, handmade drums and artisanal soaps at the event sponsored by the Lake Ronkonkoma Heritage Association and the state Division of Tourism on Saturday. (Credit: Newsday / Rachel Uda)

The princess of the lake — her face freshly chiseled from the wood of a European copper red beech tree — looked out over the hundreds of people who had gathered in Lake Ronkonkoma for an event in her honor.

The first Princess of the Lake Festival, being held Saturday and Sunday, celebrates the progress of a 32-foot-tall sculpture of the mythical princess and to bring the community together, said organizer Ellyn Okvist. Dozens of local artists and vendors lined Lake Shore Road displaying their wares, including dreamcatchers, wood carved signs, handmade drums and artisanal soaps at the event sponsored by the Lake Ronkonkoma Heritage Association and the state Division of Tourism.

“We wanted to start a new tradition in town and to honor the tree,” said Okvist, who hopes this will be the first of many festivals to come.

The beech was one of five planted by the Newton family more than 200 years ago around the lake. Three trees survived and were designated historic landmarks by the Suffolk County Legislature in 2012. The copper red beech died a few years later, and the Lake Ronkonkoma Heritage Association asked a local sculptor if he could help preserve the landmark.

Todd Arnett has a studio down the street from the tree, which had stood more than 100 feet tall, and he had always admired it.

“I never wanted to see the tree die, but I said if it ever did, let me know,” Arnett said. “Don’t let that go to firewood, please let me carve it.”

Arnett got his shot beginning in December 2017. They chose to commemorate a grim local legend that claims a Native American princess, Tuskawanta, of the Algonquin, drowns one man each year as she seeks her true love.

The tree was topped off, and Todd Arnett erected a scaffold around its base — 28 feet in circumference — to begin sculpting additional sections 30 feet above the ground.

During the festival Saturday, Arnett worked on shaping Tuskawanta’s hands, which held the beginnings of a cormorant. He took a chain saw to the wood, which he would carve more precisely later, as festivalgoers stared up at him.

Gerri Toman watched Arnett work, taking photos of his progress. Toman now lives in Sound Beach but grew up in Ronkonkoma and decided to attend the event with her family.

She had heard the tales of the princess as a girl and was excited to see her brought to life, she said.

“It’s beautiful,” Toman said.

The festival ends Sunday at 6 p.m.

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