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Algonquin princess looms large in 32-foot sculpture almost as tall as the tales of her tragic lore 

Sculptor Todd Arnett spent five years carving the

Sculptor Todd Arnett spent five years carving the 32-foot-tall Princess of the Lake out of a centuries-old beech tree in Lake Ronkonkoma. Credit: Raychel Brightman

A paranormal legend embraced by Lake Ronkonkoma residents has been brought to life through a local artist’s half-decade project.

Todd Arnett spent the past five years carving a 32-foot-tall sculpture of an Algonquin woman, who is known to Long Islanders as the Princess of the Lake. The legend claims that in the 1600s, Tuskawanta, who was madly in love with an English settler, killed herself in the waters after their relationship was forbidden by her father. It is said that her spirit returns each year to claim the life of a man as she awaits her love.

Arnett, a sculptor, stone carver and painter by trade, carved the woman from a European copper beech, one of five trees shipped from England and planted more than 200 years ago. Three trees survived and were designated historic landmarks in 2012 by the Suffolk County Legislature.

The towering beech, owned by Virginia Schutte, caught Arnett’s eye nearly two decades ago. Schutte owns a flower shop just feet away from the tree. Arnett asked that if it ever died that Schutte allow him to carve it. He got that call in 2015.

"I said, ‘Let’s sculpt it and see if we can break the curse,’ " said Arnett, who said he knows a man who drowned in the lake.

The sorrowful legend has inspired decades of lore, fear, curiosity and even a festival. It’s also spurred residents to explore their own heritage and history, said Ellyn Okvist, the local historical commission chair.

Growing up in Lake Ronkonkoma, Okvist said she was familiar with the myth surrounding the indigenous woman. Okvist’s family has lived in the community for generations, and she still lives in her family home from 1790. She recently completed a thesis on the verified stories of the lake’s drownings, of which she has identified approximately 120 through primary sources and documents. Okvist said she knows three men who drowned in the lake, which is the largest on the island.

"It sparks your imagination," she said of the legend. "I don’t see it being real, but I see it as fun. It’s something to talk about. It’s something that brings people together."

Okvist was an organizer of the inaugural Princess of the Lake Festival in 2019, which hasn’t been hosted since because of the coronavirus pandemic. The festival, which drew 10,000 people, is slated to return in 2022.

The sculpture has attracted the attention of residents and visitors alike, Schutte said. A nonstop line of traffic has snaked through Lake Shore Road as people wait to catch a glimpse of the princess. Native American history is deeply embedded in Lake Ronkonkoma, and Schutte views the sculpture as a tribute to it.

Arnett still hasn’t grasped that the project is complete, one that consumed his life for years.

"To have this major project be daily in my life, it just became part of me," he said. "My life has changed."

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