Where in the World

by Steve on June 21, 2006

Back in Maine, working on the book. The following is an article that I just submitted to Down East Magazine. It should give you a feel for why I’m up here. (Ed: “Camp” is a northern term used to describe a small place out at the lake not suitable for winter use, for those of you south of the line just substitute “lake house” but think small.)

The Camp

My grandfather built the place several years before I was born and forever biased my opinion regarding what a lake camp should be. Many of my early summers were spent on that beautiful lake outside Houlton, Maine. It’s where I learned to swim and that my little brother didn’t float. He survived his informal baptism and we both became water rats. We eventually outgrew my mother’s lifejacket restriction that resulted from brother’s sinking episode. We also learned to canoe, sail, build rafts, fish, hike, and many other outdoor activities. In short, it was the perfect place to grow up. That was back before the internet, cell phones, cable TV, X-box, Game Boy, etc. Entertainment was self-made but the possibilities seemed endless; who would want to be inside? My grandmother’s worst nightmare was a rainy day. Her only hope of keeping us entertained (quiet) was the small black and white TV wired to an antenna in the top of a tree out back. Options were slim with only three cannels (one Canadian).

Grampy built the place in the late 1950’s from a cedar log home kit, finishing out the interior with knotty pine tongue and grove board paneling. Exposed beams and trusses with shellac-coated wood everywhere, it was like being inside a giant tree. Its original intent was simply as an escape from the heat in town and the phone. My grandfather was a manager at the local oil company and the owners would call him for everything, anytime. The phone line that runs along the shore road still bypasses our camp. He figured if they needed him bad enough on his time off then they could drive out and get him. Apparently his strategy worked fairly well. The layout of the cabin was perfect for my grandparents, having just sent their youngest off to college: a large living/dining area at one end with a master bedroom at the other separated by a central kitchen, bath, and pantry. Occasional guests could be accommodated on the pull-out couch. A few years later their daughter graduated, married my father, and started a family of her own. All of a sudden the floor plan was lacking. My grandfather added a small bedroom off the end of the original structure and decided the boathouse could double as a bunkhouse. The tiny bathroom was Grammy’s domain, literally: the septic/holding tank was small, its size limited by surrounding granite, so the rest of us had to trek into the woods out back to the outhouse. Dark, creepy, and full of mosquitoes, the outhouse is my only bad memory from my childhood summers in Maine.

The lake is typical of northern New England: cold and clear, fed by streams and brooks carrying forest run-off. It’s home to brown trout, perch, pickerel, and even a few land-locked salmon. On any given day you may see bald eagles, osprey, loons, and occasionally a moose if you take the trouble to paddle quietly back into the shallow flowage.

Thus my definition of a proper camp was formed by my childhood: a log cabin surrounded by white birch trees and granite boulders on a gravel track through the woods barely wide enough to drive down, all sitting on a lake so clean that it was your water source. Then I moved south, far south to the land of red clay and brown lakes where “camp” was a place you sent your kids for two weeks. I still remember my first reaction to the southern version of a lake: “I can’t possibly swim in that hot, brown stuff.” I’ve adapted although I still return to the family camp in Maine every summer for my fix. Heading north on I-95 out of Bangor the traffic starts to thin, the unmistakable smells of the northwoods permeate the car and my life slows down to a much healthier pace. I’m headed to the camp where the sounds of the wind in the trees, the water on the rocks, and the laughter of children playing are guaranteed to refresh the soul. Twenty minutes from town and more importantly, equidistant from some great trout streams where more often than not you’re the only one fishing.

The lake has changed over the years. Many of the camps have been replaced or converted into year-round residences and the local power company has had to upgrade service to the lake to keep pace with demand. But for the most part it hasn’t changed all that much: Houlton is small and so is the lake, facts which protect it from the development pressures seen by larger bodies of water in more heavily populated areas. We still get three channels, one Canadian, via the old antenna tied in the top of the tree, although they’re now in color and there’s a hook-up for the portable DVD player in case of rain.

{ 1 comment }

pinch June 22, 2006 at 22:59


That was great. Brought back MY memories of 7 years in Nova Scotia, in many ways much like your area of Maine. I can remember canoeing across the province in my college days and coming into small lakes where you could see the bottom, through 30 feet of the most crystal clear – and coldest and most perfect water you have ever seen.

Enjoy your stay…..from the fetid morass that is DC, I envy you!

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