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I miss my camps

 In northern New England most of us call them camps, not cottages or cabins. I was  lucky enough to have had two of them. 

Sundown on the west shore of Aziscohos Lake

My first camp was not really mine, but as a kid I felt that it was.  My grandfather built it in the  mid 1950’s by the shores of  Merrymeeting Lake in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire. My  grandfather was an avid fisherman, and the area lakes, ponds and streams provided new  opportunities for him. However, he was not able to enjoy the camp for long. He died soon after its completion. My mother named the camp “Joe’s Haven” in memory of her dad and painted a sign with that inscription.

The camp was a simple structure. It was small and had no insulation, running water or indoor toilet facilities. We carried drinking water from a nearby spring, and we bathed in the lake. For a 10-year-old boy it was better than a palace. The camp was only for sleeping, eating and reading comic books.  The rest of the time was spent out of doors. My cousins and I fished the lake, shot BB guns and .22 rifles; water skied, swam, walked to the local snack bar to play pinball, explored the woods, visited the fish hatchery, read comic books and generally enjoyed our days as young boys should.

My grandfather’s camp sat on a “back lot” a short distance from the lake, but my Uncle Tony built his camp at the water’s edge, and that is where we spent much of our time. My uncle worked long hours but he always had time to take us water skiing. Uncle Tony was proficient at virtually any task, including removing frogs restricting the water flow in the spring pipe. Despite his gruff exterior, he was not without a sense of humor. One dark night he did a decent imitation of bear growls on his tuba from his hiding place in the woods while my aunts huddled in fear inside the camp.

Our favorite local restaurant was located beside Club Pond in New Durham and, at best, could be described as little more than a shack. The restaurant was called Dot’s Lunch, but we called it “Ernie’s”. Ernie and his wife, Dot, owned it, managed it, served great food, rented rowboats, sold bait and were always optimistic about our chances of catching fish. “The fishing is so good you have to hide behind a tree to bait your hook”, was one of Ernie’s favorite quotes. Fly fishing that pond for rising trout at dusk brings back some of my fondest memories from that period of my life.

The excitement of the upcoming hunting season was always enhanced by turkey and deer shoots sponsored by the Farmington (N.H.) Fish and Game Club. The shoots took place next to Ernie’s restaurant and always seemed to draw a lot of people. Obviously, no turkeys or deer were harmed during these shoots, but the turkey and deer targets took a beating

In my latter high school years the camp still served as a terrific refuge on weekends for me
 and my friends. Soda had been replaced by beer, and magazines had taken the place of
comic books, but little else had changed. The lake water was still clear; the spring still
 provided great drinking water; the loons could still be heard; and the camp still served as a
relaxing getaway. We had some great times.

I met my wife at the camp in the summer of 1965 and we married less than a year later. We
spent most weekends there the following summer, and I wish I could have those times back.
The days and nights were simple and enjoyable. There was no television, but the radio picked
up a great station, WPTR, out of New York. Ernie had replaced the “shack” with a much larger
restaurant, and the food was still great.

Joe’s Haven was sold a few years later, and my mother’s sign is gone now. The camp remains,
 as do my memories of times spent there. But I was determined to have a camp of my own
that my family could enjoy for many years. By the early 1970’s, I narrowed my search to the
Rangeley Lakes region of Western Maine.

With a very young family, money was scarce, but I found a deal that could not be ignored.
 The Brown Company of Berlin, New Hampshire was leasing waterfront lots on several lakes
 in that region for $100 to $200 per year. I visited two of the lakes and walked the roads and
 beaches, taking notes as I walked. Lot #35 on Aziscohos Lake seemed perfect. I could lease
the one-acre lot with 200 feet of water frontage for $150 per year. I could not believe the
 opportunity presented to me by the Brown Company.

The following spring, I was standing beside a pile of lumber and other building materials that
had been delivered to the site of my future camp. The total cost of the lumber, cinder blocks,
 roofing paper, nails, windows and door, including delivery, was roughly $750.00. My
construction-related experience to that point had been limited to building pigeon coops and
 forts as a kid. This was going to be a bit more challenging.

Thank Heaven for youth, enthusiasm and energy. There was no electricity, so I had to cut
 every board with a chain saw or hand saw. Every piece of building material had to be carried
down a hill to the future site of the camp. That was the good news. The bad news was that
the black flies were due to appear any day. Anyone who has ever encountered black flies in
 the North Country knows what a scourge they can be. I learned that nothing deterred them.
 Repellents quickly sweated off, and head nets were as annoying as the black flies.

Building that camp was one of the most rewarding, and most difficult, projects of my life. It
 measured a mere 16-feet by 20-feet and stood roughly 100-feet above the lake. We dug out
and lined a spring and piped the water down to the camp. It provided a constant, reliable
flow of water. An outhouse served as our toilet facility; a wood stove heated the camp;
kerosene and propane lanterns illuminated the interior; a propane stove boiled water for
 coffee; a small fire pit with split hardwood cooked our food; and we bathed in the lake. A
 large cooler with blocks of ice served as our refrigerator. I fished for salmon in the lake, and
hunted deer and partridge from the camp. Books, magazines, games and a battery-powered
radio provided entertainment It all worked. It was all simple.

One of our most challenging endeavors at the camp was showering in the fall when the lake
water temperature dropped. This involved heating water on the wood stove; filling the
 plastic solar shower with the heated water; hanging the device from a tree branch close to
the camp; and timing the wetting/soaping/rinsing cycle closely to avoid running out of water
too soon. Most people would be amazed how pleasant a warm outdoor shower can be, even
 in frigid temperatures, at least until the water runs out.

Our two kids loved their camp from the start. There was almost uncontrollable excitement at
the mention of heading to camp. The trip from Massachusetts to Maine took roughly four
 hours but seemed much more. The final nine miles of the drive took place on a logging road.
The bumps and ruts needed to be navigated cautiously.  Moose were not plentiful in western
 Maine in the early 70’s, but their numbers increased rapidly in the next few decades.
Moose/vehicle collisions became common. The biggest danger on the logging roads,
 however, came from the fully-loaded logging trucks. It was important to drive to the right of
 the road, particularly at curves.

There was always an urgency to arrive at the camp before nightfall. Without the benefit of
moonlight, nights in the North Country woods can be very, very dark.  Making trip after trip
from the car to the camp holding a flashlight in one hand and any number of items in the
other, with little kids clinging to you, was a real challenge.

We sold the camp after owning it for more than 30 years. The cost of building materials and
 furnishings had totaled less than $1,000.00. Our original investment of money and labor had
 certainly paid us back in money and memories.
I miss my camps for many reasons. Most of all, I believe I miss the simplicity. And I miss the
solitude and the quiet. I could stand on the beach at Aziscohos and hear the wing beats of a
raven hundreds of feet overhead. I rarely hear the sound of loons now, and I miss that. Both
 of my camps had distinctive, pleasant smells that come back to me at unexpected times.
 More than any other sense, the sense of smell seems to hold the greatest power for allowing
us to briefly remember better times.

A camp can be a true refuge from the harsh realities of the outside world. I always felt safe
from physical and psychological harm at my camps. Also, a camp gets you back to basics. This
can be extremely important, particularly in stressful times in our lives. Ask any camp owner
 about their feelings for their retreat. Be prepared for a lengthy and nostalgic description of
 the place and times spent there.

My permanent residence now is in the Great North Woods of New Hampshire. Many home
owners in this area also have camps, and they love them. I can fish and swim in a trout
stream bordering my property, and I have seen bears, deer, moose, foxes and wild turkeys
 from my front window. I still would still like to own a camp. But it needs to be kept simple. 


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