Upta Camps

In the pictures we are always fat, naked babies, squinting up into the sun, oversized hats knotted under our chins. We are plopped on the gravelly beach, clutching fistfuls of pebbles and dirt, or we are standing ankle deep in the lake, staring at clouds of fish hung around our toes. The light is always some shade of gold, tinting it all with a precious value.

In the videos we are always busy: rock hopping along the shore with our plastic nets and buckets, explaining to the camera the best way to catch a grasshopper, running across the front lawn with sparklers snapping over our heads. We are a constant energy, even when curled on one adult lap or another, under a blanket dotted with zebras, in a rocking chair just barely missing somebody's toes- we exhale the energy of childhood like steam rising from the lake.

In my memories I am always grounded with that easy feeling of being home. The confidence of knowing where the dishes go, where the snacks are, where my blankets lie heaped in a pile, waiting for me to come to bed each night. The comfort of moving from one spot to another with a neatly drawn map of that place always in my head. The security of knowing everyone around me, and not just knowing, but belonging to.

Everyone being: my parents in the cabin, my sisters under the apple tree, my cousins, aunts and uncles everywhere else. And in the kitchen, or the workshop, or the sunny corner of the porch, my grandparents- the frame on which we all hinged.

My grandparents- resourceful, steadfast, born with Maine air in their lungs- bought Camps in 1966, fourteen years after Great Grandpa Harold sold it. This hiccup in our history- the fact that we almost lost Camps altogether- is a significant one that adds perhaps even more sentimental value to the place. That, and the fact that the family has never actually owned the blueberry-covered hill that the cabins are scattered across. While the logs, the porches, the roofs and wood stoves remain ours- the land has passed from lender to lender over the years, most recently landing in the hands of the Appalachian Mountain Club.

When Harold sold Camps in 1952 he had only owned it for a few years. Inventor, naturalist, explorer...Harold was beyond his time in more ways than one. He and his family were no strangers to the deep woods. Before Camps came along, the family would pack their belongings each June, stuff their sleeping sacks with straw ticking and head to the shores of Province Lake for three months of backwoods living. Harold would piece together shelving and countertops among the trees for Great Grandma Cherry to call a kitchen, then would set out on the lake for full days of fishing.

Unlike the campgrounds of today, with electric hookups and manicured sites, in the 1920s and 30s, Harold and the family were the only ones around. The idea of camping hadn’t caught on as something desirable- not for others anyway. As for my grandpa, those summers set the tone for the rest of his life, and when he first laid eyes on Long Pond years later, he knew he’d come home.

Harold found Camps in the summer of 1949. Burrowed deep into the Maine woods, down dusty logging roads and across a wide, dark lake- Camps was perfect in the family’s eyes. Nothing else was needed, and in times of little money and making ends meet, that included ownership of the land.

The family would make the long drive up from the southern part of the state every chance they had in the summers to come. Camps was an oasis away from the mundaneness of everyday life. It didn’t take long for the nickname to stick like sap. Grammatically incorrect, but perfectly representative of that sloping cluster of logs and mud chinking- it soon became as familiar as a childhood friend.

But just as easy routines were falling into place, and Camps was becoming a member of the family, Harold’s son, Bill, was diagnosed with Polio and dropped into a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Camps became a golden daydream while staring at the white walls of the hospital.

When he was finally released from the hospital, Harold hand built a ramp for his son from the docks of the lake up the steep hill to the Main Cabin. They spent as much time as they could surrounded by the peace of the wilderness, letting the mountains soothe their worries, but the pressures of the illness wore the family down. Harold made the decision to sell Camps to dedicate his full attention on helping Bill recover. The escape slowly slipped away, into the hands of different owners, but the easy feeling of being in the right place never left my grandpa.

These days my grandpa is nearing the end of his life. Daily tasks are a struggle, though his mind remains clear. Getting to Camps is no longer the exciting adventure it has been his entire life, but a battle that hasn’t been made now for two summers.

As he shares the details of history with me, the memories that help to chink those logs, he fades in and out of a light sleep. I can almost see the gold-tinted movies running through his mind- his children running across the lawn just as my cousins and I did, my grandma rocking on the porch with knitting spread out over her lap, the feel of the cool water rushing over his face as he dives into that kindred lake.

My grandpa was a dockside diver. He would theatrically wobble on the edge as numerous cousins and I worked hard to push him in the lake, but his landing always ended in a great dive. He would pop up out of the black water like a loon surfacing, far from where he dove, and swim north toward the mountains. Once at a sufficient distance of peace and tranquility, he would stretch onto his back, letting his toes lift to the sky, and blow bubbles as he floated.

I could be wrong, because my grandma never accompanied him on those swims, but I believe the deep water, with the stretch of sky above and the mountains watching over, was his favorite spot on earth.

He only reclaimed Camps on a nostalgic whim. One of those golden etched memories of the first summers, that had never truly left him, resurfaced one day in 1966 beckoning him to send a letter to the owners. They sent him a key and he and my grandma packed up the kids for a trip up north.

“When we got back from our weekend visit, I put the key in a box and wrote a note thanking him. At the last minute I added ‘if you ever think of selling, give me a chance,’” my grandpa recalls.

By then the owners were reaching old age, and offered the cabins to my grandparents for $6,000. The rest remains un-hiccuped history full of great dives, canoe rides through miles of silence and the best sunset views in possibly the entire world.

And while each family member holds a different relationship with Camps, the common thread of appreciation ties us all together.

My mom and her six siblings, who will inherit Camps someday, spent a straight six weeks of their childhood summers tucked into the cabins, catching bullfrogs and learning to dive alongside my grandpa.

“I think, for some, the teen years were difficult. Mostly they tried to get jobs so they didn’t have to go,” my grandma tells me.

My grandma would pack for the six weeks, hauling up various craft projects, pets and other entertainment to keep her kids distracted from a lack of bikes, friends or town.

“I could pack with my eyes closed,” she says.

My aunts’ and uncle’s memories of their childhood days at Camps are almost as fun to hear about as mine are to remember- riding up from New Hampshire in the days of no seat belts, having the lake as their personal playground and trying not to kill each other during those six long weeks. Camps has shaped each of them, instilling a love for adventure and wilderness that is obvious after ten minutes of talking to any one of them.

And although Camps has changed in a lot of ways, and will see a lot of change ahead, I don’t think any of that appreciation will go away. Appreciation for the Maine wilderness, for my grandpa for loving Camps so much that it spilled over into all of us, and for Harold for finding our home away from home in the first place.

More people are appearing in our isolated bubble, but they are mostly people who share that appreciation for deep woods living. And although we all wish that Harold had bought our blueberry hill so many years ago when he had the opportunity, our leaseholders have been fair to our family- helping us haul in boats, maintaining the difficult roads and respecting the long history our family has there.

Sometimes, the future gets a little blurry. With ownership of the cabins soon passing from my grandparents to all seven of their kids, decisions get more complicated. Without my grandpa’s definitive say, the littlest tasks get buried under a mound of opinions.

As a fourth generation lover of Camps, and for my son who has already started establishing his own golden memories, the future is even more uncertain. Will all 13 of us cousins share the responsibility that Camps requires? Will we learn how to shovel out the outhouse, repair screens and replace rotting logs as Camps gets older and older? Or will someone, at some point along the way, decide that it’s too much. The maintenance, the upkeep, the lease fee, the long drive, the steep hill, the rough road...will it eventually just break someone down to say outloud what my grandpa would never be able to hear?

For now, we will let the question stay settled at the bottom of the lake, content to watch one more sunset and float on our backs, toes skyward, for one more minute. We will let our gratitude for Camps stretch clear across the thick pines, all the way to Elephant Mountain, where an echo is almost always a guarantee. And all of us- my cousins living the city life of Atlanta, my two year old who can barely talk, my grandma who gets up every day remembering it all- will undoubtedly carry forward the quiet awe of the Maine wilderness that my grandpa instilled in us.