Katie was sick with Covid for a month, quarantined with Greg in their cozy family home in Drew Plantation, Maine. After gaining some weight back as well as her appetite for fishing, Katie pronounced that she was about crazy from being cooped up and wanted to ice fish—her favorite sport after fall moose hunting. The stretch of East Grand Lake where Katie and Greg have their summer camp was not yet frozen over. They would go to the Cove on the lake instead–their sweet spot for ice fishing. In a secluded area north, off Route 1 in Danforth, the Cove provides easy access and 5 feet of ice.
The preparation for ice fishing began the day before. Greg assembled the deer blind tent for transport while Katie organized all the essentials: an ice drill, a “Mister Heater” portable unit that runs on propane, as well as rods and bait. Then, the provisions for the long hours out on the ice: a small, metal barrel with a grill attached to serve as a fire pit for hot dogs, plus water and beer. Finally, the attire: heat-lined camo snow jackets, long underwear, flannels, wool sweaters, hats, gloves with hand warmers, wool socks, foot warmers and rubber boots.
The next morning, Greg and Katie left at daybreak–5:00am– in below freezing temperatures, for their day of ice fishing. On the way, an unexpected snowstorm blew up. Typical Maine couple dream date. On arrival, Greg set up the tent with the heater then drilled through the ice so Katie could jig the fishing line to her heart’s delight. After being Covid sick for a month, Katie was now happy and energized by the outdoors. Then Katie started catching. A 17” salmon for starters followed by a 13” salmon, then a 13” trout before lunch. Lunch was Greg’s special “red hots” cooked over the coals in the fire pit. The only mishap was when Greg dropped his dog in the snow, which he rinsed off in the fishing hole. Katie said it was the best ice-fishing holiday she has had in years. A true Maine vacation day… and the best antidote to a bout of Maine Covid.
During my last visit to camp this year, I was joined by a small group of my high school buddies and their wives. What a pleasure it was to spend evenings before the fire, lounging in pajamas and reminiscing about upstate Rochester in the 1950s. Missing from the group was our friend Jerry, a retired psychiatrist. Shortly following our return from camp, we had a zoom call to catch up with Jerry and, to add an interesting dimension to our conversation, to talk about his new book, Addressing Challenging Moments in Psychotherapy. I had obtained an early copy of it which, though written for supervisory doctors, is understandable by the layman. Jer read a chapter aloud to us, which was a case study of one of his therapy sessions, examining the interaction between doctor and patient. He explained the purpose of the study and we peppered him with questions, which he thoughtfully answered. Before long were each opening up about our personal histories and our catch-up call became an impromptu group therapy session. No wonder Jerry had such a successful practice—he was a great listener. Very healthy for a bunch of 80-year-olds to talk about our parents and their impact on our lives—it was cathartic. Even though we have known each other for 70 years, I learned new things about these old friends. Each of us offered our thoughts on who we were back in the day versus who we became, despite family background and the many hurdles, false starts and mistakes we made. Looking back to our youth, how did we miss some of the obvious signs about where our futures were headed? How many dead-end roads might well have been avoided had we simply opened our eyes? In hindsight, perhaps there was a missing subject in the Benjamin Franklin High School 1956 curriculum: “Therapy for Teenagers.” Yet here we all are living our lives in 2021 America and things turned out okay. We are mostly settled into lifestyles of our choosing and our mental health seems intact. Perhaps our parents and the teachers at Ben Franklin knew what they were doing. To my buddies, Harv, Bobbie, Arnie and Jer, let’s keep zooming and learning from each other.
The last week of camp this year reminds me a bit of returning from Camp Seneca as a teenager. The camp experience for me was not only an outdoor awakening but a coming of age. Amazing how youth blossoms in the right environment. This year’s camp closing was a bookend of sorts, some 65 years later. My high school friends, Arnie, Bob, and Harv all came up with their delightful wives for a few days of hiking, fishing and reminiscing. I had arrived the day earlier and used the opportunity to spend the day on Spednik Lake for my usual end-of-year bass outing with Andy. He cooked his grilled chicken over the fire and made the best lake coffee. I’ve tried time and again to make my own lake coffee but without success. The grounds never stay in the bottom of the pot. The lake water was a cool 65 degrees. We used poppers and a clouser to lure the fish. I nabbed a two-pound pickerel and a three-and-a-half-pound bass. Despite this, Andy was frustrated that the fish were not more plentiful. He had been so upbeat in the morning when I arrived at Wheatons Lodge. He predicted, with his usual, easy smile, that “today will be the best of the season.” Andy sulks when the fish are not cooperating. He takes it personally. Sitting in the stern of his grand canoe sorting through flies he imagines the fish taking based on the small fish finder he sets up. When there are no takings he hunkers down and spreads his assortment of flies about the floor of the canoe, choosing and rejecting, trying to find the one that will turn our luck around.
The weather was overcast and the few fish we caught in the morning were the extent of our success that day. After lunch, the highlight of the day, the clouds cleared with a southwest breeze. The reflection on the lake was like a mirror image of the shoreline. I could hardly tell where one ended and the other began. The air was autumnal. Trees showed hints of orange amid the green. The quiet was deafening. I could hear myself think. The wheels in my head turned, albeit slowly. Harv, Bob and Arnie had arrived while we were out on the water. They would be at camp already when I got back. I said goodbye to Andy and we hugged. Both our protruding stomachs prevented us from getting too close. He waved as he drove off to his camp to start the annual process of closing for the season. I pulled out of Wheatons for the quiet drive home along Forest City Road. No cell service… a gift.
For most businesses in Danforth, Maine, July 4th weekend is the peak of the season. However, this July 4th, not only is the weather gloomy, but the economy is under the weather too, so to speak. Over years past, Mainers have seen the decline of the forestry industry and the lobster franchise, due to trade tariffs and climate warming, and now the tourist bump has been levelled by Covid 19. Earlier today, a mourning dove was cooing, in a minor key it seemed, appropriate to the overcast atmosphere. Soon the wind from the northwest picked up and pushed the lake water over the dock. Heavy droplets of rain pounded out an uneven symphony on the Gruman aluminum canoe. No fishing with Greg today. It is not just the discomfort of being out in the rain, but the bass can be “unfriendly” – maybe they can’t distinguish the bait from the rain on the surface of the water. It is a quiet day, and the pandemic has limited us from inviting company for the weekend. The fire in the hearth has been roaring since early morning, not only for warmth but for comfort.
The Fourth of July will be a day of watercolor painting and reading. I keep a portfolio of cut-out images for inspiration and recently graduated from painting fish and brilliantly colored flies to fishermen in canoes. I just finished reading a book by Carl Marlantes entitled Big River, about the history of the immigration of the Finns to Oregon and the establishment of the lumber industry. I also brought with me to camp a few books about the early settlement in the Sierras and the area around Downieville. Interestingly, my little community in Danforth, Maine, has many similarities. Logging could have been a major industry in the Sierras but for the discovery of gold. Maine had farming and dug potatoes out of the soil instead of gold nuggets. It all came to an end years ago—the logging and the prospecting and Danforth like Downieville has downsized. The last remaining gold nugget in Downieville is the Mountain Messenger. What is left here in Danforth is the camping and fishing tourism. Danforth no longer has a newspaper. The local population here cannot support it. The school has only a handful of students and the gas station survives as part of the local deli and café. This year the tourist traffic is minimal and for most businesses in Danforth, Maine, July 4th weekend is the peak of the season. However, some of it headed north to Canada. Route 1 to Machias is quiet except for the occasional truck carrying logs to the pulp mill. There are fewer RVs camped out at the park across the lake this year, and fewer boats on the water, which means fewer cabins have been rented. Not a lot of out of state plates. The mandatory two-week quarantine was lifted yesterday. Maybe it will be an incentive for people to come visit. I hope so. My friends in Maine are open for business and welcoming to all.
Camp doesn’t feel the same this year. The pandemic has spread its wings all the way north to the Canadian border with Maine, and of course beyond. But here in this remote outpost, where the feeling of escape from civilization has always been a welcome relief, the desolation seems especially stark. The RV camp across the lake has no lights at night. There are no boats on the water at daybreak trolling for lake trout. The public ramp at East Grand Lake is empty of boat trailers. Renee’s doesn’t have the early morning crowd for coffee and homemade donuts—just a new hand-written sign in the window saying “open for take-out.” There is no wait at the sole gas station in town, but the small country deli—the only food store within a 40-minute drive- has customers. I stand behind a woman in line to pay and notice her SNAP card. The people here are dependent on the spring and summer fishing crowds, now almost nonexistent. There are no kids playing in the old, lower school ball field. Camping and fishing seem unlikely to spread the virus but people have to travel to get here, whether from Boston, Bangor or like me, from New York.
The rest stops are off limits and closed for the most part. The motels en route are closed. No Hortons or McDonalds, except for drive thru. It is a long trip from the Long Island ferry—some ten hours from Old Saybrook to Danforth. I drive non-stop followed by two weeks of self-isolation in my cabin. The fish and wildlife are blissfully unaware of the raging storm we humans are forced to seek shelter from. The ducks in the cove have returned. The loons coo away night and day. The romance of nature sustains me through the solitude, along with the shelves full of the books I have been working my way through on rainy days. The comfort of a hearth fire puts me to sleep at night. Going out on my ancient Gruman aluminum canoe in the early morning hours transports me literally and figuratively, far away from the waves of a virus. There are no wakes from motorboats. The water is calm, lapping gently at the side of the canoe. I will stay for a while.
Last night I decided to sleep in my tent escape—a canvas shelter with room for two situated at the lake’s stony edge. In the past I have used it for company when the indoor beds are all claimed. During the day, I paint there for afternoon light. After self-quarantining for two weeks in the cabin it was inevitable that I would come down with a case of cabin fever, the only antidote for which is the outdoors. So, I skipped my evening Macallan and headed out. The half-moon lit the path through the wood down to the water. When I peeled back the tent door, I was relieved to see there was no evidence of prior guests– the wild, four-legged kind—just a couple of spiders to evict. The tent has a mattress and comforter and after giving them a good shake I fell into bed and the deepest sleep, awaking this morning to the high orange glow of the sun piercing every gap in the tent canvas, and to a sound I hadn’t heard in a while around here: the rumble of trucks. Early morning construction vehicles on the camp road? We are in a different time now. Beethoven couldn’t have composed a more joyful sound in that moment. Danforth was coming back to life.
I put on my fleece slippers and padded back up to the cabin to fire up the old black, crusted kettle, to prepare coffee for the first cup on the dock. I took in the distant sounds of diesel engines mingled with nature’s crazy harmonies. Even the birds’ chirping seemed more adamant and excited with the activity. Next what sounded like a noisy RV passed by, then another truck and another. Yes, they are back. The world is awakening from the pandemic slumber. The RV travelers are either homebound or coming to camp out. If they are inbound, Maine still has a two-week quarantine law in effect for out- of-staters– but there is no enforcement. I know they must be here, but I haven’t seen a police car in years. Campers and RVs coming and going mean summer is not locked out. The loons and mallards will welcome the travelers back and the bass somehow know they must escape into deeper water. The gates will open. The storage barns will empty of the ATVs that ramble the woods. The old canoes will go back in the water. Minor repairs will commence. Chopping wood for the fireplace. I will reassemble the trampoline for my grandkids. Fire up the old barbeque. Now it’s time for that second cup of coffee.
“Open For Business” – that’s the call from the fishing outfitter at Wheaton’s Lodge. Patrick has been chomping at the bit to open up and start fishing and frying. The Lodge has lost half their season so far from the pandemic and need the bass fishermen back on the water. Wheaton’s is one of the oldest camps on East Grand Lake. It has been in the same family for years and only recently was taken over by a young, adventurous couple who cater to an avid angling clientele. Fishermen come from both coasts and in between for the small-mouth bass—the best water in the Northeast. The accommodations are modest, uninsulated wood frame cabins with stoves for warmth. The old-fashioned, heavy wool blankets on the beds are like a flashback to childhood. Breakfast in the rustic dining room starts before daybreak and the early risers are treated to heavenly homemade pancakes followed by coffee on the dock, where it tastes best. Wheaton’s was my savior when I first went north in 2017 to open my new camp, after my wife passed away. Patrick and his wife, Sandy, the new proprietors, were welcoming, home-grown people preparing home-grown food for their guests. They soon felt like family. I was alone but never felt that way, meeting interesting fellow fishermen from around the country, one a widower like me, still grieving and seeking solace in nature.
My mind was soon off the sadness and on the water with the Lodge fishing guide, Andy, in his native East Grand canoe. It was the first of many outings with Andy, who has good fishing instincts and extensive knowledge of the local waters. Andy and I fish various lakes in the area, none of which have more than a few boats within earshot. Since the Lodge is only a short boat ride from my camp, I have the best of both worlds. So today I answer Patrick’s call and make my way to Wheaton’s to do some fishing with Andy—the first outing of the season since the shutdown. We quickly fall back into our old routine. Andy pulls the canoe off his trailer, and it drops into the water with a delicate splash. We slide into the make-shift upholstered seats– fashioned from the discards of Andy’s retired ’88 Camry–and push off into the waveless East Grand Lake. A lone eagle circles above and stress evaporates like the morning fog. There is no cell service out on the water, which is somehow more freeing than just turning off the phone. I put away my watch, so other than the sun’s position, I am purposely oblivious to my time on the water. We have the most luck on the Canadian side of the lake and spend most of the day there. Seems the bass prefer the Canadian accent. I stand with my fly rod, looking for large, submerged boulders where the bass congregate. Fishing for bass is for me a lot like trout fishing, stripping the line back and forth until I feel a strong tug. The ensuing tussle with the fish is what it’s all about. Sometimes I use a 3-weight rod to get more play time. The jump out of the water is the next thrill. I release before the fish reaches the net to avoid damaging the fins. Catch and release is my motto. I only bring into the canoe the fish that are wounded from inhaling the fly.
Midday, lunch on shore is bass filets fried in cornmeal over an open fire –my gosh– boiled potatoes, coffee made from lake water with an egg in the kettle to keep the grounds down, and homemade berry pie. A meal fit for a king fisherman. The ride home is anticlimactic. Returning to an empty cabin isn’t too much fun but I always have a book to fall into and my jazz cds. Tomorrow my old pal Greg is taking me to his new secret spot for brook trout. We will drive deep into the wilderness carrying a light canoe to a small pond filled with 16-inch mammoths. I feel fortunate. I am 80-years young, and though it seems the decades have flown, I now measure time by the length of the fish on the end of my line.
I am writing from sunny, balmy Palm Beach, Florida, though my thoughts are 1700 miles north. Today is camp opening in Maine. This year will be different than my camp openings in the past. I am doing the work remotely. Greg, a local caretaker and handyman who has been helping me for years, will have all the fun, doing the things I would be doing if I could be there. There is still ice on the lake–the Canadian side of the lake is frozen over, but my side of East Grand Lake is melting away. Being some 100 plus miles north of Bangor and on the New Brunswick Canadian border delays the meltdown a bit. This is the best time at camp, to experience the joy of sunup over the lake on that first morning, when the insects wake up and commence their buzzy choruses, buds everywhere are blooming, and the local cove ducks are back looking for a handout. The small creatures who have been hibernating all winter pop up and start scrounging around the cabin grounds.
Out at the dock the water level is high. It is truly a Spring Awakening. Indoors, the first job at hand is to release all the mice who have been enjoying my sofa and chairs all winter. Then, the pipes need to be blown out before the water is turned on. The kerosene heater is primed and tested to make it through another year—always a big relief when it turns on as there is no one left in the area who can repair it. The fireplace is opened to expose a few more mice who have spent their winter cozied up in the ashes and wood chips of the last fire from last season. On day two of camp opening, we usually go to the storage barn to retrieve the camp chairs and the canoe and start up the old Rover. Camp opening holds so much promise for a joyful summer outdoors. The Corona virus has kept me in Florida this year, but I will be back soon, I hope.