“He’s bringing a woman-friend to camp!” Katie shouted to Greg, over the sound of his power saw. Patti was coming to camp, and it was about time. It had been a bachelor cabin for too long. New linens, cleaned grill, emptied drawers and closets. Not too much fussing, but closer to civilized and and above all, welcoming. Katie admonished Greg to wear a clean t-shirt and pair of shorts for Patti’s arrival. A woman coming to camp marked a new chapter in camp life. This was no ordinary woman. Patti was and is the woman in my life now. We had both been happily married for many years to different spouses and had been friends. We were both widowed within a few years of each other. I was relaxed about her coming and knew she would enjoy the hiking and fishing. Out in the canoe Andy was a charm. He practiced catch and transfer—he caught the fish and delivered the rod to Patti who reeled it in. It was great. Patti didn’t need the help. She soon brought in several bass on her own, with grace and confidence. Lunch on shore was a new experience. The bathroom thing was a bit odd since there are no facilities on the lake shore, but Patti adapted like a gal from Decatur would. It was all fun and non- violent. The biggest shock came later: redecorating the cabin. The time-worn LL Bean-style décor needed a bit of Patti upgrading. During my afternoon nap, Patti and Katie moved the furniture around and stored the unwanted pieces. It all worked out and we are still together. The camp is now woman- friendly and I am happy for it.
I went swimming in the lake the other day, though not a traditional, voluntary kind of swim. It all started innocently enough, late in the afternoon on a beautiful day. I decided to take the old Grumman aluminum canoe out to fish a nearby cove for brook trout. The cove is tucked between Ted’s and Greg’s camps–it fronts a piece of land they both share and is the site of a freshwater spring that supplies several camps with drinking water. It is secluded and close by–a perfect place to try my luck. I took my three- weight rod along with dry flies in a plastic bag that also held my iphone. I threw a life vest and seat cushion into the canoe and pushed off from the dock. Geige, Patti’s daughter, was paddle boarding with a friend on a distant part of the lake and Patti was resting back at the cabin. The cove was peaceful and quiet, fish wise. After a few casts I changed flies.
The water began to roughen, and the canoe started drifting away from shore. I put down my fly rod and grabbed the paddle, trying to reverse course. Suddenly and without warning the canoe tipped to the right and just like that I slid into the water with a splash that no one heard but me. What a dunk. The water temperature was cool but bearable. My hat stayed on as did my moccasins. When I bobbed up however, the canoe was gone. Treading around I saw the aluminum hunk about 15 to 20 yards off, taken by a gust of wind while I was submerged. I had dropped the paddle when I capsized and could see it drifting away. I called out to Ted who had gone out for a swim earlier. If he was back on shore he may have heard or seen me capsize. No response, so I started swimming toward the canoe with a combination of aggressive doggie paddle and breaststroke, but the current kept me more or less stationary. Both the shore and the canoe felt miles away. I called out for Ted again but still no answer.
I continued paddling in earnest, my hat still on and my mocs heavy with water. The canoe had now moved between me and the shore. I was blocked from the view of anyone who might have seen me out here. I felt a rising panic, but wasn’t out of breath, so continued. The wind settled down and there was a merciful moment of calm during which I was able to progress, finally getting within reach of the canoe. Grasping the gun wales I was flooded with relief and renewed vigor. I considered my options. The life jacket was in the middle of the canoe and reachable if I hoisted myself halfway up the side. I held on with my left hand and reached furiously into the canoe for the life vest. It was only inches away from my fingertips, but I could not lift myself out of the water enough to touch it without capsizing. My thoughts began to race. Could I swim to shore? I could not pull myself into the canoe without tipping it. At the very least I risked losing my fishing rods and iphone. How long before someone noticed I’ve gone AWOL? Seemed no one saw me fall in. I was on the seaward side of the canoe so at a distance it would look like an empty canoe. Wouldn’t that be a red flag if someone noticed it? I yelled out to Ted again a few times but still no response. Kicking hard I tried to move the canoe toward shore. All I accomplished was to tire myself out. I was now between one unoccupied camp to my left and an Air BnB rented by several families to my right who I saw on the dock when I passed by earlier. It was only minutes since I had fallen into the water, but it seemed like hours.
My hands ached from gripping the metal edge. I was stuck in the worst of positions with no control over the drift of the canoe and with no choice but to travel with it and we were moving further into the lake. I tried to stay calm and ready myself for a swim to shore. I kicked off my mocs but made sure my hat was firmly on. It had my name on it in case I didn’t make it. I had no other identification.
At least there was a few hours of light left in the day. Suddenly I heard the engine from a large boat. I couldn’t see it from my position below the hull. “Hold on there,” someone shouted. Then another boat engine to my left. It was Ted powering toward me in his vintage fishing boat. A wave washed over me from the wake created by the two vessels. The vacationers in the Air BnB had seen me splashing around and rushed their trailer and motorboat into the water. Ted was swimming offshore and had heard me calling. He swam back and jumped into his boat. Ted, a former lifeguard, reached down from the stern and pulled me out of the water with one hand, throwing me into his boat. The neighbors collected my paddle. Somehow, they also found my moccasins. I was embarrassed from all the trouble I caused. I know it could have been worse. With a life vest on my back instead of on the floor of the canoe I could have swum to shore and retrieved the canoe later. I have been on sailboats and canoes almost all my life but at the age of 80 I’m still learning lessons from Mother Nature. It was a stressful end to a day that was supposed to finish with a fish on the line instead of a wet behind.
It is Sunday at camp in Maine. After early morning coffee on the dock, I got cleaned up, put on an old Woolrich plaid shirt, and headed to Lincoln for my weekly fix of the New York Times. The computer here is equipped with a fiber-optic connection so I can stay in touch with the office, but I haven’t taken up the habit of reading the news online, and I do not have television. While at my cabin in remote Danforth, just shy of the Canadian border—where isolating from the pandemic was qualitatively no different than any other Tuesday– I am usually a week behind on the news of the day. I disconnect by choice, not just from current events but from most everything else that doesn’t have to do with how the bass are biting. News filters in nonetheless. Greg, the camp caretaker, is bound to give me an earful of information, slanted though it may be through his pro-Trump prism. He proudly displays a MAGA flag on his dock as do many of the visiting campers here, and his truck has a Trump 2020 bumper sticker: Make Liberals Cry Again.
Last year I had an old college friend–a noted cancer physician–up for a visit. He and Greg hit it off, bonding over their enthusiasm for our President. Greg, a high-school graduate, got a kick out of how much he had in common with Doctor Smart. Today, Greg has a new story for me–one that didn’t make the New York Times. Apparently, there was an incident near the border on Route 1, which runs through Washington County up to Forest City–population five, 30 in the summer–a land port of entry between the U.S. and Canada. It is a desolate stretch of road and a low-volume crossing. Word in Danforth was that a woman was seen on foot heading north on the highway and she was carrying an infant. She would have had to take a bus to get as far as she had and was dropped off near to where she was spotted. A non-white woman walking on Route 1 was apparently cause for great alarm, so a concerned citizen reported her to the authorities. When she was picked up she had no ID, and was promptly taken to the Homeland Security facility in Forest City, where she was detained and questioned, admitting she was illegal and trying to reach Canada. The level of security assembled to protect America from this poor, tired mother attempting to flee to Canada was impressive. According to Greg’s inside source, she was given the third degree and made to respect the power of a government bureaucrat. Eventually, someone in command decided there was no reason to prevent her and her infant child from crossing the border without a US passport since, having contacted their Canadian counterpart, it was determined the Canadians were happy to have her. Greg delighted in the efficiency of our border control system in removing this competitor for American jobs and future welfare recipient. This year, despite the flapping Trump flags out on the water, there are rumors the state of Maine may go Blue down the line. Maybe the last few months have been too much even for some of Trump’s people. There will be a few unhappy locals, and maybe the Trump flags on the lake will be taken down and stored appropriately. At least the wildlife here is apolitical. I can mouth off to the birds and fish all I want, and no one disagrees.
This past week I spent some time at Camp with my grandson, Billy, and his friend, Syd. The boys are 10 and nine respectively. Of course, they were accompanied by their moms– city women who are usually wrapped up in their executive careers and never more than a few inches away from their phones. But I knew they would all relish camp life for a few days. My daughter, Brooke, has joined me on camping trips from the time she was very little. When she was a teenager, we explored the Bob Marshall Wilderness area in Montana on horseback and during summers spent weeks in the Adirondacks. An especially exotic trip was to Iceland, fishing and traversing the barren, majestic landscapes. She is my co-adventurer. But this trip this week would really be about the kids.
Billy is more like his dad who is a great guy and father but who likes the home fires a bit more than the campfires. I wanted Billy to open up and experience for himself the kind of connection to nature that has brought me so much joy over the years. I sensed he was starting to lean distinctly toward the campfire team after we made a batch of sticky and delicious s’mores the first night. And that was just the beginning. The next morning, we had a 6:00am wake up call for fishing with Andy and Greg, both local friends and expert anglers—Andy is a guide at Wheatons. The boys had barely slept off their s’mores when I rustled them out of bed. They were groggy and less than enthusiastic at that hour. But with the first tug on a rod the excitement level went to an eleven on a scale of ten. They had some run of luck catching small-mouthed bass that day. Needless to say, they were “hooked.”
The next morning, Syd beat me to the dock at 6:00 am followed by Billy at 6:30 and that would set the reveille pattern for the rest of the week. I could barely get a cup of coffee to my lips before they started in about straightening out the rods from the day before. After breakfast we fished from the dock, but the fish knew to swim out beyond their casts. There were some long faces, but their moods brightened when I said we were going out on the water in the canoe. It was good preparation for the next day fishing out on Spednic Lake, which would be their best fishing day of the week. The perch were down deep but abundant and between them the boys caught 25. I took them to Baskehegan Lake the following day, and though the catch was smaller, their enthusiasm for the sport was undimmed. They must have slept soundly and blissfully each night, dreaming about “fishin’ and catchin’” – Andy’s turn of phrase. We finished out the week with a ride on my new-old boat—an aluminum ’68 Duratec. The 8.5 horsepower motor was underperforming but the experience for the kids was like a coaster ride. We idled the boat and trolled for a while but caught nothing. They loved it anyway.
Seeing camp through their eyes is like stargazing. When I look up at the night sky from the dock, it seems there are ever more stars to behold and it fills me with an almost child-like wonder. Out here there is no manmade light to compete with or diminish the glimmer of those distant celestial bodies, just the remains of some glowing embers from the pit fire. For the boys, each day here was one of endless discovery. I asked Billy “What was the best part of your time at camp?” He said, without missing a beat, “Catching more fish than Syd!”