(Author’s Note: The following was first published in my column in the Rochester (NH) Courier on April 21, 1987. I’m reposting it 25 years later in honor of my late father-in-law, Lee Clough. Thank you, Lee, for getting the dream off the ground and showing us that it was possible—and only a little bit crazy—to own a place on a big lake way the heck up in Maine.)
Ice out. You won’t find those words on any calendar but, for our house, the event marks the beginning of vacation season. Now that there is open water in Alton Bay, we will be making regular outings to Winnipesaukee. In May and early June, when the sun has thawed more northern waters, we’ll be spending time in the Rangely Lakes region clearing brush on our special spot of the shoreline so our new camp can be built. And, naturally, we’ll be fishing a bit while we’re at it.
But no matter how big the fish or how spectacular the sunsets, our minds are sure to wander even further north to a handsome little A-frame on Moosehead Lake that we won’t be visiting this year.
“That’s camp,” Helen has said, pointing to the picture on the refrigerator, from the first moment she was able to put a name to the home-away-from-home where Daddy doesn’t have to leave for work every morning and life is one continuous picnic.
We have been going “up to camp,” three or four times a year since she was a newborn and we laid her in the handmade log playpen. The place was brand new then, too, just a big open room with a roof over it that Tom, his father, Lee and I had built ourselves the year before.
The photo that Helen likes to keep permanently displayed shows the final results of four summers of family labor. “Rustic simplicity at its finest,” I always imagined a real estate ad would say about the hideaway we had finished with sliding glass doors along the whole front and a large sleeping loft facing a custom designed pyramid of windows that stretched all the way to the 21-foot peak in the roof. From the loft, we could watch the sun rising over the lake before we got out of bed or just lay back and watch the tree tops billowing in the breeze.
Tom and I were sitting up there on the floor one evening last year, our legs dangling into the livingroom area below, when we first admitted out loud that “camp”—at least not this particular one—might not always fit in with our plans as a family. We hadn’t said a word for about half an hour and, normally, that would have been OK. We were used to just relishing the silence that descended there with the darkness and letting our thoughts go still. But this night was different. Our minds were churning enough to drown out the faint sputtering of the gas lamps and, when we finally spoke, we were quietly defensive.
“You know, once I’m up here I love it, I’m totally happy and relaxed, but it sure would be nice to not have to spend a whole day driving and loading everything in and out of the boat to be able to enjoy that feeling. It takes me a day just to wind down from the trip,” Tom said. He was looking into the blackness beyond the windows, arguing not with me, but with each of the timbers around him he could remember pounding into place. ‘
“Well, you certainly know how I feel about this old lake and how I hate saying goodbye to it,” I said,” but maybe we could find a place closer, one we could get to by car, that we could work on off and on and still have time to fish and everything. We always feel like we have to accomplish X amount of work putting up paneling or cleaning up the lot so it will be better for next year. And the next year comes along and we can only make it up here two, maybe three times.”
“Too bad it’s so damn far away,” I finally blurted out and Tom nodded slowly, still staring into the night.
“You know, Dad would understand. He was thinking of selling for the same reasons,” he said. Now he was looking up at the great A-shaped rafters they had erected with ropes and pulleys and a good deal of sweat. His dad hadn’t lived long enough after that to fully enjoy what they had made. But he was a practical man, one who soon realized that a lot of money and effort was going into a camp that sat empty for 50 weeks out of the year.
Tom and I and Helen won’t be at “camp” for ice out this year, but another family will—a family bought the place because they loved its rustic simplicity and they lived near enough to take advantage of it regularly. They plan to generate electricity and do all the little odd jobs we never had time for. Maybe they’ll even have running water before long.
And this year will be the first time in a while that the Cloughs won’t have a camp to go to. We’ll have a beautiful lot though, on a large, quiet lake three hours from Rochester. We’ll have plenty of plans, too, for a new camp with indoor plumbing, electrical appliances and a nearby road accessible during all four seasons.
Best of all, we will have full knowledge that it’s not those amenities that make our vacations memorable. Our happiest times—moments we haven’t been able to recreate in luxurious motels or posh restaurants—have surprised us when we’re 20 miles from a telephone and badly in need of a shower. I’m sure we won’t have trouble reminding ourselves of that as we watch Helen—and her soon-to-be-born sister or brother—swimming, catching trout and having fun “up to camp” in years to come.
(Author’s Note: We figured out later that Lee most likely looked at our Rangeley lot before buying the one on the northern end of Moosehead. My girls, now 28 and 24, still call the year-round home we built out of the tiny original cabin “camp.” And, I am delighted to report they have spent every moment possible here with us—trading card games by the wood stove for Nintendo and long bike rides for hanging out at the mall—never once telling us there was any other place they’d rather be.)
For more “Rooted in Moosehead, too” stories, see