A Place Called Camp

You won’t see this place featured on The Travel Channel. There are no major airports nearby, no tourist attractions, no fancy hotels, no crowded restaurants, no taxis, no t-shirt shops, and no night life.

It’s a place found all over Maine, in the woods and the mountains, on lakes and along the coast. It’s an uncomplicated place where folks go to seek freedom, to feel alive and to enjoy the modest pleasures of life.

It’s a place where folks embrace tradition, a sense of sameness and a lack of pretension, a sanctuary away from the strangling stress of today’s world.

It’s a place Maine folks call CAMP.

Many Mainers open their camps in April and May. However, May, with winter’s tenacious grip released, remains the more reliable month, tucked in between mud season and summer. It’s a month that promises good things to come.

In Aroostook County where winters linger, many must wait until May to venture out to their camp. Here, owning a camp is a way of life. In particular, one envies those Fort Kent folks who travel 15 minutes south on Rt. 11 to their own version of paradise on Eagle Lake. Now that’s the right idea!

For Maine folks, there are no better words than, “I’m headin’ to camp.”

By mid May, the wharf’s in, canoes, kayaks and row boats rest on their sides against trees, holes in the screens repaired, cobwebs cleared and the camp cleaned. There’s a fresh, invigorating nip in the air, Bean flannel shirts still necessary to ward off the chill. The peepers have called in the spring. Loons glide by, a stern, sentinel-like Northern Hawk Owl perches on a branch high above, the fragrant scent of the lilacs sooth, the evening cricket chirping chorus sings and smoke swirling from the chimney satisfies.

There’s a comforting pace to each day. One rises early, brews the coffee, ambles down the path, Golden Retriever sprinting along, to the wharf and the sunrise. The mug of hot coffee warms the hands. Across the lake, a meadow reaches upward to a pine forest. A lone fisherman, huddled over and enveloped in the mist, motors by. He nods, no words needed. It feels good.

It reminds one of the lyrics, “Easy like Sunday Morning.”

A crumbling stone wall forms a loose boundary on one side of the property, a brook running fast forms the other. The bonfire pit, smelling of wet soot from last year, needs shoveling out. The rope swing and hammock sway slowly in the morning breeze. An ancient push mower, used to cut a 10 minute swath of weeds, leans against the tool shed, its doors propped closed by a wooden pole.

The porch provides entry to the lakeside view of the camp. A wood box, with a dull axe ready for sharpening, sits strategically outside the door. White flakes from worn wicker chairs sprinkle the sloping floor. A nickel plated Railroad Lantern with working wick adjustment hangs from a hook in the roof. A small forest green sofa bed serves as the requisite nap nook, suitable for late afternoon snoozing with the dog. Fishing poles and waders occupy a corner. Wall pegs, located by the kitchen door, hold caps and coats.

Although the porch is the cherished congregating area, it’s the kitchen where the main gathering takes place. A frayed Betty Crocker cookbook shares space on the Formica counter top with a varied collection of tins for holding stuff, vintage Yellow Ware mixing bowls and cans of evaporated milk, an important camp staple.

Camp food means comfort food. The “chef” prepares meals on a black 1910 Home Clarion cookstove, manufactured in Bangor. Breakfast is standard fare, often bacon and eggs fried in a cast iron pan, home fries and biscuits lathered in butter. The steady hum of the Frigidaire provides background music while reading the weekly Gazette, purchased at the general store. For lunch, there’s usually a pea soup or beef stew simmering on the stove, next to the dented tea kettle with a coiled wire handle. Suppers include franks and beans, spaghetti and meatballs or chicken pot pie, with a side of fiddleheads.

The camp’s outfitted with a mishmash of furniture and knickknacks found in antique barns and yard sales over the years. Numerous framed black and white photographs of four masted schooners and fishermen standing in streams with distant mountains on the horizon decorate the walls.

Only one bathroom, off the kitchen, services the camp, but not much time is spent sprucing up there.

A wood burning Franklin Stove anchors the combined living room and parlor. Wooden skis, straps unbuckled and torn, cross on a wall. A Waterbury Eight Day Mantle Clock requires winding. An oak bookcase contains a library of yesteryear. One shelf holds Look, Life and Saturday Evening Post magazines and books by Maine authors Caldwell, Gould, McDonald and Day. Another shelf holds the Horatio Alger series, the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. Another holds Scrabble and Monopoly games along with a Cribbage board and deck of Bicycle playing cards.

Two rear rooms, added on 22 years ago, accommodate spindle and bunk beds covered with moth-eaten multi colored wool blankets. Cots, used for guests, stand folded against a wall. Camp’s not a fashion show, so closets are tiny. Steep stairs lead to the second floor and 3 more bedrooms, a refuge for hitting the sack.

After supper, light conversation, playful dickering and laughter commence. As dusk turns to dark, conversation ebbs and camp folks settle back in the soft cushions of their favorite chair with a Stephen King novel. The dog slumbers on the threadbare braided rug. A cup of King Cole tea and a plate of Nissen chocolate donuts lie on the lamp table. It’s a Norman Rockwell scene.

Camp roots run deep, families passing them on from one generation to the next. There’s something spot on about all this. Simply put, it’s a good way of living, a tradition like none other.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all find a place called Camp in the land of Maine?

Hunter Howe lives in Cape Elizabeth with his wife, Colette, and their two beloved dogs, Spirit and Schooner. He writes for the Senior News, a publication of the Southern Maine Agency on Aging. Currently, he’s working on a suspense novel and an observational humor book appropriately set in a fictional town in mid-coast Maine.