SANDY ISLAND ON LAKE WINNIPESAUKEE, N.H. — They call Alice Erickson the Queen of Sandy Island.
As kingdoms go, hers is not exactly majestic, just 66 wooded acres and 250 people, give or take. It’s the Sandy Island YMCA Family Camp, an old-fashioned, bare-bones, multigenerational summer camp. Erickson, 88, is queen because she is the longest-attending camper. She’s been coming to Sandy Island for 75 years — since the summer of 1934 — and was honored last week with a cake and the traditional “Sandy” round of rowdy mealtime table-thumping.
“To have a camper coming to your same camp for 75 years? That’s crazy,” said camp director Kate Lemay.
Erickson, who lived for years in Wellesley, is quick to point out she is not the oldest “Sandy” camper. “There is someone here who is 92,” she said.
But for “years of longevity,” as they say here, no one can touch her. Not Roberta Gilmour, who stays in the cabin called Humble Abode: She’s been coming for only 58 years. Not Linc Stevens in Kum N Go, who has got 53 years under his belt, or the Perriello family in Yore Welcome, who have been attending for 46.
Erickson, who has four children, comes every year with various members of her family. This year there were four generations of Ericksons at the camp, the youngest her 9-month-old great-grandson, Orion.
She still sleeps on a thin mattress in a spartan, boxy cabin. She still uses a flashlight to light her way at night on the unlit, uneven paths; wears baggy shorts and a polo shirt; and dines on family-style meals that could generously be described as unpretentious. And she still goes to line-dancing nights at the Lodge, and knows all the steps, even doing the “Salty Dog Rag” with all its twirling and spinning. Then again, the dances haven’t changed in decades.
‘Where else can you come for a week and not have to cook or clean and just enjoy the company?’
She used to do arts and crafts, too, “but I got so that I started thinking, ‘Why am I up here in this building when I can be down looking at the beautiful lake?’ ’’ said Erickson, whose warm manner, elegant bearing, and upswept silver hair do make her look a bit regal.
At that moment she was down looking at the lake, relaxing at her favorite spot, the porch of the 75-year-old Lodge, the White Mountains in the hazy distance. Seated nearby is a man whose walker is parked beside him; he is engrossed in a Harry Potter novel. Erickson’s canasta cards and cribbage board are at the ready, in her Sandy Island canvas bag.
She gazed thoughtfully at a gaggle of children hurling themselves off an anchored raft. (One thing that has changed at Sandy is that safety regulations have gotten tighter. “I tell you, they are so restrictive now,” she lamented. “In the old days, you didn’t have to wear a life vest in a boat.”)
She takes other vacations, from time to time, visiting one daughter in Arizona, the other in California. “But Sandy is one of these constant things. . . . Where else can you come for a week and not have to cook or clean and just enjoy the company?” said Erickson, who lives in a Needham senior living community.
Familiarity is one of the reasons she and others come back here every year. Very little changes at Sandy Island and if it does, it happens glacially. “We make small adjustments,” Lemay said. “But tradition is the foundation of our camp.”
There is no outdoor lighting at Sandy, no air conditioning, housekeeping, or refrigerators except in the dining hall. Most of the cabins lack bathrooms; campers use communal “lavs” instead. Cellphone service is spotty at best, Wi-Fi even spottier. Trucks on the island do not have doors, and there have been some that lack keys, headlights, or two window-wipers.
“Everything is jerry-rigged here,” Lemay said. “We’re a little off the grid.”
The camp started in 1898, and used to be called Sandy Island Men’s Camp. Erickson’s father, who owned a tailor shop and a rug business, used to come every summer, but in 1934, the year Alice was 9, something magical happened: When the family arrived at the dock to drop him off, they were told it had become a family camp, and the others could come, too. “Except for the four war years, I’ve gone back every single year,” she said.
Lodgings are palatial compared to the old days when there were 13 beds to a cabin, “like army barracks,” Erickson said. You’d get a nail on the wall to hang up your clothes and a kerosene lantern to light the cabin. There was an ice house filled with blocks of ice that had been lugged from the lake in the winter. The only recreational activity was swimming.
Slowly, over the years, more cabins were built, and more families came. The island got electricity. Activities such as dances were introduced, and Erickson loved to dance. So did a young man from Everett named Harold Erickson who worked for the telephone company. The summer of 1951, they danced for two weeks and were engaged the next spring.
They kept coming all the years of their marriage, through Erickson’s four pregnancies and with their four children, loaded down with diaper pails, playpens, and strollers.
They came the year that a young writer named John Updike was there with his wife. “One worked in the store, one was in the office,” Erickson recalled. In 1959 Updike published a story called “Walter Briggs” which described a couple who worked at a YMCA family camp on an island in a New Hampshire lake. The husband worked in the office, the wife ran the camp store.
Harold Erickson died in 2006, but Alice never once thought of not coming back. “I know the people, and I like the people, and the people like me,” she said. “First and foremost, it’s about the people.”
The camp session always starts on a Saturday, and by dinner time, Erickson had unpacked, the rustic bureau drawers lined with paper she’d brought from home. She was joined at the dining room table by her son Bob; his wife, Joy; their two grown children and spouses; and little Orion.
After a family-style dinner of turkey, peas, and canned pumpkin, it was time for Lemay’s announcements, which included warnings about baby minks (“they’re not ferrets”) and proper flushing etiquette. A wedding anniversary was announced, the “Happy Anniversary” song sung with the obligatory thumping.
Concerns were expressed about where the Gottliebs were this year (at a wedding), and about a woman at a table at the other end of the dining hall: Her husband had died a few months ago, in an accident. So many campers came to his funeral north of Boston, Erickson said, “the line wound and wound and wound and went on forever.”
She leans back, a little sadly, her point made. “It comes back to the same thing. The people,” Erickson said. Then she went back to her cabin to get ready for the dance.
The next morning she was back in the dining hall at 7:30, wearing shorts, a windbreaker, and lipstick. “What are they serving?” she asks another camper. “Quiche? Oooooh!”
She picked up the conversation where she’d left it off the night before, introducing a camper named Bob Dinneen, who had been at that funeral, too. “It hit him so hard,” she said.
Dinneen, who lives in Washington, D.C., explained that he and his wife planned to take a year off from camp this summer and go to Ireland instead, but changed their mind after their friend died. “We decided we needed to touch base with our Sandy family this year,” Dinneen said.
In return, fellow campers surprised the Dinneens by greeting them at the dock with a “Welcome to Sandy IRELAND” sign, and sprinkling green decorations on their dining hall table.
“See?” Erickson said. “It’s the people.”
After breakfast there was a service at an outdoor chapel in the woods. Erickson walked there slowly because “the stones are in the way, the roots are in the way, the ruts are in the way.” She spotted an acorn on the ground and bent down carefully to pick it up. “I don’t know why,” she said. “It was just sitting there looking cute, waiting for a squirrel.”
After chapel — and a second breakfast, this one called “brunch” — she retired to her spot on the porch. “I’ve really slowed down this year,” she explained to a visitor. Last year was the first year she didn’t swim out to the raft, and it wasn’t likely she’d do it this year. But she was content to read a mystery, or do Sudoku.
“I’ve been saying this will be my last year at Sandy,” Erickson said. “But I say that every year.”