I emerge with caution from my pandemic hibernation. My husband and I contemplate the annual family summer vacation: “Most all of the family should be vaccinated by then. We’ll be outside. I can’t imagine a safer venue.” I dare to dream of returning once again to our favorite spot with our car packed and two kayaks secured to the roof rack.
My extended family has camped on the islands of Lake George every summer for more than 60 years. The three eldest who will once again roll out their sleeping bags are in their 90s. Yes, 90-years young.
Lake George is a 32-mile-long lake, nestled in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. The lake was carved by glaciers that retreated, leaving islands of smoothed granite.
Each island has one or more rustic campsites, including a dock, picnic table, fireplace, and an outhouse. No running water. No electricity.
Friends ask what we do on the island. We are in and out of the water all day — swimming, snorkeling, and kayaking. We read on air mattresses like lizards basking in the sun. We eat, drink, read, swim, nap, eat more. And repeat.
The tradition started in 1958 when two young couples, my in-laws and two friends, canoed to the islands. “I remember a stormy night when waves crashed over the canoe. Was a miracle we didn’t capsize,” recalls my father-in-law, one of our intrepid nonagenarians. In those days, the four slept under heavy canvas tarps and drank water straight from the lake.
The Lake George expeditions continued. The two couples married and soon the camping contingent grew to two families of four. When my husband, the eldest child, graduated high school in the late 1970s, the eight smiled at the camera, certain this was the last time they would all be together.
Flash forward 40 years. Those “kids” are now married, each with two children of their own. We reserve several campsites for our group of 16 to 20.
Snagging one of our favorite sites at Reserve America requires planning ahead. At precisely 8:59 a.m., nine months in advance of the reservation start date, we are poised and ready to click the “Book Now” button. Text messages fly at 9:01. Usually it is “Dang, I didn’t get it” and “Me neither.” But often enough we are rewarded with a gleeful, “I got it!”
We rent a powerboat from Snug Harbor Marina to transport our tents, sleeping bags, and ice-laden coolers. We bring camp chairs, games, and oodles of sunscreen. Long gone are the days of arriving by canoe. Most things stay the same, but some things change.
The 90-year-olds were relieved of cooking and dish cleaning duties some 10 years ago. We carry their gear to and from the boat and set up their tents. They focus on crossword puzzles and napping. I informed my daughters, now ages 26 and 28, that I expect elder camping services long before I reach 80 years old.
We come for the open vistas of the lake and forested mountains. The sounds of water lapping on the rocks, seagulls squawking, and the wail of a loon mesmerize us. Who would camp wedged between Winnebagos when this is available?
We come for family togetherness. Spread across five states, we treasure the chance to catch up. “I’m grateful the kids love it as much as we do,” one of the sandwich generation recently said.
We come for the relaxation, a welcome break from being tethered to our phones. Some settle right in, content to sit and watch a family of ducks passing. At home my to-do list is longer than my arm. I’m forced to adapt to island pace, but it’s good for me.
We dine al fresco at picnic tables under the tree canopy. We feast on Dutch oven lasagna, grilled chicken, and the obligatory s’mores. If a hot dog rolls into the pine needles, we rinse it off and throw it back on the grill. We take turns preparing meals. Should the next generation grow our clan to 40, logistics will be tough, but we’ll welcome that challenge.
Some nights we sing around the campfire. We start with classic camp songs and degrade to songs that never should have been recorded: “Midnight at the Oasis” and “Muskrat Love.” We play spelling games until players are snoring. We count shooting stars. A hot night beckons to skinny dippers and chunky dunkers.
We have happy memories.
My brother-in-law was headed to check-in with the park ranger. My 3-year-old daughter Kate begged, “Can I come? Can I come?” We wondered why she was so eager. “Is the ranger a bear?” she asked with wide eyes.
When my sister-in-law was 10, she and her friend asked to be dropped at a tiny rock island. With only a few crackers, they pretended to be marooned. They learned a be-careful-what-you-wish-for lesson. After the boat engine conked out, they had to be rescued by an air mattress flotilla.
Camping is not for everyone.
Why can’t it just rain at night? Best to not voice the “R” word aloud. When sprinkles or thunderstorms arrive, we try to amuse ourselves in the tent. An endless downpour might find me complaining, “Hey, you’re tracking mud into the tent.” But the sunny days more than make up for it.
No one likes the outhouse. Especially not the middle of the night trek.
I asked the gang for tips for folks new to island camping. I heard, “Don’t come! Go somewhere else!” “Tell them Lake George is in Ohio.” And “Stay at the shore campgrounds. You’ll like it better.” Don’t let them dissuade you.
Jean Duffy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.