Going Up to Camp, Where Summer Is

2007 sunsets-27“We finally got up to camp this weekend.”

This is the phrase on the lips of people all over the North Country right now.

When you hear a phrase like that it might bring to mind a sleepover camp, where kids go to hike and learn rustic skills. Or you might think of a camping trip, with tents and Coleman stoves.

If you lived in upstate New York, though, a reference to “going to camp” would mean something quite different, and everyone would understand that difference.

Where I come from, “camp” is a home away from home, a sometimes-smelly place, filled with castoff furnishings, that is beloved beyond measure. Camp is where memories flourish, nature beckons, and daily life is put on hold, in place of something far better.

Camp is heaven.

Upstate New York is full of camps. Someday I’ll tell you about the so-called Great Camps of the Adirondacks—the luxury “cottages” built by the wealthy to escape the city while retaining all the luxuries of home.

But, here, it seems one needn’t be wealthy to go up to camp. Camp might be a ramshackle one-room shack in the woods. It might be a bigger space, with a bunkroom for the kids. It might be a place where one room got added to another, higgledy-piggledy, to make a rambling home that can’t hide its humble roots.

Camp is likely to have been in the family for generations. It’s likely to be a modest dwelling. It might be on a lake or stream or in the mountains or in the middle of nowhere.

Regardless, camp is a way of life. Camps are almost always seasonal dwellings. Not winterized, they only come alive when nature and people come back to life after a long winter’s nap.

“Opening camp” is a big deal, an event to be anticipated, year after year. Folks who haven’t seen their camps in six months or more drive down dirt roads, and hope to find the place as they left it, without damage from a fallen limb or red squirrels or flooding.

Windows are thrown wide open, a pot of coffee is started, old sheets are pulled off the furniture. Adirondack chairs are dragged to the water’s edge. Ahhhhh . . . it’s summer! The rest can wait.

Camp is where the chairs are big and secondhand and the right shape for curling up with a book.

Camp is where the décor consists of canoe paddles, oil lanterns, marine charts, and piles of beach glass and smooth pebbles.

Camp is where the smell of closed-off rooms, redolent with hints of mildew and old copies of National Geographic, is known as a good smell, the best smell, a smell that evokes the transition of winter to spring and the beginning of something new, yet old.

Camp is full of tradition and memories. Guitars are played here. Children learn old songs, and then grow up and teach those songs to their children. They sing of green alligators, long-neck geese, and rocking ones soul in the bosom of Abraham.

Generations of family and friends gather at camp. The older folks talk and talk, and enjoy adult beverages. The younger folks get wet, throw balls for dogs, take a turn in a small boat.

Camp is the essence of summer. The picnic on the 4th of July, where there’s always too much beer, and music, and the same great friends gather, no matter what.

The special weeks when family members and friends visit from the cities, to ride bikes, toast marshmallows, grill simple food and eat too much. And talk and talk.

The days that start with the squawk of the Great Blue Heron and end with the crackling of a campfire.

As it happens, we now live year round at camp. This camp is habitable in all weather and is a special place in every season. And, yet, it is in its glory when the weather warms and the lake laps in pellucid waves against our seawall; when we open our doors and windows and lives to summer.

Camp is an attitude, a state of mind, a place apart.

Where, to paraphrase the words of E.B. White, every day is a happy day, and every night is peaceful.

Welcome to camp.

2007 sunsets-72

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58 thoughts on “Going Up to Camp, Where Summer Is

  1. Oh beautiful words, beautiful images. And I feel welcome. Two of my loveliest memories of the US entail a summer visit to friends with a cottage on Cape Cod and another to friends with a holiday home on Great Cranberry Island, Maine. Both homes were delightful because they had grown piece by piece over time. How lovely that you get to be at ‘camp’ all year round. 🙂

    • Cape Cod and an island in Maine . . . ahhhhhh! I’m sure those spots had much of the same feel that I’m trying to convey. We love living at camp year round, and planned for it for a long time.

      • You may know this … in the south of NZ people go to their cribs for holidays but, in other parts of NZ, people go to their bach. When my grandparents retired in the late 1940s they retired to their updated/renovated holiday bach. I loved staying with them because the house always retained its cottage/holiday feel.

      • I only know it because Pauline, from thecontentedcrafter blog, just told me about it! We followed your grandparents approach–retired to the place we had used for summers and, like them, we try hard to keep the laid-back, camp feeling.

  2. Oh Kerry, this is your best ever post! ( I may have to revise that statement when you write another dazzling piece, but until then, this announcement is true). Not only written from the heart but evoking a place and a state of mind which I have only ever read about in books. I can only imagine the sense of family and the number of happy memories which would be laid down when time is spent in these magical places.
    Perhaps you could pack up the car as if going on a trip and drive around the block a few times, finally pulling up at you home from home camp, so that you get the excitement of arriving after some time of absence?!!
    I wonder, is it as magical a place still now that you are there all the time?

    • You write such great comments, Karen! Funny you should ask about preserving the “camp” feel, even though we live here full-time. We have a big, glassed-in porch on the lake side that isn’t winterized so we can only use it from, say, May until October. My husband has been lobbying for winterizing it, for year-round use, and I have been adamant that we shouldn’t. I want that porch to continue to be “camp”–when we can take the sheets off the furniture and open the windows and move out there, I get something of the thrill we used to have when we came here just for summer. That matters to me!

      • It makes me happy to think that by keeping the porch as a summer only room, that you are holding onto some of the magic which used to come from opening up your Summer camp.
        The closest I come to the experience you describe is when I open up my little summer house at the bottom of the garden. It is a wooden shed really, but it is very pretty and it catches the late afternoon sun. I open that up about now and start to give it a clean and put a little rug down on the wooden floor.
        Opening it up last year was not so funny. Rats had eaten holes in the floor and built nests in a little tower of baskets which I had placed on their sides in a cupboard in there. They all had their own little country apartment! But I get pleasure from opening up this little space which I associate with summer, food cooked outdoors and playing Fred Astaire on my wind up gramophone!
        Those are special feelings which I really think we need to keep hold of.
        I hope that you do. Karen

      • Your little summer house sounds like a special place–where the pixie hang out, no doubt! I’m a big fan of places imbued with meaning and memories.

  3. Gosh, what a GREAT post!! It sounds absolutely delightful, I’ ready for a retreat, yes, I am! 🙂 Wonderful photos and the first one looks awardwinning, Kerry. Well done.
    Love and a big hug coming your way, Dina

    • Thanks, Dina–I know you understand how special certain places can be! And I’m so flattered you like my photos–huge compliment coming from such a great photographer like you!

  4. In Michigan, the phrase was Up North —- which meant you were going to your cottage. People have camps here in Maine and they have to be in the family because one can cost upwards of $700K. A bit much for relaxation ……….

  5. Great post! Although I am a big city fan, I do want to pack my backpack and go up to camp, gather around the campfire and sing songs! Oh, and I love the quote in the end.

    • I am a city fan, too, for good long visits. But, in my heart, I guess I’m a hermit and just love the quiet and the beauty. And the campfires! The quote is from Charlotte’s Web–we actually have a framed cross stitch, done by my husband, with that quote!

  6. You are such a gifted writer Kerry – I love finding your posts in my email and am getting into the habit of coming here as fast as I can – and as puppy allows!

    ‘Camping’ in my part of the world is tents and suchlike – something I’m not that fond of. Up north we have ‘baches’ and down south where I am now, there are ‘cribs’. Like your camps they range from the truly antiquated and generation grown weekenders to luxury mansions that those with too much money and not enough soul build to celebrate their wealth.

    A few years back I rented a cottage overlooking a long white sandy beach. I rested and recuperated; spent hours gazing out at the view and hours walking the beach; I picked up my neglected paints and painted myself back to health. I have so often regretted giving that place up when life beckoned again – but it was the gift of a period of time and as such holds a special place in my heart and memory. I wonder, did you write this post to remind yourself of how fortunate you are to live in your beautiful and peaceful surroundings year round?

    • Thanks for the wonderful comment, Pauline! It’s so interesting to hear how the concept of camp translates to different countries–but the feeling of rest and access to creativity and self stay the same. I think I did write the post for the reasons you suggest. I keep talking to people up here who have just opened their camps for the season and need to remind myself of the thrill we used to get when we arrived here in May. As I wrote to Karen B., I’ve tried to maintain our non-winterized, glassed-in porch as a “camp zone”–when we can start living out their every year, I know summer has arrived!

  7. I loved this piece too!
    Around here we have several levels – “deer camp” and “fish camp” are usually places mostly populated by men – it may be an old trailer that tilts and doesn’t have running water. “Lake house” is usually more upscale than some people’s regular house. “Beach house” can be upscale, or a wreck after a hurricane. “Ranchita” is for small acreage, out where a real ranch is 30,000 acres! I never thought about how all those terms compare with each other.
    And I live in a weekend house full-time too! Built by my in-laws and their teenage kids.

    • Isn’t it funny, the categories we come up with? We have hunting camps, too, but they get glommed in with the summer places I described. I think it’s very fun to live in what was once a purely “weekend” or vacation home–the weekend vibe kind of creeps into every day and reminds me to slow down and enjoy my surroundings.

  8. I agree with Karen B – a wonderful, evocative post. This sounds a wholly American tradition, unknown in our small and overcrowded island. One to embrace.

    • That’s a great point, about how a crowded, ocean-bound area would not be able to support such a concept of “camp.” I think part of the camp tradition here began with people escaping New York City in the summers. The Adirondacks are huge and untamed but only a couple hundred miles north of New York City.

  9. Lovely story and stunning photos! Although Mr. walker and I do not have a retreat ourselves, twice a year we seek out a retreat ‘to go up and camp’. It recharges the batteries so to speak! Thanks for telling this wonderful story, I felt almost sitting next to you at the campfire

  10. your pictures of the camp are so professionally taken.. and I love camping too.. especially sleeping under the stars (bit not the mosquito bites) is great getting connected with mother nature 😀

    Happy Camping.. and hope you will show us more beautiful pictures soon. 😉

    • Thanks for your compliments on the photos. Nature does all the hard work and I take a ridiculous number of pictures so some are bound to come out well!

  11. great piece! And you described “camp” perfectly. 🙂 My grandmother had a “cottage” – same idea – and same smell. Anywhere else it would be awful, right? My stepmother once said “we will have to clean that cottage and paint it. I am sure there is a way to get rid of that dreadful smell” and my dad and I looked at each other before bellowing “NO! that’s what it is supposed to smell like!” She didn’t grow up with it, so she didn’t get it. And by August, the smell is gone because the place is aired out, so no need to change a thing. 🙂

  12. Wow, camp sounds glorious! I love a good country getaway, and I’d love to expeience this the American way, in a wooden house by the lake. I really believe that time off is necessary for a happy life, and what better way to spend your down time than this! xx

    • I guess you’re right that this really is an American way of doing things–we have such a big country and so many places to retreat to. I’m a big fan of “time off” and being in the country makes relaxing so easy.

  13. Oh I love the idea of going to this type of camp. Actually I would be happy to go to the familiar camp (like we did as kids) too. It’s cabins here in Minnesota and cabin season and opening and closing the cabin (as the season kicks off and also ends). But I do like the sound of your camp!

    • I think your cabins and our camps are first cousins. I wonder why they seem prevalent in northern latitudes? Or maybe it’s that Minnesota and upstate New York have lots of wide open spaces that allow for little dwellings? Whatever–I’m glad to be part of the tradition!

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