Solitude at Camp

By John Holyoke

For years, “camp” has existed as a strictly seasonal retreat, with all the attendant perks, anda few quirks. The lake, our own personal swimming pool and playground, is just yards away, but some nights, when the warm summer breeze isn’t blowing, it seems possible the blackflies might swoop in and carry you back to their lair.

Our camp is cozy—until nighttime, when everyone heads inside. At that point, even the most nostalgic among us admits that “cozy” gives way to “crowded.”

The camp is uninsulated, and even a moderate summer shower drums on the roof, creating that rustically unique cacophony that never sounds quite the same when you’re not in the woods. Of course, without insulation, you’re always at the whim of the weather, whether that weather is hot or cold, dry or humid.

For three months or so each year, camp has been a haven from the city heat, a place to gather with family and friends, and to enjoy our special spot in the Maine woods. Forget the fact that as time passes, camp doesn’t seem nearly as far off the beaten path as it once did. It’s still camp.

At least, in the summer it will be.

But I’ve learned over the past few weeks, after moving temporarily to this lake during the pre-summer chill of May, my nostalgic view of camp isn’t entirely accurate. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, mind you.

It’s just that those lazy, hazy summer days that remain perfectly etched in my mind’s eye are special in a way I hadn’t really noticed. Spending time alone at camp is at once invigorating and humbling. The air does smell different there. I notice birds singing, and try to catalogue every creak, snap, and bump in the night. But this is not the camp I grew up loving. Not really.

It is still special. It’s still a haven. But in the weeks before the lake truly awakes from its winter slumber, before the weekend-only neighbors return, and before any but the most hardy swimmers dare leap off their docks, it’s decidedly different.

Things move slowly now, even more slowly than on those lazy, hazy days I remember so well. And while the theory of “solitude” is pretty soothing, the reality can be something else entirely.

Those paddles down the lake are still interesting—the bald eagle that joined me on Memorial Day weekend was particularly surprising, as I’d never seen one on the lake in more than forty years of visiting camp.

I’m seeing more wildlife on my drives to and from work (or, perhaps, I’m just noticing the wildlife that’s always been there)—a young moose, a deer, two rabbits, several squirrels, a sizeable flock of speedy wild turkeys, and a hairy, low-slung beast of unknown origin that I’d really like to get a second peek at.

My memories of camp are not filled with hours of solitary sitting, reading, pondering, and fly-tying, you see. I don’t remember many solo paddles down the lake’s shoreline, nor many minutes spent entirely alone in the place my father and his brother built years ago.

Instead, I remember the people I shared those paddles with, the people I dragged behind the boat on a tube, the people I shared my small fishing boat with as we tried to trick a togue or two on a balmy August afternoon.

I don’t remember sitting in front of a raging fire alone; I remember the stories told around those fires and the laughter from those illuminated by its glowing embers.

I remember climbing trees with my brother, playing cross-country croquet with my nephews and niece, and tossing horseshoes with anyone who’d play (and put up with my non-stop chatter).

I remember complaining to others about the personal watercraft that buzz too close to shore, or buzz around in circles, or buzz back and forth (or, on those rare days when they’re not buzzing, I remember complaining about the way they buzzed the day before).

I remember marching down the camp road to our trout stream. We always wanted to find out where that brook came from, and we’re all still wondering, years after we last headed upstream, happily hopping from rock to rock.

A little bit of solitude can do a man good. At least, that’s what people tell me.

But on cold May nights in that uninsulated camp, I found myself more than willing to give up a bit of that solitude. I found myself sitting by the fire, lost in those memories, eagerly waiting for those lazy, hazy, busy days to return.

And they will return. Of that, I’m sure. That happens when summer truly arrives, when the kids get out of school and when the weekend- only neighbors head back to their own special places in the Maine woods. This year, when all that happens, I don’t think I’ll mind all that much.

That is, after all, what camp’s all about . . . at least in the mind’s eye of one solitary man.

John Holyoke spent twenty-five years entertaining and informing readers of the Bangor Daily News. His former job as an outdoor editor allowed him to travel to some of the state’s most special places in search of experiences to savor and tales to share.

In his first book, Evergreens, Holyoke shares a curated collection of his favorite essays featuring people who are passionate about the outdoors, as well as his memorable encounters with creatures—from salmon to deer to moose to squirrels—that fascinate and confound him.


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