The photo is from 1978. My son, his truck. Behind him, my truck.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Rat Face Lure

June, 1996

You don't get to choose the places you love.  Sometimes you're just passing through, and it hits you.  Or you might spend 18 years in your home town and still hate it as much as I hated mine.  It's the people as much as the location.  The first time I drove into La Honda I knew within 30 seconds that it was home.  And it still is.

I first came to the Adirondack Mountains of upper New York State when at the age of 14 I spent a summer at Hawkeye Trail Camp on Silver Lake.  I returned for the next three summers.  My final summer in 1965 I was a camp counselor, my first paying job, where at the age of 17 I spent as much time as possible in the company of an amazing girl (who would eventually become my wife) while taking breaks twice a day to teach kids how to shoot a gun.  As Riflery Instructor it was my job to put a .22 Winchester in the hands of little children and take them to the rifle range.  In the process I became a great shot.  It didn't seem weird at the time.

1963.  Me standing left.  JK front center.  Duncan 3rd row center.
Thirty years later I return to the Adirondacks.  Hawkeye Trails closed in the 1970's.  Ex-campers JK and Duncan bought part of the run-down camp and refurbished it as a summer retreat for their families.  Every year in late June they have to repair and re-open after the hard Adirondack winter.  This year, 1996, they invite me to come and help.  They call it Workfest.

I remember the Adirondacks from the 1960's as a poverty-stricken area of terrible roads and survival housing.  Now the roads are smooth; the houses freshly painted.  Compared to California, the land is lush and green.

Arriving after noon, I find JK and Duncan down at the lakeshore.  Duncan is little changed.  He seems to feel the same about me.  There's the instant ease of old friendship after a 30 year gap.  Meanwhile JK and I have always stayed in touch - he's my brother-in-law.

We install the dock.  The job requires standing waist-deep in cool water as waves splash against you.  We pound pipes into the mud, mount a frame to the pipes, tighten bolts, add decking in the form of pallets.  Nothing about the process has changed since I first helped out as a camper 34 years ago, though the design is begging for an update.  Already I perceive a sense of tradition with JK and Duncan, a desire to keep things as they were. 

"People are always dropping by," JK explains.  "Old campers who remember Hawkeye from the Sixties or even the Thirties.  They're so happy it's still the same."

JK and Duncan have borne the expense, done the hard work, and run the risk of owning this property, but unlike lords of the realm they feel an obligation to everybody who has loved the place - and there are hundreds.  Never an architectural showpiece, it was a funky summer camp - but a very special place built of memories, of youthful rites of passage from first canoe outing to first kiss.  They want it to remain so.  The main building is a big old lodge known as the Blue Heron.

A couple hundred feet down the lake from us, Ken Laundry, age 85, is installing his own dock without help from anybody.  He joins us for a beer and a bit of talk.  Ken says his property assessment tripled this year.  Ken has lived by Silver Lake all his life, scratching out a living with strong hands and a strong head.  In winter he used to take horses out on the ice to haul in fresh water.  “And if the horse did his business on the ice, you had to clean it up.  Now nobody seems to care about the lake.”
With the dock installed, we make a trip to Aubuchon Hardware in Ausable Forks.  At Aubuchon I see the adult Duncan at work.  He was playful when I knew him in high school, and now he is playfully engaging as he jokes with the hardware clerk, asking questions about wood-preserving techniques, explaining our concerns, acknowledging the clerk's expertise and experience.  The clerk becomes a part of our project and feels he has a stake in the outcome.  Then when Duncan jokingly suggests that for the size of our order, we each deserve a free Aubuchon Hardware painter's cap, the clerk laughingly agrees.  Duncan scores free hats - disposable, emblazoned with the Aubuchon label, but they had prices on them.  I think it all happened by accident.  There's nothing calculating or manipulating about Duncan; with soft self-deprecation he simply charms you.

Since I haven't seen Duncan for 30 years, I can't say how he behaves back home in Minnesota, but I know he runs a serious business, supports his family and is a responsible man.  Here he's simply playful.  JK is equally lighthearted.  In Los Angeles JK is a partner in a law firm handling heavy-duty corporate law.  Here, he's a different person.  He's merry.  The spirit is infectious.

The next day while wearing our free Aubuchon caps we stain the new paneling in the living room with just a blush of red added.  It looks great.  Over the winter Duncan and JK hired a local carpenter to rip out the old dark interior walls, add insulation, and then panel them with knotty pine.  Apparently this was a new step for them, as they'd done most of the fix-up so far by themselves.  They're pleased with the results, and I agree - the carpenter gave them solid work, lovely details, for a low price.  During winter, carpenters around here don't have a lot to do.

Duncan mows the lawn.

I paint a new door.  Swimming in the lake, I come upon a big fish who doesn’t scare easily.  He's twelve inches long, sitting on the bottom chewing his cud.  There are fresh-water mussels down there and masses of tiny fish hiding among bright green weeds.  I feel I've re-entered a lovely secret world.

We drive out along the Ausable River, which is world-famous for fly-fishing.  Next to the river we dine at a restaurant called Rat Face McDougall’s.  Duncan finds the name amusing, since his last name is McDougall.  Down the road from the restaurant we stop at a fly fisher’s shop where they sell a fly called a Rat Face McDougall, recommended for catching trout.  Duncan buys two.

After dinner we visit a neighbor on the lake by the name of Fred who is remodeling an old cabin.  Fred's in a bad mood about his contractor because while Fred was away the man built a massive stone fireplace rising 30 feet from foundation to chimney top - and he built it in the wrong place.

The next day we return to Aubuchon Hardware where another salesman says, "Oh yeah, I heard about you guys," and he allows us to return some unused stain.  What did he hear?  Was Duncan's charm somehow offensive?  Should we offer to pay for the caps which seemed so freely given?  Or did he simply hear about a bunch of nuts from California and Minnesota who don't know beans about preserving wood in the Adirondacks?  We're the summerfolk in a very small town.  They depend on us for a livelihood; we depend on them for service.  Sometimes it's an uneasy relationship.

Across the street I buy groceries and have to wait five minutes to purchase beer, which to my surprise can’t be sold before noon on Sunday.  While I wait, the checkout lady tells me she's local but she left town for a while.   

"Where'd you go?" I ask.

"Oh I lived eleven years in Florida but then it started snowing down there."

"Really?  Snowing in Florida?"

"You bet your butt it snowed.  So I came back here and now you know what?  The winters are so much milder than they used to be.  All that snow must've gone down to Florida."

"Yeah, maybe the planet really is warming up."

"You bet your butt it is.  The snow here isn't nearly as deep as when I was little.  It used to come up to my chin.  Now it doesn't come up so high."

Then she laughs.  She had me.

"Noon," she says, and she rings up my Saranac Ale.

Duncan and JK
As a last act of opening the camp, Duncan and I install the mailbox at the end of the driveway.  Pre-internet, that mailbox is the portal connecting this camp to the rest of the world.  And so it's been for most of a century.

Workfest turns out to be a reunion, a chance to be boys again, a time when work is worked and play is played, a summer camp for grownups.  Or at least for me.  Like a trout, I'm hooked.

(The photo of Duncan mowing, and the photo of Duncan and JK, were taken by David Minard who reserves all rights.)

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