We spent six nights on Fourth Lake in the southeastern Adirondack Mountains, a trip comprised of several hundred miles' travel, as well as about 60 years' time travel back to an age that ended before I ever knew it.
You could hardly hope for a more lovely get-away than the Viking Village on the south shore of Fourth Lake, closer actually to the hamlet of Inlet than to Old Forge. Through a dark fringe of pines and spruce, the broad, still waters of the lake reflected the morning sunlight and then evening stars in turn. Mornings, the coffee tasted better in the cool, mountain air, and before turning in we'd kindle wood fires in the fire pit, roasting marshmallows and listening for black bears or the rustling of the raccoon. Some nights we had neighbors in the other cabins, and a few nights we were practically alone out there. And as I explored the land and then the facilities it became clear we were glimpsing another world.
The camp itself had history. Originally Camp Monroe, it was established by a retired postal clerk from Monroe county in the late 1800s, a single, wooden cabin fronting the lake, where one man could enjoy some privacy and the leisure to hunt and fish. His visiting friends, increasing in number as the secret leaked out, convinced him to build a lodge, and the camp's great house was begun in earnest. This was in the time before asphalt roads linked the Adirondacks' lakes, and the wood, materials, and even the laborers traveled up to the site along the waterways, the Fulton Chain of Lakes. Over a hundred years later, the house was still standing and was still essentially in use, though reduced.
It was a spectacular old building, the kind that tell stories even in their silence. The porches sloped steeply away from the building at an angle designed to keep the snow and ice off but that kept the casual traveler off balance like a wooden schooner bent before the wind. The paint was gone in the well-worn spots where guests had sat to play the ring game or deal cards around the wooden tables. Camp Monroe eventually became Brynilsen's Viking Village, and the Brynilsen family has run the camp until the present. A warmer or more welcoming family has never existed, and the entire camp was infused with the warmth of families' pleasant memories. "We've been teaching water skiing here for 60 years," explained Jan, the camp "Mother". Her nephew, Andy, led me through the camp office to get some fishing rods for my kids. The walls and even the ceiling were lined with snapshots of generations of campers; only their haircuts gave away the age of the photo: grinning kids with their first lake bass, shaggy haired adolescents in bathing suits lined up on the wooden dock. Large groups of church goers, scouts (maybe), or just big families, all enjoying each others' company and the relative solitude of the mountains. I picked out shots from the 70s, the 60s, and earlier, but it was clear just how much character the place had.
The library ("Help yourself," Andy offered, "the weather's going to turn colder tonight") dated back to the turn of the last century, with row after row of hardcover books written between the two world wars. Plaques and awards hinted at fishing competitions, card games, and shared jokes of a generation. The camp mess hall, fit with long picnic tables and industrial size kitchen equipment, including immense, steel tureens of coffee, were silent when we visited, but were clearly the stage for rowdy, raucous breakfasts of shaggy young kids. And the dock, the waterside barn with the ping-pong tables, and all the water toys, spoke of group fun.
It may be my memory, my generation, or just the way I was raised, but it seems to me Americans don't really spend their time that way anymore, and that increasing poverty (or just the crushing pressure to make all the month's payments - call it what you will), interest in solitary, electronic entertainment, and even the sedentary seduction of TV and the Internet, have done away with a lifestyle where you would go to camp for a week in the summer, hoping to see the same friends as last year, and maybe that brown-haired girl you had a crush on. Asking around, others told me that too many families were having to work summers and weekends to get by, and that camp was a thing of the past. I'm happy to have gotten a glimpse of it, but as always I find myself wondering if what we've gained makes up for what we've given up - and if we even have the ability to find out.
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