The Lure of Lakewood
This is not American reality," asserts Jennifer Henrich as she takes in wide, calm Lower Richardson Lake, its water reflecting forested mountains, a row of rustic cabins neatly lined up onshore. This summer job at Lakewood Camps is the Heidelberg, Germany, native's first experience of the United States, and as of yet she has not seen anything of the country beyond the hours-long drive from the airport to this sporting camp in practically nonexistent Middle Dam, Maine. In her German accent she describes landing in Portland, being met by camp owner Whit Carter, and then watching the houses and lights diminish as they drove deeper and deeper into rural western Maine. But it wasn't until they finally arrived at the Lakewood dock at the southern end of the lake, in South Arm - a "town" that consists of a public boat launch and a campground - that she seriously began to reconsider what she'd gotten herself into. Even from that pier seemingly at the end of nowhere, the twentysomething's summer job was still a five-mile boat ride away.
What Henrich had gotten herself into, besides a waitressing job at a remote sporting camp in the Rangeley Lakes region, was if not modern American reality, a slice of true American history. Established in 1853, Lakewood Camps is by all accounts one of the oldest, continuously operating sporting camps in Maine. Carrie Stevens created her Grey Ghost fishing fly, one of the most famous and successful of all flies ever made [see page 108], on nearby Upper Richardson Lake, and Louise Dickinson Rich wrote her best-known book, We Took to the Woods, right around the corner. Today Lakewood is the only remaining camp of the three large nineteenth-century sporting camps that once reigned on the shores of the Richardson lakes.
And the history of the sporting camp is, quite clearly, the owners' greatest source of pride. A clock on the lobby wall honors "Captain" Edward Coburn, who ran the camp for fifty years, from 1892 to 1942. A ratty stuffed loon sits above shelves holding field guides and fly-fishing books. Old photos decorating the walls of the main lodge lobby and dining room show how little has changed in the camp's various incarnations over the past century and a half. While some buildings may have been rebuilt a few times - the main lodge and several other buildings were lost in a fire in 1957 - the place looks pretty much the same, maintaining the traditional sporting camp configuration of a main lodge flanked by twelve cabins, each with a porch, Franklin stove, and private bath. A few outbuildings, all facing the breathtaking lake and mountain backdrop complete the scene.
The amenities are not the only things that have remained unchanged at Lakewood Camps. Carter asks rhetorically, "How many other businesses have done the same thing, the same way, for over 150 years and are still viable?" He says that he and his wife, Maureen, are simply providing what the camp has always provided: good old-fashioned hospitality and access to top-notch fishing on both the lake and the Rapid River, arguably Maine's foremost trout stream.
But they are also providing a rare commodity in these days of increasing demand for shorefront and development pressures in the North Woods - a beautiful lakefront unmarred by the sight of any other houses or camps save for a handful of buildings, including the dam-keeper's house, near Middle Dam at the river's outlet, a five-minute walk down the shore. The camp itself is off the grid - the generator shuts down from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. - and one rarely hears the sound of a motor other than that of the camp's lawnmower. A bell rings to announce each of the day's three meals, but for the most part the primary sounds are those of nature: water, the occasional thunderstorm, loons and songbirds, frogs, and eager fishermen pulling on their waders to get back out on the water after each meal.
These are the sounds that have echoed in these woods since Joshua Rich established the original Angler's Retreat, also called Middle Dam Camp, in this very spot back in the mid-nineteenth century. "The natural elements make this a timeless, magical place," marvels Maureen. "A moose came by a week ago, there are birds and wildflowers, butterflies and grasshoppers - things you noticed as a kid but forget about in the city. When you're here, you suddenly notice them again, the trilliums and raspberries, the fireflies. Birders have listed more than sixty species here in the spring. With lights out at ten o'clock, visitors notice the night sky - the Milky Way, or sometimes the northern lights." Fishermen observe bald eagles and ospreys overhead, or a merganser hen floating downriver with her chicks riding on her back.
However, it has always been the abundance of wild brook trout and landlocked salmon that has attracted fly fishermen in droves, despite the challenges of access over the decades. While visitors now arrive in Whit's motorboat, "sports" used to arrive via uncomfortable buckboard over the old Carry Road (still dirt, but now gated) from Lake Umbagog (itself reached by train from Boston, then boat from Upton).
Today the river and the beauty of the lake that feeds it and the woods that surround it remain virtually unchanged from decades past, largely because the Rapid River corridor is protected by conservation easements held by the Rangeley Lakes Heritage Trust and the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. Those first fishermen who made the arduous journey to Angler's Retreat may have enjoyed larger trout, but certainly not more attractive scenery. (And, if one is to believe early written reports, the food and other amenities have vastly improved over the years.)
The Carters also cite the vision of one of their landlords, Seven Islands Land Company, which owns some eighty thousand acres in the area, as one of the primary reasons that most of the lakefront has remained undeveloped. "They've made a choice to keep this area pristine," Whit says. "They've figured out that the best way to have the numbers of people visit this area with the least impact is to concentrate them all in one spot - our sporting camp. That's why this place is still so quiet, so wild."
Before purchasing Lakewood Camps in 2002, the Carters had owned a family vacation camp on Saddleback Lake for many years, and so were familiar with the attractions of the area. Wanting to make career changes and drawn to the natural beauty of the Rangeley Lakes region, they decided to find a sporting camp to run. Whit's background as a general contractor and Maureen's experience as the manager of a digital x-ray company stood them in good stead when they first purchased the camp.
"Six years ago I didn't even know what a sporting camp was, but I knew how to manage, and Whit knows carpentry, boats, and plumbing," Maureen remarks. "We had both worked in restaurants when we were younger, so we had the resources for a place like this." To help prepare herself for the lifestyle change, she read We Took to the Woods. But even so, she admits, "My first year I didn't know a lot. The guests showed us the way, the ones who had been coming here for years. They showed us where the key to the paddles was kept, how to get to Sunday Pond." Whit adds, "We hadn't been here before leasing . . . You just have to jump in and let the current - the guests - carry you."
The longtime guests were not just being helpful; they had a vested interest in making sure the Carters ran the place right. Maureen says that their first spring they were told by guests "that we were really the caretakers for their memories. They wanted to be sure that we understood right away the value of their history and the lore of this place. A lot of older people have been coming here their entire lives, and families still meet here for reunions - some families have been coming here together since the fifties."
Whit describes the working life at Lakewood as very much akin to old-style farming, where everyone came together to do what needed to be done and success was dependent on cooperation and the weather. He relishes the "real `old Yankee' experience" of running the camp. The Carters work side-by-side with their employees for weeks straight, without any time off, becoming closer through the experience of "everyone being in it together." The work is intense right from opening day in mid-May, when fly-fishing is at its peak, through June. In summer the camp is filled primarily with families who take advantage of the canoes and kayaks available as well as the many hiking trails and the general aura of relaxation. September brings a last hurrah of fly-fishing, followed by bird hunting in October and deer hunting until Thanksgiving. Then, after a brief vacation in the Caribbean, the Carters spend their off-season at home on Boston's North Shore, marketing the camp. Whit also works as a boat carpenter.
It's not an easy thing to maintain the authentic sporting-camp experience that one can enjoy at Lakewood Camps, but the Carters maintain that they made the right life choice. "You learn a lot about yourself," says Maureen. Whit is more loquacious: "The rewards are lasting, and different. It's not like getting a hundred grand and buying a big boat with it. The rewards are in learning how to go deeper, how to keep going when you don't have anything left. A spiritual thing. Living nine weeks straight with staff, three meals together every single day, you learn how to interact and live with people. You rely on each other with no distractions of television or the Internet. Whoever sticks it out grows a lot."
And not everyone does stick it out. Jennifer Henrich from Heidelberg, for instance, chose not to return to Middle Dam after visiting Boston and Miami on her July break. But for those who would trade the American urban experience for a dose of Maine wilderness, the unchanged essence and rich heritage of Lakewood Camps provide an ideal retreat.