Road Trip Dad - "I went to the woods because . . ."
Dan Witmer | October 26, 2020
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” – Henry David Thoreau

Hard to believe it’s been more than two months already, but just about the only item on my 2020 calendar on the pages from March through October that came off (mostly) as planned was a week of camping at Fish Creek Ponds State Campground in mid-August.

The original plan included sons Eric and Brian and Brian’s girlfriend (Jane, aka “the Czech wife”) as a relaxing decompression following the 31st annual Lake Placid Summit Classic but, well, the tournament got cancelled, Eric was unavailable, and Brian and Jane were still in the Czech Republic.

So I went by myself. Because I could. And because I needed it.

It sounded kind of odd, telling people as the dates approached that, after some four or five months of some pretty solid quarantining, I was looking forward to a week of camping – to get away for a while, to get some alone-time.

But what I usually didn’t – or couldn’t – explain, was what camping at Fish Creek has always meant to me. My family understood, but friends simply didn’t know…

From roughly 1965 until 1974, our family camped at Fish Creek every summer, sometimes for one week, sometimes for two, and other times twice for a week each time. My Dad would load up the station wagon, hitch up the camper, and tie the canoe to our roof, and we’d take the long, six-to-eight hour trip from Long Island – through New York City, up the Turnpike and then the Northway, and then up Rt. 9 through Keene and Keene Valley. The final stretch was through Lake Placid and Saranac Lake. There were years when we left home in the middle of the night, so my brothers and I would sleep for the entire trip, and we’d arrive as the sun came up.

Relatives from both my Dad’s and Mom’s sides of the family joined us over the years, and it wasn’t unusual to have a dozen cousins, aunts, and uncles at three or four different campsites the same time we were there. Sometimes our sites were adjacent to one another; other years we had to jump on our bikes to visit one another.

There were countless evening campfires to enjoy, mountains to climb, bike trails to explore, lakes and streams to navigate, and rainy days to endure. In the early years, the families rented a speedboat for a day each summer and we spent the day water-skiing. Sometime in the early ‘70s, the three uncles (aka The Corporation) pitched in and bought a small, used motor boat that served us well. I loved canoeing, too, but my brothers and Dad were partial to rigging up the canoe with a sail. Dad had served in the Navy, so I guess that explains his passion. Today, my brothers own several various sized Hobie Cats and compete in regional regattas. Me? I avoid sailing.

We climbed Ampersand, St. Regis, Marcy, and probably a few others. We did day-long and overnight canoe trips. I learned to water ski and then slalom (we even experimented with ski-jumping, thanks to a strategically-positioned picnic table that somehow found its way out into the lake, in about two feet of water). We spent rainy days doing laundry in Tupper or Saranac Lake. We became connoisseurs of ice cream everywhere from Lake Placid to Tupper. We spent hours and good hard cash at 1,000 Animals, Ausable Chasm, and Santa’s Workshop. We went to the movies in Lake Placid and the drive-in that existed between Saranac Lake and Lake Placid, and we had mail delivered to us at Donaldson’s Trading Post.

Oh, those childhood memories!

The fun times came to an end when I started working in the summer of ’74 – at the ripe old age of 14 – at a Girl Scout Camp down the road from Fish Creek (my Dad told me that, if I didn’t take the job, he would!). For the next eight summers, I worked in various summer camp kitchens; then I spent summers ’83-’87 working on my Master’s degree at Oswego. In ’88 I started working at lacrosse camps, and continued to do so through 2010. Sometimes I managed a brief weekend visit to join my parents, maybe a brother or two, and relatives who were camping at Fish Creek, but my leisurely weeks of summer vacations at Fish Creek were just a fond memory.

After Brian and Eric were born, I tried to introduce them to the joys of camping and Fish Creek. Unfortunately, my wife didn’t enjoy the camping life, and both boys had slight cases of asthma that didn’t mix well with musty and damp sleeping bags, tents, or camper trailers. Our last attempt was when they were about 10 or so, when we camped with family during the day and stayed in a motel each night. Even that attempted compromise proved unsuccessful… Until – yes, this is the lacrosse part… finally! – I connected with the Lake Placid Lacrosse Tournament around 2000 or so.

In retrospect, joining the staff of the short-lived Lake Placid Lacrosse Camp turned out to be my re-introduction to the Adirondacks. It was a great camp, run by George Leveille, Jim Townsend, and Terry Corcoran, located at the Northwood School, and Brian and Eric joined me for our own “week in the woods.” Seemed like all everyone talked about was the big tournament that would follow the week of camp…

We did the LP Lacrosse Camp for three summers; then, fast forward from 2002 to 2008 or so, and all three of us were employed at the annual LP Summit Classic. As each of our roles seemingly expanded every summer, Brian and Eric were also becoming “outdoor types.” There was the summer of the Shasta RV, then Brian’s van, the inflatable paddleboards, the propane stove, and, next thing I knew, we were eating hot and fresh breakfast sandwiches in the parking lot each morning of the tournament.

In 2018, Brian and Jane camped for a week after the tournament, and I was so envious. So in 2019, I tried to reserve a campsite at Fish Creek for the week following the Summit Classic, for all of us to enjoy a week of R and R, but I was late in getting around to it and ended up settling for a site at Rollins Pond instead. Then plans changed, and Eric couldn’t join us. Then Brian and Jane begged out and went to an FIL/World Lacrosse meeting in Peterborough for a few days. We swapped vehicles and they took my Nissan to Canada while I camped alone with Brian’s old van and my kayak.

Still, it was awesome! I cooked meals on the fireplace, climbed Ampersand for old times’ sake, and sat in the sunshine and read. Brian and Jane returned on Tuesday, and we hiked and paddled some more. It was a great week, just like my memories from the ‘60s and ‘70s.

So for 2020, I went on-line earlier and succeeded in reserving a waterfront site at Fish Creek. Eric said yes, and Brian and Jane said yes. Everything was finally falling into place.

Then March came, and COVID changed everything. No Lake Placid Summit. Eric was working, and Brian and Jane were in the Czech Republic.

But I still had a reservation, and New York State Campgrounds opened up around June 1. And, well, if I couldn’t spend another week in the woods with my sons, I could still go by myself.

So I did. My brother came and spent a few days with me, and a cousin stopped in for a visit my last night there, so it’s not like I was all alone. I slept in a tent, I read, I swam, I went for 4.5 mile runs every other morning, and I paddle-boarded (once). I cooked over the fire. We climbed St. Regis Mountain and went for a killer bike ride. And we went to Donnelly’s for ice cream – twice. It was awesome.

I don’t know if I’ve painted a picture of that week that’s accurate enough; I tried. My seven-day stay at Fish Creek was something I’d been looking forward to since making reservations late in 2019. 2020 has given us all nothing but cancellations and disappointments, but that one week in August – that week happened. Not quite completely as planned, but pretty danged amazing, just the same.

Rest assured, reservations for 2021 are already made (two sites this time!) so, like that guy says in the movie, “I’ll be back.”

Drive carefully, everyone. Be safe, be smart, and be kind.

- Dan Witmer daniel.witmer@oswego.edu

Dan Witmer is the author of two books.  The Best of Road Trip Dad – the Laker Lacrosse Collection  is an accumulation of 45 articles written for JustLacrosseUpstate between the years 2012 and 2018, about the history and traditions, the people, and the stories of the Oswego State men’s lacrosse program. The book is available on Amazon.com, and at the river’s end bookstore in Oswego, the SUNY Oswego College Store in the Marano Campus Center, The Sports Outfit on West Genesee Street in Fairmount, and Geared 2 Sports in Cortland.  ...and piles to go before I sleep - The Book of Wit  is his memoir describing his 33 year career teaching HS English and coaching at Hannibal Central School. It is available on Amazon.com and at the river's end bookstore.