top of page
Search

Adventure & Innocence on Lake Millinocket, Maine

Updated: Dec 24, 2023

I grew up spending my summers and other school vacations with my cousins Mike and Chris, often staying at their father’s house—my Uncle Jerry—in Lunenburg, Massachusetts. He lived in a sprawling ranch on the shores of Lake Shirley, the property shrouded in epic pines and sprinkled with signs of an unconventional, slightly outside-the-lines life, one of adventure and the outdoors: snowmobiles under tarps alongside the detached garage, mini-motorbikes for tearing through the wooded trails, a garage chock-full of motorcycles and motorcycle parts, as well as a mini-sprint race car which Uncle Jerry raced on weekends (in his earlier life, he’d been a trophy- and injury-accumulating stock-car racer). Out back, on the shores of the cove, were canoes, rowboats, and his old speedboat, tied to the dock and ready to rip. Inner tubes for floating on the lake were stacked on a bed of orange pine needles. The water skis were back in the garage, hanging from a wall. There were b.b. guns, bow-and-arrow sets, a treacherous rope swing and platform that left me battered and bruised after every visit. The workshop downstairs smelled sweet with sawdust, the garage perpetually of oil and gasoline. By contrast, inside the house stacks of books decorated every end table, bowed bookcases weighted with them. The inside of the house and outside seemed, on its surface, to be at odds with one another—high-flying adrenaline-fueled adventure outside, the quiet interior space of books inside. But to Uncle Jerry they were, perhaps, one in the same: experiences.

 

 Two consecutive summers during the late seventies we drove five hours into northern Maine for two-week camping trips on a quiet, bare-bones island out in the vast Lake Millinocket. Uncle Jerry had a friend who ran a campsite on the mainland—a cluster of dark log cabins camouflaged in the cover of trees. An old seaplane bobbed at the dock, which we promptly boarded upon arrival so that his friend could fly us out over the lake, not simply for sightseeing, but to pick out our location for the next two weeks. Then we transported our supplies—duffle bags, rolled sleeping bags, tents, canopies, grills, coolers, half a dozen brown bags of groceries, into a motorboat. With the boat so weighted down with supplies, its hull sat precariously low above the water level. Waves often crested its sides and splashed our feet. Whenever that happened, Jerry would slow the boat down a little more. We putt-putted across the lake for what had to be forty minutes. Maybe it was an hour.

 

The island beach was desolate. The boat carved into the sand and came to a stop, and us three boys hopped out to help pull it farther up onto the beach. Birds cawed in the trees behind us. Waves lapped the shore. In the distance, ominous Mount Katahdin, Maine’s highest peak, loomed, partially invisible through the August haze. Later, my cousin Chris would tell us a story about a boy scout who, back in the day, had gotten separated from his troop on that mountain and had wandered for days, maybe a week, until one day he staggered into town, his scout uniform tattered, his face bruised and scratched and dirty, his body half-emaciated, tripping along Main Street like a zombie, his eyes glazed and dead-looking.

 

This was our home for two weeks. Half a month. There were no other people. No other campsites. No bathrooms. No showers. We peed in the bushes and pooped crouched over logs, burying our deposits like dogs. We swam naked in the lake with bars of Ivory soap floating on the gray surface. In the mornings Uncle Jerry cooked bacon on a portable propane stove. We made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch and packed them in knapsacks for long exploratory walks into the unknown, no agenda for the entire day and nowhere else to be. We kept our eyes peeled for bears but never found any. Around the bend, we hopped from boulder to boulder across shallow waters to what we deemed the wild side of the island, the side without a beach or open spaces, where the vegetation was thick and came right up to the water’s edge. Mike and I wore only our bathing suits, our bodies lean and tanned and bare, our feet bare too, caked in sand and dirt. We spend half a day searching for just the right walking sticks, then used them every time we ventured from camp. If we could have grown long, grizzled beards we would have.

 

*

My cousin Chris was a bookworm. He brought with him a backpack full of paperbacks, and spent much of his days in the tent reading while Mike and I went looking for an adventure. In fact, on our initial drive in from town, we’d stopped at a local bookstore for reading material. I’d bought a pulp magazine about shark attacks (I’d recently seen Jaws 2 for the first time), while Chris bought a paperback copy of Stephen King’s story collection Night Shift. Right away, I was both wary of and fascinated by its cover—a partially-bandaged hand, palm facing the viewer, with a collection of peering eyes looking out from its palm. A hand with eyes. What the ever-lovin’ hell was that about?

 

At night, before bed, the three of us would hang out in the tent, propane lantern hissing and aglow, casting dancing shadows. Chris would read Mike and me one of the stories from Night Shift and scare the absolute fuck out of us. Then we’d extinguish the lantern and get swallowed by the island’s darkness, its wild late-nights sounds, miles and miles and miles from civilization, and I’d lie awake through the night, pissed-off at Chris for reading us the story. But by sunrise, at breakfast on the sandy beach in the cool Maine morning, I couldn’t wait for him to read us another one.


Most mornings, we'd hear the approaching whine of a plane motor sometime after breakfast. I'd shield my eyes from the early sun and search the sky. Then the seaplane would appear from seemingly nowhere, skimming just above the trees, and pass directly overhead, its wings tipping this way and then that in a morning wave. Its shadow would slide over the beach, then the camp and us, and then it would ascent back toward the clouds and out of sight.


For those two weeks we never left the island, but on a couple of occasions Jerry would take the motorboat back across the lake to refresh supplies. Us three boys stayed back on our own. The boat ride across was long, with an even longer drive back into town. Jerry probably hung out with his buddy for awhile too, maybe had a few beers before the long boat ride back to the island. We were on our own for the better part of the day.

 

One afternoon the sky turned dark and threatening, clouds bruised purple creeping toward us. The summit of Katahdin vanished into the gloom. Acres and acres of trees bowed in the churning wind. Standing on the beach, Mike and I swore we could see a tornado forming out there somewhere, across the slate-gray lake. Chris thought we were too imaginative. Either way, the tents came shuddering to life, their canvas walls snapping with the sound of punches, rattling and wobbling but trying their hardest to fight the good fight. Mike tried to tighten the tarp but it flew loose.

 

When the rains came, fast and hard and angry, we surrendered to our unstable tent and hoped for the best.

  *

I felt safer with Uncle Jerry back on the island. He was a true MacGyver, able to troubleshoot any problem with a little spit and glue. He spent his days in the camp doing just that, repairing the tarp rigging after the storm, or fixing a stubborn stove valve with one of the blades of his jackknife. A cigarette hanging from his lips and his neck muscle taut with focus and effort. With Jerry in control, us boys were free to play—often out on the beach making up and acting out stories, ideas that I would later write as short fiction or even attempted novels, every one either a Jaws rip-off or a Star Wars rip-off.

 

At the end of the two weeks, Mike and I stashed our walking sticks in a conspicuous bush, out of the way but visible from the beach, so that the next year we’d be able to find them again (we did). I was ready for a real bed and a hot shower, ready to play some Atari 5200, watch some HBO in my basement bedroom, away from the August heat.

 

Soon school would start, and my hair would be combed and hair-sprayed, a sweater-vest making my torso itchy, my shoes not broken in yet and pinching my heels. I’d sit in a hard desk chair, trying to follow a lesson, and the island would seem so far away already, two long weeks in just a bathing suit, sleeping with the cool ground beneath me. I’d remember unzipping the tent and crawling out onto the beach in the dead of night to take a pee, the island finally at rest, the sprawling sky above crowded with electric stars, illuminating the Maine night.

 

The random yellow blips of fireflies dotted the night, blending with the stars when the angle was right and creating the illusion—to my sleepy and foggy brain—that they were stars that had drifted from the sky.

 

And then I’d blink and refocus on my math problems, or try to at least. Winter vacation wouldn’t be too far away. There was always that. A week in Lunenburg, Massachusetts at Uncle Jerry’s, riding snowmobiles or going skiing at Wachusett Mountain, maybe seeing if we could make it all the way across frozen Lake Shirley, or spend an afternoon trying to break up all the ice in the cove, for no real reason. And all the while we’d talk about our island, swapping stories and remember whens, longing for the day when we’d find ourselves on its unspoiled sands again.  

 

Our walking sticks were waiting for us.




124 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Comments


bottom of page