Cozying Up to a Camp Without Conveniences

A DOZEN years ago, I came to Maine as a new bride. My husband, Gary, had just acquired the job of his dreams as a whitewater-rafting guide on the Kennebec River. But as spring and rafting season approached, we still had nowhere to live. Then, Gary's friend and fellow guide called with the news that he had found us the perfect place at Combers' Housekeeping Camps on Pleasant Pond.

We went to see the camp in the still-bitter month of March. The sky was overcast and threatened snow as we made our way north from Massachusetts. At Caratunk, we left the main highway to follow a part-paved, part-gravel road winding five miles up a hill to the pond.

Finally, we crested the hill, where we encountered a huge body of water that belittled its name, ''pond.'' Still covered with snow, we could not yet appreciate its splendor. The area was thickly forested and largely untouched, save for the road leading up to and around the pond and the few dozen cottages scattered about.

We began following the primitive map that Gary's friend Bob had provided. Passing several charming cottages, I held my breath with excitement. My husband, consulting the map, shook his head and muttered, ''This isn't right. It's on the other side.'' He turned the car around and proceeded in the opposite direction. ''Watch for a little shed with a sign saying Combers' Camps,'' he said.

And there it was, just beyond four dilapidated, yellowed, paint-peeling dwellings. Incredulous,I burst out laughing.

''Now whatever you do,'' my husband cautioned (oblivious to my reaction), ''don't act excited when you see the place. Mainers are very reserved.'' With that, he jumped out of the car.

Hugh, the owner and a big bear of a man, was there to greet us. Up close, things looked no better. The camp was at a definite tilt. And up a short path, the outhouse left no illusion as to the plumbing situation.

Hugh fiddled with the padlock, kicked the door open, and motioned us inside. The camp was dark and musty. Its green painted walls were thick with soot from too many wood-stove fires. The walls consisted of bare studs with people's initials boldly carved into the rafters. Ancient overstuffed furniture was scattered throughout.

Upstairs were two rooms that housed several creaky wrought-iron beds whose old springs sagged under the weight of stained lumpy mattresses.

Hugh informed us, with no lack of pride, that the camps were over 80 years old and were built by his grandfather. Originally used as hunting camps in winter, fishing in summer, business had slowly dwindled until the arrival of the rafting companies.

The back of the camp opened up to a poorly screened-in porch. A pair of rocking chairs gathered dust in the corner.

My husband, poker face notwithstanding, was obviously enchanted with the place. I kept mum as promised but shot him a ''Don't even consider it'' look, as he and Hugh negotiated. ''Well,'' Hugh droned, ''the rent is $25 a week.''

''Then we'll take it!'' my husband answered enthusiastically.

We drove home that afternoon in silence. That evening, having supper with Gary's parents, he excitedly described the camp to his mother in detail. She had tears in her eyes.

When we returned several weeks later to move in, the scenery, if not the camp, had changed dramatically. The trees were thick with greenery, and the pond, now clear of snow and ice, was breathtaking. Best of all, the water came up so close to our camp that at night we could lie in bed and listen to it breaking against the rocks.

The camp and I had our ups and downs. I didn't mind the outhouse, but I hated having to shower at nearby campgrounds.

And I soon discovered that no amount of scrubbing could rid the walls of accumulated grease and soot. But I surrendered quickly and amicably, turning my attention to pursuits such as blueberry picking.

I got used to boiling water for dishwashing, but speed and efficiency never having been my strong points, cleaning up from a big meal -- or company -- could take well into the night.

All things considered, the bottom line was this: In the cool evenings, lying on the couch by the dim light of our kerosene lamp reading or listening to the radio and lulled by the water playing against the rocks, we felt content, even privileged.

Throughout the summer, my husband's supervisor, Alan, enjoyed teasing this city-bred girl about her prospects of remaining at the camp. Wagging a finger in my face, he would caution solemnly, ''Just you wait. Come fall, when the pipes freeze and you have to go out to the pond to dig a hole in the ice for water, you'll be out of here!''

Laughing, I'd protest, declaring that I was there to stay. As it turned out, he was right. In the fall, I learned that I was pregnant, and that changed the whole equation. My husband left his whitewater-rafting job, and we moved away in search of a more secure and steady income.

I fully expected that moving day would be the happiest day of my life. Curiously, that was not the case. We packed our few belongings. We had arrived with little and left with about the same.

Before heading out, we decided to swing by the company's lodge to say our last goodbyes. Alan was out back chopping wood. The morning was chilly. He paused briefly from his work and smiled sadly: ''You'll be back come spring,'' he joked, ''I just know it.'' Deep down, though, we all knew that it was not to be.

Waving goodbye, I was startled by the tears welling up in my eyes. As we headed down the winding road toward civilization, we fell silent with our thoughts. I had expected my husband to feel sad, but had not anticipated my own grief. Hadn't I been dreaming about long hot showers and a return to indoor plumbing?

But there on that road, I began to perceive that our camp, with all its inconveniences and lack of modern amenities, had bestowed upon us a priceless gift: each other, without all the usual interruptions that so absorb our time.

And that is why we still manage to visit the camp. And to remember what things matter most.

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