July 9, 2012
LAKE WINNIPESAUKEE: A TRIP BACK IN TIME
THREE MILE ISLAND, NH – If you like your bugle calls precise, Google the Army band; if you want them played con brio, this is the place for you. The buglers here – members of the student “croo” – play with a bungling enthusiasm that’s utterly irresistible...especially when they sound the old mess call “Come and Get Your Beans, Boys!” At the sound, the dozens of campers, young and old, who’ve been standing patiently around the long dining tables sit down immediately with a great scraping of chairs and begin passing bowls and platters back and forth.
Three Mile Island sits not far from the west shore of Lake Winnipesaukee, just three miles from Meredith. Winnipesaukee’s a big lake. It’s got a big name, too, which some people can actually spell. There are so many high-powered fiberglass and plastic boats zooming back and forth on the water that you can see them from space via GoogleEarth. My friend Charles and I avoided further disruption of the surface by sailing and rowing out here in Charles’ beautiful reproduction, made from all Vermont native wood, of an old Swampscott dory.
Here on Three Mile Island life is serene by comparison with that of the lake. Over 100 years ago, the Appalachian Mountain Club acquired the island, by gift and purchase, and has run a summer camp here since 1900. It’s been for decades a full-service family camp; some families today claim five generations of vacations out here. Campers who come here as 8-year-olds often aspire to be members of the croo when they become teenagers. If they make it, they later bring their own kids here for a week or two, and the succession passes on.
I’ve been to all the AMC mountain huts at least once, and the croos have always been a large part of the ambiance of each. This is the first one I’ve been to where the croo is part of the social scene – probably because croo members’ parents are here, also. The croo volleyball team is ready to take on any team of visitors, they chat with the campers as they wait on table, they come to the square dancing in wild costumes, and they sit in on musical jams. Their days comprise setting up and waiting on tables, servicing the composting privies, working in the kitchen, taking fresh linens to the cabins and tents, painting, and repairing. They’re chosen from a large number of applicants.
The same goes for the campers, who are largely couples from their 30s to their 70s. One observer has called TMI “a summer camp for adults.” Reservations for particular weeks and cabins aren’t easy to come by, and are assigned by lottery in February. One camper urged me not to make much of the place; it might make it difficult for him to get the spot he wants another year.
There are nature hikes to various parts of the island with a volunteer naturalist, this week a biology professor from the University of Mississippi. There are a tennis and a volleyball court. There are kayaks, canoes, and small sailboats. Swimming off the main dock seems to be freeform. The float, about 100 feet out in the little cove by the dock, has a top platform labeled “Wicked High,” and many old campers remember the year they first dared to jump from it. The recreation hall, a large, airy room with great double doors, opens onto the dock, where many of the less active campers sit in captain’s chairs quietly reading or chatting. No cell phones, electronics, or laptops allowed. Getting away from it all is a serious thing here.
The main lodge is surrounded on three sides by a wide covered porch. The south porch is furnished with wicker rockers facing the lake; the east and west feature long tables running almost their entire length, where everybody dines. The cooking is spectacular; some say that TMI, the island’s initials, stand for Three Meal Island. The kitchen uses as much local produce as possible. Leftovers are composted, and in a new twist, kitchen scraps now go to three aspiring pigs in a brand-new pen. They’re borrowed from a local farmer, who’ll take them back in the fall. Electricity comes underwater from the mainland, and is available only at the main lodge, the rec hall, and a couple of other spots in the so-called “Urban Area” of the island.
The campers who worry about the place becoming too popular probably needn’t. The four dozen or so small cabins and tent platforms scattered around the rocky shore have no conveniences beyond a couple of bunks, a roof, screened windows and doors, and a pitcher and bowl. No water, no john, no lights but a kerosene lamp. You walk a lot here, often on rocky trails. You bathe in the lake – no soap, please. Charles took a row around the island early today, and was chased farther offshore by the manager for rowing unwittingly close to the before-breakfast skinny-dippers.
The Appalachian Mountain Club is, for obvious reasons, concerned about the environmental impact of its huts and its thousands of members recreating in the outdoors. Thus the island is divided into zones reflecting their uses and envisioning another 100 years here. The lodge, rec hall, and privies are in the so-called Urban Zone; the east side of the island is the Productive zone, where firewood is harvested; the Protective zone comprises two swamps and a stand of rhododendron (an invasive species here); and the cabins strung here and there along the shore are in what’s called the Compromise zone. Considering the light impact the past 100 years have had, there’s a pretty good chance that, barring outside calamities like climate change, they may well make it.
Meanwhile, speaking of calamities, I left the after-supper jam session and walked down to the square dance in the rec hall. They were short one couple, so I ended up dancing the Virginia Reel with a young partner named Ethan. Ethan was determined not to to get stuck in the women’s line. Once he discovered I knew a do-si-do from a sashay, he lightened up, and we made a lovely couple.