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Camps couldn't survive without dedicated caretakers

With the title, "To Serve and Protect," Lynn Woods has written a fine essay in the journal "Adirondack Life" about caretakers, those individuals who oversee private property in wilderness areas. Her story focuses on three individuals, Chris Drabick, caretaker at Kwenogamac on Long Lake; Veto Napolitano, caretaker on Upper St. Regis Lake; and Keith Desmarais, caretaker on Big Wolf Lake.

Caretaker is a role largely lost in today's society of specialists. Although it has changed over the years, it remains a task requiring many skills: he, for it is almost always a man, must be a carpenter, electrician, gardener, forester, boat and road repairer and even, in some cases, errand runner. For much of the year this is a 2 4/7 job; winter is a less hectic time, but it is then that longer-term projects are undertaken.

While some caretakers are single men, more often entire families pitch in to maintain these so-called camps whose owners usually spend only summer months (or even weeks) in the woods or at the lake. Caretakers' wives often serve as cooks and their children as general assistants.

The name camp is a humorous exaggeration: few of us could afford the cost of their boathouses. The buildings may be designed to fit their surroundings -- often as log cabins -- but their interiors and their appointments are luxurious.

Over several summers, I came to know one caretaker quite well. For many years Eric Lamke had year-round responsibility for Camp Pathfinder in Algonquin Park, north of Toronto. Although my role was as a guide for canoe trips, my colleagues and I competed to find tasks that would give us a chance to work with Mr. Lamke. Interestingly, I never heard anyone call him by his first name: in his case the Mr. represented a title of respect, because everyone else in camp was known by his given name or, in the case of the camp director, as chief.

Similarly, Mrs. Purdy, the Pathfinder cook, was known only by that form of address, again as a kind of honorific. Lamke was a single man, Purdy unattached as well; they were the sole local employees at the camp and they were obviously close friends. At the end of their long days, they would often sit in camp chairs on the platform outside Purdy's tent comfortably drinking coffee together.

What drew us to Lamke were his independence and his work ethic. He simply went about his business. He could not be described as unfriendly, but he rarely spoke except in response to a greeting or inquiry. Many of his jobs were routine. For example, the camp is on an island and had no electricity, so one of his routine responsibilities was caring for the dozens of lanterns that lighted up our evenings. But there were always projects as well: repair of buildings, trails and docks; equipment upkeep; and in winter, filling the ice house. The ice house, actually a cave-like room built into the side of a hill, served in place of a refrigerator as a summer place for food storage.

One day four of us joined Lamke to assist him in building a dock. He had already constructed one crib, a square structure about 4 feet on each side, built up like Lincoln Logs on the lake's rocky floor. Our job was to find large stones to fill and anchor that crib. It would then serve as one of two bases for the dock. We waded along the shore competing to find the heaviest rock to add to the collection while Lamke built the other crib.

As we worked, we had an opportunity to witness an expert axman. He could pick out and fell a tree, trim it, cut it into lengths, notch it and place it in minutes. By the time we filled the first crib, the second was finished.

On the way back to camp we also got our caretaker to tell us about his winter experiences, working alone or occasionally with a helper to saw lake ice into cubes and slide it up to the ice house. One winter evening, he said, he watched a pack of wolves playing on the ice, sliding like children and purposely upsetting each other.

email: insrisg@buffalo.edu