Echoes of Tamarack is the product of a 305 Writing Studio assignment. Our studio instructor, Helga Lindburg, had asked the class to write of an important place or event in our lives. For me, Tamarack was that place. My intention was to somehow allow the reader to experience, even if only for a short while, the magic of my summer idyll.
In my lifetime, I have been privileged to travel to some of the most beautiful places in the world. I have seen the rich fire of sunset over the Rocky Mountains and the brilliance of coral reefs in crystal blue Caribbean waters. I have stood before the solemn mystique of Stonehenge and marveled at the cleverness of ancient man. No spot on earth, however, has yet surpassed the beauty of my childhood idyll, the place my family called Tamarack.
Tamarack was a family camp and hunting lodge set deep in the heart of the Adirondack Mountains. My earliest memories of it are fractured images of sights and sounds and smells--golden bars of sunlight through majestic oaks and elms, the ever-present smell of wood smoke and haunting echoes. I suspect that the setting was the reason for the eerie echoes which resounded about the site. The house, itself, was built on the side of a steep hill leading down to a small private lake at the bottom. This fact, combined with the height of the ancient trees, caused a cavern-like effect. Regardless of the reasons for this phenomenon, it was a well known fact to all of us that no one could say a word without the rest of us in camp hearing at least a part of the conversation. My sister and I, when we were very young, could never figure out why all of our secret plans for mischief were foiled before we could carry them out. Hiding things from our mother was one of our favorite things to do. We would sometimes laugh ourselves breathless, watching her scratch her head in confusion. Once we caught on to the tell-tale echo, we were careful to make all of our plans while the adults were busy elsewhere.
The house at Tamarack was a rough-hewn structure, built by my great-grandfather, of logs which he had cleared from the spot on which it stood. It could have been considered a log cabin if not for its two-story design. To get to the house it was necessary, first, to navigate a set of 20 to 25 steps down a steep embankment. For me, as a child, this descent was easier said than done. The steps were actually nothing more than a series of notches cut into the hillside and reinforced with rough-cut 2x4s. Stairs were never my forte, and I can recall more than a few slips and tumbles on those particular steps. Any bumps and bruises I sustained, however, were quickly forgotten in my excitement at being there.
At the foot of this first, and steepest slope sat the house. The main entrance was across a small, covered porch, through a heavy green door, which led into a small kitchen area. As far as kitchens go, this was a fairly unimpressive room. Barely big enough for two adults, it was furnished with an old-fashioned porcelain sink which, although it had a drain, had no running water, and a tiny electric refrigerator which had replaced the original icebox. The dishes were all stored in a large china cabinet in the corner, and a small work table on the opposite side of the door held the cutlery. The drawer in this table, we found later, became an excellent place for the deer mice to curl up for the winter and have their babies. The old wood stove on which the cooking was done was located around the corner in a nook cut out of the stone chimney, which made up the dividing wall between the kitchen and the main room.
The main living area was quite large to a child's mind, decorated sparsely with bits and pieces of the past. There were several windows in this room to let in the soft, tree-filtered summer sunlight. One wall was taken up by a huge stone fireplace, over which was a hand made and polished mantle. This was where the families most treasured camp possessions were kept. As these items were of individual significance, the ones that I remember most were the tree fungi which my brother, my sister, and I had hunted out with my father on long walks in the woods. There were three of them, each of us having our own, with our names carved into them. The mantle is where my mother also placed the red leaves, which I collected for her every autumn. She always exclaimed over how beautiful they were, and I think I went a little overboard at times in my desire to gift her with something she loved.
My favorite parts of this room, for a time at least, were the several deer heads which hung on the walls. As gruesome as the thought seems to me now, my sister and I loved to pet and talk with these creatures. The first thing we would do upon our arrival was run to those heads that we could reach to pet and greet them. There was a daybed in one corner of the room, and we would stand on it to reach the deers' muzzles for stroking. When I was seven or eight, I finally made the connection of how those heads had come to be there. In my childhood naivete, I had no concept until then that the creatures had had to die to be placed on those walls. My child's game ended at that point, and I never willingly touched the trophies again, although I remember someone trying to get me to do so while I screamed and cried in fear of the deer's revenge for had been done to them.
Up the stairs that led from the main room were the sleeping quarters. These were made up of two open style rooms on either side of the landing. The one to the right was quite small, barely big enough to contain the iron framed double bed, with a small window which faced the woods beyond the embankment. The other room was more spacious but filled to capacity with a double bed, two twins, and a crib. The window in this room looked out on the lake and was the first place I would run every morning upon waking. I loved the view of the lake from there. Usually, in the morning, the water was blanketed in a soft mist and, the deep throated barks of the bull frogs gave it a mysterious aura which I always loved.
Greeting the morning at my upstairs window and chatting with deer heads were not the only childhood rituals I practiced while at camp. As is the way with children, there were certain musts to every visit. One of our favorite pastimes was spying on the adults after we had been sent to bed. They would sit, during the evening, at the large table in the main room downstairs, playing cards and chatting. There was a knothole in the floor by our bed. Through it we could look down directly onto this area, and we would take turns peaking through it in an attempt to catch the adults at something that would justify our suspicions of mysterious post-bedtime antics. When we failed to catch them at anything exciting, we would try to liven things up by dropping pebbles, collected throughout the day, onto their games. In the backs of our minds, we knew that they knew who was doing it, but it was still fun.
Another of our favorite rituals was centered around the strange and ever present echo effect. There was an old Victrola on the screened porch at the front of the house, facing the lake. My sister and I would wind it up, and then run down to the lake as fast as we could to hear the echoes, which were always best by the water, of the strange old music as it wound down to a slow, deep-throated croak. We would then argue about whose turn it was to run back up the hill, to the porch, to rewind the machine. This game would sometimes keep us occupied for hours, much to my mother's relief. What was really great was when someone would take us out in the rowboat while another person wound up the old Victrola. There was a strange dreamlike quality to the music at these times.
Even without the music, the boat was fun. Sometimes my father would simply row us around in wide circles. At other times, my brother, who was several years older than my sister and I, would take us out. At these times we would usually manage to get into some type of mischief. I remember one time in particular, when my brother and I terrorized my sister with bullfrogs. My brother had managed to catch a bullfrog from the edge of the lake where the marsh grasses were their densest. As soon as I saw how nervous this made my sister, I wanted to catch one too. I did this and promptly let it hop freely toward my sister. She screamed, and I laughed. I was not normally a cruel child, but this opportunity to terrorize my older sister, after all of the times I had been her a victim, was simply too hard to resist.
The memory of what happened next still has the power to make me laugh today. My brother had finally consented to throw the frogs back to stop my sister's screaming. My parents were on shore, looking worriedly on. All of the sudden, one extremely large bull frog decided he wanted to join his friends, and he hopped into the boat, right at my sister's twitching feet. I sometimes wonder if that incident wasn't what triggered her fear of swimming in natural bodies of water.
Some rituals were born more out of necessity but no less fun. As the camp had no running water, we had to make regular trips to fetch fresh water. There was only one place to do this. It was a natural spring, running along the roadside on the way into camp. The water here was as crisp and clear as God could make it. My father would bring along the two milk cans from camp to fill on each trip; and my siblings and I would bring along our own metal drinking cups. There was something about getting it directly from the source that made it even better than the water from the milk cans. Coming from high in the unpopulated mountains, it was as pure and cold as water could get, and to this day I have never tasted anything quite like it.
The lack of running water was also the reason for the lack of a bathroom. The lake, although not clear enough for drinking from, was sufficient for washing up. Our other needs were met by the double seated outhouse, which was built to the side of the porch. In order to get to this building, we had to cross over a small bridge as the front of the house was on the side of the hill, and there was a washout area between it and the outhouse. There was no electric hook-up in this building so, at night, my father or mother would always escort my sister and me with their flashlight after dark. Even with such rustic conditions, Tamarack was still my favorite place to be.
When I was nine years old, my grandfather died, and my grandmother was forced to make a painful decision. She could not afford to maintain both the camp and the home in which she lived. As she could not leave the home that had meant so much to her over the previous fifty years, the decision was made to sell the camp. I was devastated. I was also angry, and for quite a period of time, I refused to even speak to my grandmother. My young mind refused to grasp the logic of her decision. To this day, a part of me believes that there must have been some alternative solution, although I can not think of what that would be.
The camp was sold to strangers, people with no care or respect for its special history. My cousins would occasionally report on its condition after sneaking up during the months of the hunting season when it was closed up. Changes were made to the original structure; it was modernized until, after being sold again, it was torn down to build a newer, more modern house. At last report, I would not even recognize the place; it has been so changed. That is neither here nor there, for Tamarack has always, and will always, remain in my mind and in my heart, the place of golden sunlight and echoes.
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