Saturday, October 1, 2011

Three Girls, a Lake, and a Storm

"Defer no time, delays have dangerous ends." - William Shakespeare

Time with children is not "spent," it is invested. If you are a parent, you already know this. It was August, and the end of the summer vacation was drawing near for my youngest daughter and her friends. Before they went back to school, I wanted to give them another little adventure, so I took them on a little camping trip to Maine. Now camping for me is a matter of solitude and simplicity, only the minimum gear and food needed to keep body and soul connected. However, camping with three girls in their early teens, even though they are three pretty darn tough kids, is as the British say, a bit of a "faff." That's okay though, for these three I'll do a ruddy great faff. A faff with bells on. So off we went at the rump end of August on a faff, er camping trip, to the woods of western Maine, at the South Arm campground on Lower Richardson Lake.

Old Blue Mountain behind South Arm Campground on Richardson's Lake, Andover Maine. The Appalachian Trail crosses Old Blue.
The plan was to spend a day driving north and setting up camp, followed by a couple of days of fun, then a last day to break camp and drive through the White Mountains of New Hampshire on the way back to Connecticut. The fly getting stuck in the ointment was named Irene, a storm grinding northward in the Atlantic. Still, the forecasted impact on New England was for late Sunday night. That forecasted timing worked okay with our plans. However, you can never trust the weather to behave.

The drive north was uneventful. The three girls talked or played on their Nintendo DSIs. As we rolled along the highway Rachel started trying to get the truckers to blow their horns. Every time we passed a truck I saw Rachel's arm pumping up and down in my rear view mirror. This is the time honored sign language known by kids and truckers alike that says "Blow your airhorn man!" I lost track of the number of blasts she managed to coax out of the big rigs, but I couldn't help but wonder how many other drivers had the bejeezez scared out of them by the unexpected cacophony at 70 mph.

The skies darkened as gray clouds sank lower and squatted on the tops of the hills. A call from Rachel's mom, who was watching the radar online, alerted me of impending rain at our destination. This rain was not associated with the approach of Irene but it was rain none the less. It seemed that the setting up of camp would likely be a wet affair. In the end, it was. The drive had taken six hours, with a short stop for lunch in southern Maine. Around 5 p.m., under a light but steady rain, we arrived at the campground. After checking in at the rustic office, I immediately went to work rigging tarps while Janet and Rachel helped Emily set up the tent the girls would use. Following a hurried dinner of delicious home made soup, the rain became more determined. This drove the girls into their tent to call it an early evening while I cleaned up the dishes. Finally, with the girls fed and settled, tarps rigged well enough for the night, the last light of day gone, and the rain steady and hard, I set about erecting my own tent. It was with great relief that I finally crawled into my sleeping bag, opened a book, and cracked a well earned beer. The steady tattoo of rain on the taught tarp lulled me to sleep after an hour or so. The beer may have helped a bit as well. As Morpheus took me, I hoped the dawn would arrive a bit less wet.

I reorganized the camp after the rain of the night before caused a hasty make-do initial arrangement.
The camp site overlooked a shallow inlet of Lower Richardson Lake. The open site allows for RV use but makes rigging tarps a bit tricky. A liberal use of much rope and many knots fixed that.
It did. The rain ended by dawn and the clouds slowly raised and began to tear apart. I let the girls sleep in while I went for walk in the early light. The previous night I was curious about the presence of bears around the campground. This is a growing problem as more people and bears share the northern woods. My curiosity was satisfied when I found bear scat on the entry road, but I am not aware of any recent bear problems at the campground. As I walked I encountered several large roving feeding flocks of migrant Warblers, Chickadees, Creepers, Nuthatches, and other species. Songbird migration was well underway and these little gems would soon be winging further south to follow their food sources. After a brisk hour walk I returned to camp and started breakfast as the girls at last stirred and emerged looking bleary eyed but happy. While I was preparing breakfast a member of the campground staff pulled up in a truck and handed me an email from Rachel's mom. She had tried calling me but I had no cell service. It seemed Hurricane Irene had sped up, and landfall was now expected a full day earlier. Once again a trip to the north woods of New England with the kids was being shortened by a wind born of Africa. I told the girls we would be cutting things short by a day and they all looked a bit deflated. But the day was waxing glorious, and after a breakfast of blueberry pancakes, we organized some of the campground's canoes and set out for a day of paddling and exploring.

The shallow inlet behind our camp site. Spotted Sandpipers and Belted Kingfishers were in residence here and were repeatedly harassed by a local Sharp-shinned Hawk

Rachel rests on the roots exposed by the unusually low water level of the lake.
We sorted out who would be where in the canoes and headed out on the calm water. Richardson Lake is a fairly narrow but very long lake. We crossed the very southern tip of the lake and made landfall on the rocky western shore at the base of a woodland brook that the girls had spotted. We then set about exploring.

Emily and Rachel manned one canoe while Janet and I manned the other.

The girls start exploring the brook.
Rachel cools her feet in the clear water of the brook
The lake was low for this time of year. This exposed a belt of boulders and rocks along the shoreline. Above this girdle the verdant mosses of the northern forests enveloped most rocks. If you have ever clambered about on wet, mossy, and algae covered rocks, you know how slippery they are. It's like walking on marbles at times. But the three girls climbed upward along the brook with ease, often going barefoot. During the many years of hiking I have done I have fallen many times. As I get older I have noticed that gravity has been getting stronger and rocks have gotten sharper and harder. Consequently I tend to watch the girl's footing choices closely, a bit like a fretting nanny. I needn't have worried with these three though, and the exploration of the brook went off without a hitch.

Emily and Rachel in the brook.
Once we had fully explored the brook we returned to the shore and worked our way along the water's edge to an open rocky point. Here the girls began cairn building. Janet and Rachel built traditional cairns while Emily undertook a composite structure of sticks, rocks, and mud. I wandered about taking pictures and generally enjoying the girls enjoying themselves.

Rachel works on her cairn.
Emily builds her cairn of sticks, rock, and mud. A sort of Pueblo-cairn.
Rachel's cairn is complete. (It's not really as big as it looks!)
The three amigas have finished their masonry.
A Cabbage White (Pieris rapae) nectars on an aster.
With 3 new cairns now adorning the western shore of Richardson Lake, the girls and I returned to the canoes and pushed a little further up the lake. A sandy spit with a large grassy area at its base was our next destination. Here we piled out again and explored the area. A lakeside campsite provided a chance for the girls poke around and play in the dirt while I stalked a few dragonflies with my camera.

We push further up the lake.
Our next port of call. A lakeside campsite is hidden by the spruces at the far side of the sandy beach.

Janet walked in the water while Emily and Rachel wandered through the tall grasses.
Black-shouldered Spinyleg ((Dromogomphus spinosus). A common club-tail dragonfly of lakes and rivers in the east.

A male Meadowhawk. I did not determine which species of Meadowhawk however. These common and oft overlooked dragonflies are gorgeously colored when properly seen.

The campsite was set on a rise above the beach. Konwing Rachel can not resist a challenge, I told her I bet she could not climb the bank. As I expected, she then set about proving me wrong. It took a couple of tries but she did.

Emily joined Rachel in the fun scrambling up the bank.
This picture probably best embodies the reason I brought the girls on this late summer trip, a gift of time and beauty on a northern New England lake.
Having spent an hour or so enjoying our second stop, it was time to head back to the camp. A light breeze had been blowing steadily out of the north ever since the sky had cleared. I told the girls we would paddle out into the middle of the lake and then we would drift. The north wind would slowly push us back towards our destination. If you have never drifted in a canoe or kayak on a beautiful sunny day, or under a full moon for that matter, you really don't know what you are missing. We sat and talked and laughed while the breeze did all the work. At the last we had to hoist paddles again and bring our boats back to the launch. Once we had put the boats away it was time to take a swim. The lake water was bracingly cool and very refreshing, the perfect way to build an appetite for dinner!

Rachel and Emily drifting.
After dinner we went down to the inlet behind the campsite. The girls clowned around for a while and I took a few pictures. I soon left them along the shore while I went  back to the site to clean up. Night had fallen and I had just settled in next to the fire with a beer when I heard the girls call to me to come down to them. When I joined them by the water they showed me how clear and beautiful the night sky was, and how bright the stars were. We then sat on a log and star gazed for more than hour. Emily showed her astronomical knowledge in response to Rachel's and Janet's questions. I was impressed I can tell you, these young ladies are growing up! After a bit Rachel grew chilled and I gave her my jacket to wear while the three of us counted falling stars. The peace of the night and the awe of the expanse of the milky way above us as we talked quietly will long live in my memory.

Rachel hangs while Emily looks as if she studying a new life form.

Striking a pose.

Rachel has climbed into a large root cavity while Janet and Emily clown.
The campground has cool fire rings with South Arm Maine cut into them. When the girls climbed into their tent to go to sleep I ended my night with a beer and a book by the fire.
I slept fairly well that night. When I did stir during the night I heard the wail of a Common Loon far off on the lake. A Barred Owl pair also added their contact calls to the magic of the dark night. It reminded me so much of an earlier trip to Grout Pond in Vermont. On that occasion, Loons and Barred Owls had also figured prominently in the darkness, with tremolos, wails, hoots, and screams. And like that trip, this one was to end earlier than planned. Hurricane Irene was sweeping across the ocean towards New England as we slept.

In the morning I made breakfast again for the girls and started to break down the camp for the trip home. It's a lot of work doing all this as the only adult, but I didn't mind. I felt very lucky to be able to do this for the girls. By noon we were on the road. Rachel's mom and Emily's dad both filled me in on the latest forecast by phone calls. I decided we still had time to swing through New Hampshire and the White Mountains on the way south. I also wanted to get dinner at one of my favorite New England eateries/breweries, Moat Mountain Smokehouse and Brewery in North Conway, New Hampshire.

The drive across western Maine was briefly interrupted when I stopped at the Sunday River Brewery to pick of some growlers of ale for myself and for the girl's parents. As we approached the New Hampshire line, Rachel was blown away by the spectacular mountains, as I hoped she would be. Janet and Emily have seen them before but this was a new experience for Rach. She repeatedly mentioned how it reminded her of her trip to Yosemite with her mom and brother the previous year. I love bringing new experiences to the people I love, especially when they are kids. When we finally stopped across from  the Mount Washington auto road base so the girls could photograph the mountains and spend some money at the gift shop, I pointed out the sharp peak of Mount Adams to Rachel and told her that her brother and I had climbed that peak the previous year. Her eyes grew big at the thought of climbing so high. I have to admit, even after having climbed so many of the White Mountains myself, the peaks when viewed from their feet still look dauntingly high to me! It was time to roll on, the girls and I were looking forward to dinner at Moat Mountain Smokehouse. And Irene was coming...

The second highest peak in the White Mountains, Mount Adams, rises among northern Presidentials. Mount Madison is the right-most peak and Mount Jefferson, looking smaller than it actually is, is the peak to the left

Emily uses the view scope to study Mount Washington while Janet clowns. This is across Route 16 from the Mount Washington auto road base.

We settle in for dinner at Moat Mountain Smokehouse. Oh Emily, can you ever stop clowning?!
Rachel uses a yam fry to show her happiness!
With excellent dinners inside us, and excellent brew inside me, we set off on the long ride home. We stopped a few times along New Hampshire Route 112, known as the Kancamagus Highway, to admire the mountains it winds through. Once we picked up Route 93 south in Lincoln it was time to really fly. As we drove southward we ran into outlying arms of Irene and we began experiencing intermittent heavy rain. We raced southward as Irene raced northward toward us. It was nine o'clock by the time we arrived home in Connecticut. Rachel's mom and brother soon arrived, as did Emily's dad, to pick up the girls and get them home. We all talked about the trip for a bit but everyone needed to get home and settled before the storm hit in earnest. Luckily Irene weakened at the last moment but was still powerful enough to put most of Connecticut in a prolonged power outage and she hammered Vermont and New Hampshire hard with heavy rains and flash floods. Indeed many of the New Hampshire roads we had driven across on the way home were damaged and closed by the storm. 

I had intended the trip to be a last fling of summer for the girls, camping, canoeing, swimming, and stargazing in western Maine. I wanted to give them a fond memory to take back to school with them, and I feel I accomplished that. I loved every minute of it myself of course. Ultimately I didn't give them the last memory of summer however, Irene did that. The start of school was delayed for days as the region's power distribution structure recovered. Still, it was all part of a bigger whole. I hope these three stay friends for their entire lives and build volumes of memories between them. It was a joy to share in this one with them.

Emily, Rachel, and Janet at a stop on the long ride home.