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Going to Camp

In 1932 my great-uncle Sam bought what would become our family summer camp. The property fronts the Salmon River with a view of the Selkirk Light House. A walk out the back yard, through the sand, leads you to a semi-private beach on Lake Ontario.

Back in the days before air conditioning, Uncle Sam and Aunt Lena escaped the heat and humidity of the Syracuse summer by spending weekends by the water. Having no children of their own, they often took my father and his sister along.

During World War II gas rationing, my dad recalls:
“We would save gas stamps so we could make the drive out and back every weekend. Uncle Sam stopped at Vads Bait Shop on North Salina Street on his way home from his dental office to pick up hellgrammites and bass bugs for fishing. Starting with a trip to Columbus Bakery on Pearl Street in Syracuse, we would buy multiple loaves of fresh Italian bread.

“With that heavenly aroma filling the Buick Roadmaster, Uncle Sam would drive north along Route 11 through small towns and past dairy farms. My sister and I would look for cows in the pastures. Standing cows meant sunshine, fishing and beach time. Cows lying down brought the omen of rain.

“Our last stop was the Colosse Cheese Factory between the towns of Mexico and Parish. They had wheels and wheels of every kind of cheese imaginable. The woman behind the counter would play along and allow me to sample all of the different types before I would choose the extra sharp Cheddar every time. With bread, cheese and bait in the car we would head to the only place I ever wanted to be.”

My dad continued camp trips as an adult. Summers in the 1970s, my parents would pile my brother, sister and me in the back of our green Ford pickup truck and we’d head out on Route 81 north. A cab over the truck bed created a soundproof barrier between my parents and us. Three kids rolling around, singing, being silly, beating the bejesus out of each other, untethered in the back of a truck.

Our only stop was the Brewerton Bait Shop. Worms and perch minnows were purchased in hopes of hours of successful fishing, either by dock or boat. The sky at the Central Square exit gave our lake weather prediction. Gray skies meant gloominess, while sunshine brought loud songs of celebration.

We would exit at Pulaski and drive to Port Ontario. A flashing light at the intersection of Lake Road on Route 3 signaled our last turn. Once we saw the white wall dividing the road from the docks in front of the Selkirk Lighthouse, we had arrived. We loved that white wall. Dad would park the truck in the lot after launching our boat. Motoring across the river at five miles an hour so as not to create a wake seemed to take an eternity. We’d dock in front of Aunt Lena and Uncle Sam’s camp and joyously hop out of the boat. Whatever the length of the stay, we would always plead to stay longer, never wanting camp time to end.

My mom and dad inherited Uncle Sam and Aunt Lena’s camp in the 1990s. It is now their home during the summer months. My husband Brian and I drive our two children, Amanda and Jason, out to visit for weekends and evenings when possible.

Snacks are packed. Backpacks are filled with books, iPods and DSes for the one-hour ride. Fishing, boogie boarding and swimming gear is thrown in the back of our Chevy Traverse. We drive on Route 81 heading north. We use the Central Square exit to predict the weather. The kids count the exits until we get to Tinker Tavern Road, a shortcut we use now that we can park in front of camp. 

An Amish farmhouse with a produce/pie stand is of particular interest. Road apples are counted. Horse-and-buggies are marveled at. Young children dressed in unfamiliar attire are waved to in hopes of getting a friendly nod or wave in return.

Our bait store of choice these days is Woody’s Tackle and General Store in Port Ontario. Jason takes charge of the Styrofoam bucket nestled between his feet filled with bass minnows. His job: to make sure no little fishy bodies end up on the floor of the car. As we drive on Pine Grove Road we turn off all electronic noise-making devices. Voices are kept to a whisper.

Selkirk Shores State Park woods surround us as we look for deer, fox or any other critters that might be lurking. Rounding the last turn, we get our first glimpse of Lake Ontario. Are there foamy white caps? Is the lake like glass? We drive down a private dirt road, waving to fishermen crossing with their catch, small children in bathing suits, ducks and geese. With camp to our left and the Salmon River on the right, we park in front of our destination. 

I see the look on my dad’s face as he watches his grandchildren fishing by early morning light on the docks. Pleading to go for boat rides on the lake when it is choppy, waves breaking over the bow, soaking hair and clothes. Running barefoot through the sand from one shady spot to the other so their feet don’t burn. Skipping flat rocks found along the shore line. Sitting by bonfires at night, telling ghost stories. The same things he did as a kid. The same things I did as a kid. The simple things that make camp special. The one place all of us would rather be. I am sure somewhere Aunt Lena and Uncle Sam are smiling.       

Deborah Cavanagh lives in Manlius with her husband and two children. She has written for local organizations supporting children and adults with special needs and publishes the blog www.momofmanyneeds.com.


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