The Great Camps & the Vermont Problem — a Northeast Roadtrip Postscript

I’m always intrigued when I travel by the different names people in the different regions use for the same things. In Ireland, for example, they call gravel along the road “loose chippings”.

In the Northeast, we discovered that the bumpy line in the middle of the road is called a “rumblestrip”, what appears for all practical purposes to the Californian eye to be a lake is actually called a “pond,” and a small structure for camping is called a “lean to.”



All the large lakeside houses in the Adirondacks are called “camps”. We arrived at Big Wolf and followed the big directional sign pointing the way to the thirty or so camps on the lake. Pulling into the Buck Summerhill Camp, we were still puzzled. It looked to us a like a house.

“Why is it called a ‘camp’?” we asked.

While we wrinkled our noses and tilted our heads, Jon patiently explained the tradition of the “great camps” in the Adirondacks. Wealthy 19th-century New Yorkers — Rockefellers, Guggenheims, Vanderbilts and their like — built large summer homes, often connected to “civilization” by a private railroad, where they would host guests for fun summer activities like boating on the lake, hunting and fishing, walking in nature, wining and dining.

Buck Summerhill Camp

Buck Summerhill Camp

Many of the great camps still exist, either as historic landmarks (Sagamore and Pine Knot) or private residences. The tradition of keeping summer lake houses as “camps” also prevails. Other than the caretaker, Big Wolf is largely vacant in the winter and spring.

Besides the physical and temporal characteristics that defined Summerhill as a camp in the classic Adirondack sense were less tangible, more personal aspects to the experience of being there that fit the model: the blissful feeling of nowhere to be and nothing besides making a meal or fixing a drink that needed to be done; the sleepy heaviness of the afternoon; the conviviality of people on holiday, waving from boats; the call of the water — I needed to be near the water, on a boat, on a paddle board, on the dock or on a path at lake’s edge. And the enjoyment of friends and family and unhurried conversations.

Jon & Flynn at Lucia's Bog, Big Wolf

Jon & Flynn at Lucia’s Bog, Big Wolf

And then, of course, there was the tradition of legendary hospitality which the Buck family carry on in proud fashion. Our clamorous clan of five was welcomed like family by Chuck and Nancy, who took joy in our children and pleasure in our company.

Yes, in structure and appearance, this was a house. In soul and spirit, it was a great camp in the truest Adirondack sense of the word.

*    *    *

The first thing that happened to us after we crossed the bridge over Lake Champlain and entered Vermont was that we got behind a slow milk truck.

Which wasn’t really that much of a problem, since we wanted to drive slow and look at old barns and cows and stuff anyway.

Things got Vermont-y pretty quickly. Across the lake in New York, it was hilly and wooded. Suddenly on the Vermont side, there were pastures and holsteins and red houses with white trim. I told the kids we could get Ben & Jerry’s ice cream if we saw any — who knew, maybe from Ben & Jerry themselves! (Our route would take us some degree south of their factory in Waterbury, but I figured we’d find some anyway.) And we drove on behind the slow milk truck.

When I had begun planning our northeast family vacation, I knew a couple things: we were flying in and out of Boston, and we were spending a little over a week at the Buck Camp in the Adirondacks. I had wanted to see a bit more of the region, and decided we should go visit Quebec City and Montreal. The itinerary was coming together. The only question was the route between Boston and Quebec. The logical answer was Vermont.

I began researching the best places to see in Vermont, the most scenic highways and roads, the hotel and accommodation options. It was in the latter category that I encountered what would come to be known as “the Vermont problem”: Unless we wanted to stay in either a quaint B&B or a crummy roadside motel, we were pretty much out of luck. Even the larger cities, such as they are in Vermont, were dominated by either Quality Inns and Best Westerns, or places with names like Snowflake House or Knob Hill Inn.

I decided to investigate New Hampshire, and discovered the same thing: “the New Hampshire problem.”

Imogen in Bethel

Imogen in Bethel

So it was with some regret that we decided to forgo Vermont and head up the coast of Maine instead — which though considerably longer would promise scenery of a different but equally dramatic sort, lobster rolls and the long-shot possibility of seeing moose. We figured we’d see Vermont some other time.

Now, here we were, and it was everything we had imagined.

“This is the most beautiful state I’ve ever seen,” said Leslie — more than once.


We lost the milk truck in Middlebury, where we stopped for lunch and a walk around. For the next couple hours, we wiggled through the Green Mountains, past log cabins and maple syrup farms and more charming churches than we could count. We forgot to look for covered bridges.

Nearing Interstate 89, I figured we’d better get ice cream ASAP lest we squander the opportunity to say we had ice cream in Vermont. Soon we would leave the state into New Hampshire, and then back to Boston to catch our flight home.

As fortune would have it, rolling across a quaint bridge, past a few 19th-century steepled churches and into the little town of Bethel — the last stop before the I-89 onramp — we saw a general store with a large image of an ice cream cone in front.

Ice cream at the general store in Bethel

Ice cream at the general store in Bethel

It wasn’t Ben & Jerry’s, but it was local and looked good. I got maple walnut, which seemed appropriate, while the kids got another regional favorite — black raspberry, which Willa didn’t like, so I got most of hers, too.

At home, I eat a small serving of ice cream every once in awhile. But somehow, far from the yoga studios and juice bars of California, in rural Vermont, two heaping scoops of ice cream didn’t seem in the least bit unhealthy.

14 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Lisa Gaskin
    Jul 17, 2015 @ 02:21:52

    Cuz you aren’t a skinny girl when you are on vacation OR when you are in Vermont 😉


  2. Anna Z
    Jul 17, 2015 @ 03:43:31

    You are SO SoCal – filming yourself behind a milk truck! Be glad it wasn’t an Amish horse-drawn buggy. Both modes of transport are referred to as “hazards of country driving” in rural drivers’ ed courses (along with irrigation and farm machinery). 2 lane roads, big hardwood trees, and even the town of Middlebury – all close to my childhood home!!


    • scolgin
      Jul 17, 2015 @ 03:49:40

      I was driving through Ireland with my pal Dan one time. We were on the two-main highway through the center of the country. And for about 10 slow miles, there were two tractors in front of us, the drivers casually chatting. Country driving indeed!


  3. Anna Z
    Jul 17, 2015 @ 03:44:07

    Willa looks REALLY bummed about the ice cream….


    • scolgin
      Jul 17, 2015 @ 03:48:26

      You would’ve thought it was stinging nettle flavor. And it was quite tasty! Fortunately, Immy abandoned her chocolate midway thru to take over the last of Flynn’s blackberry, so Willa got the chocolate and everyone was happy in the end.


  4. Cheryl "Cheffie Cooks" Wiser
    Jul 17, 2015 @ 03:59:44

    Sounds like over-all you had a great Trip to the East Coast Sean!


  5. timoirish34
    Jul 17, 2015 @ 16:23:21

    The land of camps and ponds… Great summation of the road trip, SC. I am reminded of one winter, when I accompanied a friend to inspect his family’s run down camp in winter. There, a good number of families had built their camps (surrounding a good sized “pond” natch) on a commonly owned stretch of woods. It was a miserable, bitterly cold time of year and and, when we arrived, the only person in residence was the caretaker/game keeper, whom my friend (and everyone else in that part of New York, I guess) called merely “the keeper”. The Keeper… I thought that was a neat title–I even planned on using it for a story one day. It turned out not to be such a great position however–the previous keeper had killed himself when his wife had left him to face the long winter alone. Yipe… I think the closer you get to Maine, the more Stephen King-like the landscape becomes.

    Oh yes–on a pleasanter note, kids are the very best excuse for a grown man to eat ice cream–are they not?


    • scolgin
      Jul 17, 2015 @ 16:55:16

      “Dad, do we HAVE to get ice cream again!??”

      There were gothic stories about the former caretakers at Big Wolf. “That’s where the hill collapsed on one caretaker a few years back,” my pal Jon told me, pointing toward a large spooky-looking excavation. “That’s where another caretaker lost his leg.” You get a nice house as a consolation, though — If you can preserve life and limb.


  6. timoirish34
    Jul 17, 2015 @ 21:50:24



  7. Trackback: A Vermont Roadtrip Dinner | skinny girls & mayonnaise

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