Remote Camping at Umbagog Lake
Our Explorers tackle a chilly Lake Umbagog and introduce some first-timers to the joys of camping
After falling asleep beneath a glittering canopy of stars and planets, I woke up at 5:30 a.m. to find Lake Umbagog, situated 20 feet from our tent, completely obscured by fog. Still, I grabbed my swim bag and proceeded to the water’s edge. In the dense, moist air, I tugged on my wetsuit and swim cap and waded into the rock-strewn shallows of the lake. Loosening my shoulders and rolling out my neck, I made the Sign of the Cross, lowered my goggles, and set off. Fog was billowing in so swiftly and steadily it had erased the horizon, turning the lake and its surroundings into a blurry, undifferentiated mass. I had no sensory references beyond the maniacal laughter of a few loons, and the burbling water that streamed out behind me.
The calling of the loons died away. Three hundred yards out, churning along in the grayish-white void, I couldn’t distinguish up or down, making it impossible to tell where the water left off and the air began. The Greek philosopher Thales (624–546 BC) declared that water was the origin of all things, the single, irreducible element of the universe from which all things emerge and to which they return. Far from shore, it felt like I was swimming through the creation of the world, like matter was suddenly appearing out of nothing. It was a strange, exhilarating phenomenon, but Lake Umbagog is a primordial and thrilling place.
On the previous morning, my swim buddy Tammi Wilson and I broke camp at Mollidgewock State Park in nearby Errol at 7 a.m. We were scheduled to meet photographer Joe Klementovich and his friend, Bridget Grandmaison Freudenberger, 12 miles away at Umbagog Lake State Park. There, the four of us loaded our gear onto a pontoon boat skippered by a ruddy-faced park employee named Bob. He gunned the launch over the water like someone was chasing us, heading for campsite No. 23, located 3 miles from the dock. When I asked Bob how far the lake continued northward, he made a brief gesture, saying “8 miles.”
The eastern shore of Umbagog was an unbroken forest of dense cedar, sprinkled with birch, pine and hemlock. The surface of the lake covers nearly 7,000 acres, making it one of the largest bodies of water along the New Hampshire–Maine border. Umbagog Lake State Park, where we departed from, includes 27 campsites with electricity and showers, along with a general store and boat launch. But we were headed for one of their 33 remote sites, only accessible by boat and sparsely equipped with a picnic table and fire ring.
After the main part of a rainy, humid summer, the sky was a keen shade of blue, and the lake smooth as quicksilver in the morning light. With our camping gear, canoe, paddleboard and backpacks, we looked forward to being marooned on the beach directly across from Metallak Island.
After 20 minutes, we arrived at a tree-covered bluff fringed with a ribbon of sandy beach. We offloaded the tents, camping gear, sleeping bags and coolers, and then Bob zoomed away. (For a modest fee, the park will drop you off at remote sites and pick you up on a specific day and time.) A pile of flat stones arranged in a staircase led to a grove of cedars overlooking Mill Mountain to the west. Two picnic tables were arranged end-to-end in a spacious clearing, with the fire ring just a few feet from the water’s edge.
“Not too shabby,” said Joe, gazing around.
The tents went up quickly, and we sorted out the pop-up stove and coolers, and someone paddled the canoe around to the little beach fronting the site. A 90-minute drive from Mt. Washington, and just 50 miles from the Canadian border, we were like Irish millionaires — nothing to do, and all day to do it in.
Ducking into the tent to put on my jammers, I took my swim gear from the bag and went over to the narrow beach. I pulled on my wetsuit, and heading into the lake I heard Tammi behind me, saying, “Wait — you’re doing a swim?”
“Thinking about it,” I said, adjusting my goggles.
Tammi is my regular swim buddy — a cheerful, petite dynamo with the iron will of a young Amelia Earhart. But after several weeks of oppressive humidity and rain, forcing us to cancel a previously scheduled trip to Umbagog with our rowdy crew, I was intent on getting into the water before the weather intervened once more.
The lake was cool and clear and flat, so I chose a rocky point along the shore about 500 yards north of our campsite and started out, enthralled with the atmosphere of this new venue. The water was colder than back home, so it was easy to keep my stroke rate up. Open-water swimming is a spiritual activity, its metronomic qualities bringing on a Zen-like state that connects you to an older, intuitive world, some adventurous life you’ve lived before.
Halfway out, Bridget caught up and then zoomed past like she was on a Jet Ski. A bank executive from Colebrook, Bridget was fresh off her first Ironman triathlon, held just weeks earlier in Lake Placid, New York. She finished 17 out of 134 in her age group, and I can see why. Standing 5’10” with high cheekbones and light brown eyes, Bridget has the lanky, loose-limbed physique and unflappable demeanor of the experienced distance athlete.
Bridget is also the director for a multisport endurance event known as the Metallak Race, held every September in northern Coös County. Individuals and teams compete by mountain biking, trail running and paddling the 50-mile course, which includes over 5,800 feet of elevation gain. The race was named after Metallak, known as “The Lone Indian of the Magalloway,” reportedly the last survivor of an Abenaki band inhabiting the upper Androscoggin. The legendary guide, hunter, fisherman and trapper reportedly lived to 120, and racers pass his grave along their route.
Bridget and I rendezvoused at a point north of our site, doubling back to pick up Tammi. A while later, 30 yards from shore and directly opposite our campsite, we left off swimming and floated on our backs, the wetsuits providing extra buoyancy. We just drifted around, looking up at the cerulean sky and chatting with each other, and with Joe, who came out on his paddleboard. A slight breeze ruffled the cedars, turning the surface of Umbagog into a million, white-edged tildes.
Our first hour at the lake was a nice antidote to the long trip getting up there. “OK, that was fun,” said Tammi. Her dimpled, smiling face is a consistent presence on our longest swims, reminding me that we’ve just stolen an hour from the daily rat race. “Now what are we gonna do?” she asked.
I rested my hands behind my head, studying a cloud that was passing over Mill Mountain. “Whittle,” I said.
Tammi and Bridget laughed, and we started swimming back to camp. “I’m going to whittle a complete chess set, using all our friends for the different pieces,” said Tammi.
“That’s nothing,” I said. “I’m going to carve a life-sized bear, and leave it right outside the tent. Scare the crap out of you.”
“Then what?” asked Tammi, laughing.
“Churn some butter,” said Bridget.
Sitting in knee-deep water to float my wetsuit off, I joined Tammi and Bridget in hanging our stuff over the sharply angled trunk of a birch tree. A red squirrel danced over the upended roots in little zigzag patterns, and then dashed up the trunk, chittering loudly. Hunting around for a camp chair, I grabbed my book and headed for a little peninsula abutting our campsite, a spot Tammi referred to as “the corner office.”
Given our present circumstances, I felt as though I’d done a full day’s work and looked forward to goofing off.
By mid-afternoon, Joe was on the paddleboard exploring the shaded coves along the eastern bank. In our conversations around site 23, I was startled to learn that neither Bridget nor Tammi had ever slept in a tent — this was their first real camping trip. Joe is an Eagle Scout, and has bivouacked in a hammock slung from a cliff-face during lengthy rock climbing ascents. He did five days of “vertical camping” on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, while climbing the Nose route. One night they didn’t reach their chosen spot, and Joe and his friends slept in their harnesses on a ledge sloping off 3,000 feet to the Yosemite Valley floor
Like Joe, I grew up vacationing in New Hampshire and Maine, having my first winter camping experience along the Kancamagus Highway at age 12 with my local Boy Scout troop. By my late teens, I was a regular visitor to Jigger Johnson and Dolly Copp campgrounds in the White Mountain National Forest, accompanied by my sporting pals, Rick Angus, Dave Frasca and Glenn Gallant. We hiked, went trout fishing and swimming, grilled hamburgers and drank beer. (My late mother, Lois, fed up with camping by this point, famously announced to my Dad, “From now on, roughing it will mean black and white TV.”)
Tammi lives in Pelham and is married to Dave Wilson, originally from Scotland, and a former Penn State soccer player. They have a daughter, Sarah, who studies creative writing and theatre at a college in the Midwest. After some prompting, Tammi admitted that a few years ago, they bought a family-sized tent and set it up in the backyard. That night, they had some friends over and watched a movie in the tent. Then they all went back in the house. The tent hasn’t been used since.
Bridget said that she had participated in a horseback riding adventure near Jackson, Wyoming. It was a wilderness location, with no running water except what they got from a creek. All this sounded promising. But then she revealed that they’d slept in 10-foot-by-10-foot “teepees” set up by the camp staff.
Giving Bridget and Tammi my skeptical, lips-turned-down look, I shook my head, saying, “Neither of these events qualify. My ruling is — first camping trip.”
Part of Tammi and Bridget’s indoctrination to camping is the discovery of a composting toilet, situated on a slight rise 100 yards from our site. One time, on an overnight rafting trip with my father Jim Atkinson, best friend Rick Angus and younger brother Jamie, we paddled by just such an unenclosed appurtenance on a bluff overlooking the river. My Dad referred to it as “an out-without-a-house,” noting that while perched on such a throne you were lord of all you surveyed.
All this came back to me when Tammi reappeared in the campsite with her hair wrapped in a towel, dressed in wind pants and a zip-up jersey, exclaiming, “The best part of this trip was being naked in the woods.”
Somewhere around 4 p.m., Bridget and Tammi went out in the canoe, paddling around Metallak Island, a half-mile due west of our site. While Joe strung up a hammock, tinkering with his fly rod and other gear, I sat beneath the cedars, the wind sighing and little birds whispering on the twigs. Soon I was engrossed in my well-thumbed copy of Siegfried Sassoon’s “Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man,” lingering over my favorite passages, underlined in pencil or blue ink.
What distinguishes Sassoon’s recounting of his idyllic sporting childhood in the English Midlands — especially in contrast to the horrors he experienced while fighting in the trenches during WWI — is the poet’s appreciation for the “brightly visualized world” of his youth.
Early on, the young cricketer, golfer and foxhunter realized that the landscape that he inhabited was, at once, the passkey to an ideal life, while at the same time retaining a palpable sense of mystery. “I was lazily aware through my dreaming and unobservant eye that this was the sort of world I wanted. For it was my own countryside, and I loved it with an intimate feeling, though … I cannot think of it now without a sense of heartache, as if it contained something which I have never quite been able to discover.”
When Bridget and Tammi returned, moseying about the campsite, their faces and miens reflected Sassoon’s longing to repossess the landscape. It may have been their first real camping trip, but I was pretty sure they’d look back on it with the young poet’s “sense of heartache,” wishing to return.
The encroaching darkness burned the sky down to a line of embers that flared up in rosy swirls and then edged over the horizon. In the resultant half-light, Joe grabbed his fly rod and stepped onto the paddleboard, gliding out from shore. He spun up his long, arching casts, the leader black against the reddening horizon, like a message written in cursive that disappears before you can make it out. In front of our campsite, a family of loons, two adults and two offspring, laughed softly, calling to each other across the flat, shiny water.
Floating into our little cove, Joe landed a sharp-toothed pickerel that snapped at his popper like a tiny shark. I could hear Joe chuckle as he extracted the hook, releasing the fish into the shallows.
Joe returned a short while later, pulled his board up onto the embankment, and secured the canoe for the night. Soon he had a fire going, and we arranged a few camp chairs and the cooler in a semicircle facing the lake. Sneaking away like a fugitive, Tammi lowered the paddleboard into the water and went tooling off, into the purplish dusk.
To paraphrase Sassoon, what Joe doesn’t know about picnics isn’t worth knowing. Our meal was a staggered affair — dried fruit and nuts, hummus from Korbani’s Bakery in Methuen, Massachusetts, blue corn chips, and after Joe fired up the little propane stove, a simmering goulash of black beans, corn, peppers, tomatoes and salsa. My contribution was a quartet of “Godbout sandwiches” — almond butter, avocado, Korbani’s hummus, red onion, local tomatoes and raw spinach on a hollowed out everything bagel.
This culinary oddity was named for a rugby teammate, Paul Godbout, who sampled one after we won a tournament, declaring it “the best bleepin’ sandwich I ever had.” It’s the descendent of a sandwich I came up with while playing soccer and rugby at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, when I needed something that was calorie-dense, nutritious and cheap.
After supper, the mountains to the west turned blue-black, and the sun descended on a shimmering, silvery path that divided Lake Umbagog in two. Incandescent layers of yellow, burnt orange and crimson demarcated the blackened foreground of the lake, as the sun dropped like a coin behind Mt. Errol. As Tammi rejoined us by the fire, I gazed across the water to Metallak Island, the destination of our swim the next morning. I felt a mixture of excitement and apprehension — it was nothing more than a half-mile of open water, but not without its risks. Umbagog reminds me of northern Ontario, not new but new to me, and swimming to the island was an impending challenge that pushed up my heart rate just sitting in a chair.
The horizon closed to a final rosy blush, and Joe pointed out the glowing dots of Mars, Venus, Jupiter and Neptune. In a short time, the cracked dome overhead was crowded with stars. No planes flew by, and there was no light pollution or heavy trucks rumbling along the highway. Behind us, the dark, silent woods spread toward the Canadian border and far into Maine.
Concluding his astronomy lesson, Joe sat with his feet on the stones ringing the fire, a can of Coös County IPA in his hand. “My heart rate is 25 beats a minute,” he said, grinning at me. “I’m chill-axin’.”
Just before dawn the next morning, I was swimming in the direction of Metallak Island, enclosed on all sides by a cottony barrier of fog. It felt like I was climbing into the sky. Checking my watch, I was 20 minutes into the swim, with nothing tangible in sight. Looking ahead, and all around, was like being confronted by an empty movie screen. The island that seemed so close under the stars, a dark bristling hump of trees, had been erased from the landscape.
Treading water, I could make out the faintest outline of the shore behind me. I resolved to swim another 200 strokes, then pop up to get my bearings.
Some distance onward, I could feel rather than hear a faint percussion trembling across the lake. I lifted my head, and Joe appeared out of the mist on his paddleboard, slapping the water to get my attention. “Hey,” he said. “What’s going on?”
“Nothing much,” I said.
“I went quite a ways ahead, and still couldn’t see the island,” Joe said. He gestured back toward our campsite. “And I can barely make out the shoreline.”
We were talking about the risk of going onward, without mentioning it by name. Nodding, I stared into the fuzzy blankness ahead, and to the left and right, spinning around to look back toward shore. Nothing but plume upon plume of dense fog. Restarting the timer on my watch, I told Joe I was going to swim another 100 strokes, then turn toward a sandy beach about a quarter-mile from our campsite.
“Sounds good,” Joe said.
Gradually, the shoreline became more distinct, and I caught a glimpse of Bridget and Tammi, in their wetsuits and goggles, heads bobbing a hundred yards off shore. They were laughing like children, and Tammi yelled, “C’mon! Let’s go for a swim.”
I swerved left, heading toward their voices. It reminded me that, despite the competitive backgrounds shared by our group of friends, at a place like Lake Umbagog, there’s no clock, no finish line. Just the sure and certain knowledge that human beings belong outdoors — that the natural world is our true home.