Albert Hopkins, professor of natural history and astronomy at Williams College, organized the first college natural history expedition (to Nova Scotia) and supervised construction of the first college observatory. In 1863 he organized the Alpine Club, the first mountain climbing organization in the United States, preceding the White Mountain Club (1873) and the Appalachian Mountain Club (1876). It was the forerunner of the college’s ongoing Williams Outing Club.
One day he led an outing to Williamstown’s Vermont border area, not far from his home, where they made camp, prepared supper and wiled away the evening with campfire entertainment before retiring to their tents. When Hopkins roused club members for breakfast the following morning, one of them called attention to the fact that Hopkins was wearing different shoes than the night before. Pressed, he admitted he had retreated, after the others were asleep, to his own bed at home.
The Alpine clubbers enjoyed that their fearless leader had sought mattress and blankets over bedroll and bare ground -- and so should we. In spite of all that television survival shows may offer of mud and circumstance, the point in enjoying the outdoors is not to suffer, it is rather to find a degree of comfort in those surroundings. If that means limiting activities to day trips, so be it.
I learned about being comfortable in the wilderness working for two teenaged summers at Katahdin Lake Camps, a fishing and hunting establishment east of Mount Katahdin and 30 miles north of Millinocket, Maine, by gravel road, plus four miles of tote road. Kerosene lamps, propane refrigerator, wood stove, water pumped from a well, outhouses. Yet the guests ate with silver knifes, forks and spoons.
Most of the unorganized townships around Katahdin -- most of Northern Maine, in fact -- at one time belonged to the Great Northern Paper Co., with whom Maine Gov. Percival Proctor Baxter dealt, beginning in 1930, for what he set aside as Baxter State Park. With an assist from the Trust for Public Land, in 2006 Katahdin Lake became part of the park, fulfilling the former governor’s original intent. The camps are now owned by Charles Fitzgerald on land leased from the park.
While in remote Maine wilderness, Katahdin Lake guests were hardly roughing it. I can attest to that as it was my job to bring them a bucket of water heated on the cook stove and to light a fire to take a chill off their cabins in the mornings. The beds softly enfolded the guests. Sitting in the peeled log dining room on birch stools was just the way to fully appreciate Della Cobb’s tasty food.
Yet outside, the lake reflected the ridges of Katahdin and Turner mountains; loons, moose and handsome brook trout cavorted; at night the open sky blossomed with stars; and the only man-made sound -- often -- was my happy whistling.
By then I had twice paddled 100 miles from Moosehead Lake down the Allagash River with a boys’ camp, a trip regarded at the time as an ultimate wilderness experience in the lower 48 states, yet there was no place in the universe that I felt more at home in the outdoors than in the comfort of Katahdin Lake Camps.
At least that’s how it looks, 60 years later, from the White Oaks.
Lauren R. Stevens is a regular Eagle contributor.