Fears resurfaced as darkness fell, and it was endearing to see Oliver accepting hugs from his usually reviled brother. A friend had loaned us a tiny, high-tech headlamp that seemed like one more gadget than we needed. But it turned into the prized item: fastened to your forehead, it left your hands free to do whatever you wanted to after dark—wash dishes, climb a tree.
At sunrise, I scandalized my sons by skinny-dipping in the lake, then got to work on Bisquick pancakes. In lieu of Saturday morning cartoons, the boys watched five loons put on a show—calling and diving, flapping across the water's glassy surface, then flying so low overhead we could hear their wings creak. By now we realized our luck in finding such a prime campsite (during the day, we'd hear boaters voice quiet envy as they drifted by), so we decided to stay put for all three nights. We slung a hammock near the water and took turns swaying in the breeze.
Observing a sportsman hook a sizable walleye from his canoe right off our site inspired the boys to catch some fish of their own. My patience runs thin when it comes to tangled fishing line. Luckily, Dave was willing to devote endless hours to keeping the hooks in the water, and both boys reeled in (and released) a succession of sunfish and shiners.
After our second day we cleared the frogs from the boats and set off to explore. The map took us through several channels to a quiet island, where Dave fired up the stove to heat water for Cup-A-Soups while the boys and I artfully arranged salami slices on Ritz crackers. Back in the boats, we met more and more kayakers and canoeists until suddenly, alarmingly, we found ourselves on Fish Creek Pond, just off Upper Saranac Lake, with motorboats, gas fumes, big-bellied fishermen, and a well-trafficked shoreline road. We hightailed it back to our campsite, which our two city boys were already calling "home."
PADDLE YOUR OWN CANOE
Canoe camping is the easiest way to get into the wilderness on your own steam. Start with a modest excursion. For help in selecting a suitable route, consult local outfitters and experienced canoeists—preferably someone who has navigated the area you're planning to cover. You don't need surprises (rapids, waterfalls); you do need to know that campsites will be available. And remember that a route without portages means you can load your canoe with camping frills—folding chairs, pillows, sleeping mats, Dijon mustard
The American Canoe Association (703/451-0141; www.acanet.org) is a good source of information, as is the "River Trips" page of the Web site American Rivers (www.amrivers.org). A surprising number of books on regional canoeing have been published; search Amazon.com for a guide to the area that interests you.
One key to successful camping is knowing how to pack everything so you can find it again. The Joy of Family Camping, by Herb Gordon (Burford Books), especially its "Food" chapter, became my bible. So what if the rest of your family thinks you're Mussolini?At least you know where the ketchup is. And to find it in the dark, invest in a Zipka, a mighty headlamp (www.petzl.com; from $35) that weighs 2.2 ounces.
St. Regis Canoe Outfitters 9 Dorsey St., Saranac Lake, N.Y.; 888/775-2925 or 518/891-1838; www.canoeoutfitters.com. Both the in-town store and the branch at the Floodwood Pond launch site sell a full range of camping supplies. Canoe rentals start at $39 per day, paddles and life jackets included.
Garnet Hill Lodge 13th Lake Rd., North River, N.Y.; 518/251-2444; www.garnet-hill.com; doubles from $85 per person with two meals; children 10 and under $30, 11 and up $45. A good place to clean up at after a few nights in a tent. It's a hub of activity for cross-country skiers in winter, but more low-key the rest of the year. Warning: No TV's in the guest rooms.