I was glad my husband picked the moment just before dinner to head back to the tent for sweatshirts. That way Steve wasn't around when the camp director led us all in singing grace to the tune of the Addams Family theme (complete with cross-armed finger snapping). And I was spared the eyes-to-heaven look he'd been giving me ever since we arrived at Camp Eagle Island with our two kids that August afternoon.
I was the one who'd picked this Girl Scout camp on its own 32-acre island in the Adirondacks—and not just for Hannah, our eight-year-old, but for all of us. These days it isn't only kids who are packing off to summer camp. After years of lobbying by parents (those nostalgic for the glory days of their own youth, perhaps, and, yes, maybe a few obsessive types who just can't let go), camps are suddenly opening up to families after the solo campers have departed.
Growing up, I'd gone to camp in Pennsylvania—and loved it—and I hoped the family session at Camp Eagle Island would give Hannah and Daniel, four, a taste of what a sleep-away experience of their own might be like someday. My husband, never a camper, wasn't wild about the plan; sleeping in a platform tent and eating camp chow didn't sound like much of a vacation to him. But the long weekend would cost a mere $35 a night, plus meals. And when I explained that Camp Eagle Island, founded in 1938, occupies a great camp, one of the area's legendary rustic estates, on Upper Saranac Lake, Steve, a schoolteacher and history buff, agreed to give it a try. How bad could roughing it be?
By the time we climbed out of the car after the seven-hour drive from Manhattan, it was late afternoon. As we unloaded our gear at the camp's tiny mainland dock at Gilpin Bay, ducks streamed over to meet us, and we fed them the Cheerios the kids had scattered all over the backseat. On schedule, a small motorboat bounced across the lake; we piled in for the 10-minute ride to Eagle Island. While we signed in (no need to recite the Girl Scout Promise or belong to a troop to participate), a pickup truck dumped our belongings near our unit's latrine—as close to valet service as we were to get. It didn't take us long to locate our tent, one of 27 (the camp, which also has a few cabins, holds 50 families), and to haul our things up its sturdy wooden steps. Steve tested one of the five metal cots; it sagged deeply. But with the tent's front flaps open we could see the glittering lake through the tree branches. A squirrel chattered noisily in a pine tree overhead.
Before dinner we traced the 1.25-mile trail along the perimeter of the island, a narrow path padded with pine needles that winds around mossy boulders and white birch trees. Hannah scavenged thin, parchment-like sheets of bark that had peeled off, to write on later. She and her brother invented a game of stepping only on rocks and tree roots.
At six o'clock a little girl stood on tiptoe to ring the chimes in the dining hall, and campers filed in, young and old. We ended up sharing a long table with a New Jersey family back for their second year. A handmade plaque on the wall listed song contest winners going back to 1948. Tacked here and there were the words to different versions of evening grace, including the short, sweet verse I remembered from camp: "Back of the bread is the flour. And back of the flour is the mill. And back of the mill is the wind and the rain. And the Father's will."
The dining hall was one of six buildings made out of the island's own cedar and pine, and designed by architect William Coulter for Levi Morton, vice president under Benjamin Harrison and best known for having accepted the Statue of Liberty from the French. We learned about great camp living (private rail cars, Venetian gondolas, tuxedo dinners) on the evening motorboat ride around the lake. As Hannah played tic-tac-toe with two new friends, our boat skirted tiny, piney islands, some just big enough for a single house, others too small for any structure at all. By the time we returned to our island it was completely dark. Because we'd forgotten flashlights, our real adventure was ahead of us: feeling our way on unfamiliar paths back to the tent for our toothbrushes.
At the latrine, the faucet water was freezing and some of the toilets wouldn't flush. "On our next vacation we're going to have hot running water," groused Steve; he was then the first to drop off to sleep, just as raindrops began to patter on the tent top. I lay there in a panic, fearing our camp experience would be ruined by bad weather.