I needn't have worried. When I woke up early to the call of a loon, it was warm and sunny. After a breakfast of glutinous oatmeal, egg on toast, orange juice, and weak coffee, we were ready for the day's activities. Other family camps offer horseback riding, lessons in marine biology, and wine-and-cheese parties for parents (see chart on next page), but Camp Eagle Island doesn't believe in overscheduling. It specializes in water sports, and waterskiing was an option (at $20 per half-hour), as was paddling a canoe or sailing a Sunfish (unfortunately, the sailing instructor had just departed). But most parents seemed content to just hang out with their kids, puttering around the lodge, where moose heads kept watch over a musty collection of books (Indian Crafts for Campers; a 1918 edition of The Marne by Edith Wharton). A father parked his son in front of the TV with one working channel, before settling into an Adirondack chair on the porch with a biography of Samuel Beckett. Two girls unfolded a Monopoly board.
I dropped Hannah at the morning arts and crafts program for 8- to 12-year-olds. The day's activity—decorating objects with artificial flowers—seemed pretty pathetic to me. I'd learned to weave baskets at camp, and another mother, who'd attended Camp Eagle Island in the mid seventies and had returned with her husband and two kids, remembered making rope bracelets and carving a ring out of a peach pit. But when I picked up Hannah an hour and a half later, she was extremely pleased with her efforts: a doll-sized straw hat with glue-gunned ribbon and plastic bluebird, and a flowerpot filled with florist's moss and a fake rose.
Daniel refused to join the Pixies, the afternoon program for three- to seven-year-olds, so we all headed for the serene, tree-rimmed waterfront, a sandy-bottomed slope leading to the lake. The cool water was olive green up close, steely blue in the distance. After Steve, Hannah, and I passed the deep-water test—a short swim to some buoys and back—we were allowed to take yellow plastic "funyaks" out for a spin. While Steve and Daniel paddled left, Hannah and I veered right, to explore the "islets" we'd seen from the path the night before.
She and I approached one of these big boulders, and after a few tries managed to drag our funyak up onto a scrubby spot. Steve and Daniel eventually paddled into view, having rounded Eagle Island, and they also pulled ashore. The only treasure we found on our windswept island was a rusted fishhook, but the kids were thrilled to have "discovered" land. When we finally returned the boats, we were exhilarated—and ravenous.
Camp food, I can report, is just as bad the second time around. Still, one night there was decent macaroni-and-cheese, and the next day I came across spicy tomato-okra soup. "We're trying to use up what we have in the kitchen," one of the cooks confided when I complimented her (which I guess accounted for the peas-in-mayo on the table earlier in the day). At least there was always fresh fruit and a stack of sliced bread near a sludge of peanut butter at the that's-all-there-is-folks end of the buffet.
The next day vanished—more swimming, rowing, arts and crafts, and a quick excursion into the town of Saranac Lake, where people hiking and camping in the high peaks can get a haircut and eat a lunch that doesn't require lighting a fire. At the end of dinner that night, just as families were sweeping up under their tables, the director announced that there would be a campfire with marshmallows. "Everyone bring a stick," she instructed. Hannah threw herself into finding just the right one. "It's my first campfire ever and I don't want to be late," she said urgently as I rummaged through the duffel bag for her penknife. She whittled one end to a point, then sharpened her brother's branch.
When we got to the appointed spot overlooking the water, the fire was crackling and kids were jostling for roasting positions. Soon my daughter was licking the sticky ooze of her first s'more from between her fingers, a look of bliss on her face, while Daniel, dispensing with his stick, tidily ate his chocolate bar, marshmallow, and graham cracker separately. Sparks from the fire flew up into the sky, and stars began to appear. A guitar-playing father strummed "Mr. Tambourine Man," and people quieted down, finding seats around the blaze. We launched into "Make New Friends," followed by every other round we could think of. A counselor taught us a swimming song with arm motions. Former campers like me discovered we still knew the wishful words to "Barges." On the way back to the tent Hannah was still under the campfire's spell. "Can you teach me all those songs?" she asked, reaching for my hand.
When it was time to go, Hannah clung to Roxy, the property manager Pete's sweet-natured mutt. We rode the boat to the mainland with the camp director, who was also leaving for the summer. The kids sang their new swimming song in the car, and we all took turns assessing our camp stay. "I liked the beach and the boat ride best," said Daniel. "I loved it all," said Hannah. "I finally feel clean again," said Steve, when he emerged from a long, hot shower at home. Thinking back to the campfire, I decided his grumbling was at least part show. Sometime between "If You're Happy and You Know It" and "If I Had a Hammer" I had glanced over and seen him, smiling and singing with the rest of us, looking for all the world like a happy camper.
Camp Eagle Island offers three summer family sessions of four days and three nights each. Tents and cabins are $35 a night, including activities. For more information, call 888/746-8200 or 518/891-0928.
For more camp information and camp recommendations: The American Camping Association (765/342-8456; www.acacamps.org) has 24 local organizations branches and offers a comprehensive list of Day Camps and Residential Camps across the U.S.