Lots of people like beaches. I detest them, especially on national holidays. Even the best of them tend to be crowded, noisy, hot, gritty and prone to expose you to the mercy of every lout with energy enough to stroll a hundred yards from their pickup to the nearest sliver of unoccupied sand.
I like lakes. Mountain lakes. In a house right on the shore, surrounded by trees, and neighbored by long-term residents deeply steeped in the singular traditions of lakeshore etiquette, which chiefly involves not making a lot of noise or being a pain in the ass. This is important because lakeshore property is very, very expensive, so houses tend to be jammed in cheek-by-jowl, and, even when visually segregated by suitable foliage, they are easily penetrated by the boombox next door that insists on playing “Waiting for the Weekend” on a continuous loop.
Since I do not own a lakeside house, my appetite for their comforts must be fed through visits to people who do. It is therefore imperative that I balance what readers may see as a somewhat prickly personality with offsetting benefits. I cook. And clean. If I do both of these with reasonable competence, there remains a reasonable chance that those who put up with me last summer will put me up again this year, although I do have two other assets that overcome even my more hellish aspects. One is my wife, whose general demeanor offers a wonderful counterpoint to mine — and since it his her sister that we visit in Lake George, there is also some family currency in play.
The other are my two daughters, who are a hoot, and since the other person we visit — in Lake Placid — is very fond of them (and they of her), my profligate torching of valuable firewood and inclination towards muttering “bullshit” under my breath at dinner parties is overlooked to a certain extent.
Mostly I barbeque very large hunks of meat on real charcoal, slow-smoking them for long periods. Over time, I have through trial and error accumulated significant skill at this, although the occasional mishaps provide fodder for family lore — such as the time I left a twelve pound rib roast untended to go on a family boat ride, and, owing to some misunderstanding of the settings on a new propane grill, returned to find the roast reduced to a still-flaming cinder. Dinner that night was very late, but the opportunity the delay offered for additional rations of giggle-water seemed to dull any disappointment, and substantially enlivened the dinner conversation, where I believe I stoutly averred that Marin County was an imaginary topography peopled with leprechauns.
All this earns me many hours spent gazing at the world’s most pleasing prospect: an unspoiled lake surrounded by steep hills covered in a forest of every possible hue and tint that green can supply. I usually do this with a book in my lap, which I occasionally may glance at, between verdant reveries and interior monologues that I would be insane to expose to outside scrutiny. The “camps” that surround the shore of Lake Placid are graceful old genuine Adirondack timber lodges that intrude little or not at all on the scenery, or recently-constructed versions of the same thing, and, since the residents tend to be somewhat fanatical about maintaining the purity of the lake and its environs, Placid is indeed placid, with almost no jarring intrusions from the obstreperous element.
Our hostess in Placid has spent her summers there since early childhood, most of them in the same house she now reigns over with the same cool aplomb and infectious charm as her mother before her, albeit with less formality and/or patience for fools. The furniture has not changed in any meaningful way since I first saw the place in the late 1960s, and retains a rustic charm unavailable from modern decorators, however formidable their budgets or clever their counterfeits. “Genuine” Adirondack furnishings these days display a degree of fussy perfection the original never pretended to, often with a superfluity of feathery bark and a profligacy of knotty wood bending towards caricature of their authentic ancestors. Not this place. Here, you can almost hear the echoes of Sinatra still faintly bouncing around the rafters. You could roast an ox in the fireplace. The sound system dates from the early days of solid state. The sofa is maple arms and green cushions. The carpet is green. Or was. The dining room seats fourteen. I know.
Here is where my kids climbed all of the local “high peaks,” tried to learn how to waterski, went tubing, visited the “dam,” chased ducks by the shore, and generally had and have a ball, all led on or egged on by our indefatigable hostess. I sit on the porch. It’s what I’m good at.
Lake George is much larger, and much more heavily populated, so that the southern part of the lake attracts a fair supply of weekend warriors determined to party with the kind of unreasoning ferocity usually reserved for cagefights. Fortunately, my sister-in-law chose her situation well, and bought a wonderful traditional lodge heavily shielded by timber on the northernmost reaches of the lake, which is much more sedate. Still, intrusions occur, from the lake itself, which is of course accessible to anyone with a driver’s license and a credit card. This enables them to rent a powerboat, with which they may have only a nodding familiarity, and disport themselves at any locale their fuel capacity and patience can enable. While their antics are infrequent, they are not without entertainment value, or the prospect for it.
None of this overly troubles my sister-in-law, who is a veteran principal and teacher in K-6 public schools. In California. There is no aspect of childish behavior she has not witnessed, dealt with and triumphed over. And that just covers the parents. Her equanimity is notable both for its vastness and its steadiness. She is amused by my sensitivity to riperian boorishness, but does not partake of it, other than to acknowledge that people get strange ideas in their heads when they get in a boat. That’s why she doesn’t have one. She has a very nice dock, but the dock is chiefly employed as a sunbathing area, which function it serves admirably, but this places guests from time to time at the mercy of the Lake George amateur putt-putt flotilla.
Essentially, there are three things you don’t want to do in a boat on a lake. One is to roar around at top speed very close to shore, for a number of reasons.
First, it’s annoying. People sitting on their docks trying to get some sun, and/or peace and quiet, are suddenly soaked by a large wake sloshing up through the deck timbers of their dock.
Second, it is pretty rough on other boats tied up to these same docks, slamming them into their fenders and generally rearranging any loose items on board in an unhelpfully random fashion.
Third, it’s really dangerous. People do swim off these shores and docks, and nothing will kill a buzz faster than trying to explain to the local police why you have just pulsed somebody’s children into chum with your 200 hp outboard.
The next breach of common sense is cruising ten feet from the shoreline at a very slow rate of speed peering at the houses on the shore as though they were so many exhibits at a zoo. You would probably look askance at someone walking across your lawn and staring in your windows; sailing past in a noisy powerboat is no different, except that you’re easier to sink.
The last thing you probably shouldn’t do is to pull your boat up to withing about twenty feet of someone’s dock, toss your anchor overboard and start the party. There’s just no reason to do this; it seems, however, there’s a certain segment of the population that just doesn’t find anything fun unless they are doing it in someone else’s face. Why, when you have a whole lakeshore to play with, would one choose to set up shop as close as possible to someone else’s picnic? Yet this happens, with enough frequency that I felt impelled to devise a defense, and I found one. It appears that nothing will unnerve an intruder like intrusion; if you train a apir of binoculars on the offenders and calmly but continuously survey them, the rewards are wonderful.
First, a queasy unease seems to set in on the boat. They can see very clearly that you are looking at them with binoculars. Since sound travels very clearly over water — the primary reason such close quarters are offensive — you can hear them:
“What is he doing?” “What’s he looking at?” “Is he looking at us?” “Is he looking at my cellulite?”
Then, objections are raised:
“He shouldn’t do that.” “Honey, make him stop.” “That’s creepy.”
Sometimes voices are raised:
“Hey! What the f**k are you looking at?”
“Yo! Asshole. Put those f**king things down.”
If this occurs, merely lower the goggles, smile broadly, and wave. Confusion will proliferate like sand flies at a luau. What are they going to do? Storm teh beach?
Finally, muttering or shouting insults outright, they will pull up anchor and depart with a great roar and monstrous bow wave. From start to finish, this whole passion play should not take more than five minutes.
Pour yourself another cold lemonade, peer briefly into your book, and then resume your fantasy of napping peacefully inside an underwater bubble-dome on a soft bed made from pine boughs and moss, as trout and pike drift slowly by, goggle-eyed in amazement.