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What could be better than a camping trip with eight lifelong friends on a river in eastern Maine? I’ll tell you what’s better: making the trip year after year, 20 years in a row.

It all started in 1997 after one of us had a health scare, prompting us to plan a canoeing-camping-fishing trip together. Life is too short, and it was time to strengthen those relationships that we had established before most of us were old enough to shave.

We had all gone to boys’ camp in Maine together as campers and/or counselors starting in the ’60s, so we chose a river we knew from back then, camping out on a small island along the way—an island I first camped on when I was 13.

Of the eight, five of us lived in Maine, one in Vermont, one in Massachusetts and one in Delaware. We were a teacher, two lawyers, an elementary school principal, a business owner, an insurance executive, a real estate manager, and me, a journalist. If my calculation is correct, I have known everybody (including my two brothers, who are among the eight) on the trip for a collective total of 335 years.

That first trip turned into a second trip, and then a third, fourth and fifth. At some point, it just became a given that the trip would be on everybody’s summer calendar. All eight of us make it most years—an astounding feat given life’s demands and since one us now lives in New Zealand, 16 time zones away.

For three or four days each year, we escape from our everyday lives and into a magical world where the mosquitoes don’t bite (even when they do), the wind is always at our backs (even when it’s not), and everyone’s jokes are funny (even when they’re not). Even I, the not-so-skilled angler that I am, somehow manage to catch a few bass on my line. I have photos to prove it.

We always meet at a predetermined lake or river in eastern Maine, the eight of us in four loaded-up canoes. On two occasions, we canoed out in the ocean and camped on an island.

One of the group, who lives in eastern Maine, each year scouts possible new destinations — a place that won’t have too many other people and will have campsites that fit the bill. Everybody has their assigned tasks on what food/drink to bring and which meals they’re responsible for. I can always count on hors d’oeuvres of smoked salmon and cheese,  fine dinners that are never lacking and good wine to wash it down.

Many images are etched into my memories, like the time my brother and I capsized our canoe while running some rapids, losing a lobster pot (but saving the beer cooler) into the river depths. One year while camping on an ocean island, we were treated to a surreal sight of the noontime fog lifting before our eyes as a parade of dozens of vessels sailed in front of us single-file as part of a wooden-boat regatta. Even making the traditional breakfast of blueberry pancakes on a small camp stove is entertaining.

I always seem to connect both with nature and myself when I’m in the great outdoors. But it’s more than just that that makes these trips so special. Although I can’t deny that I’m getting older, these trips allow me to stay young at heart while staying connected with friends I’ve known through childhood, early adulthood, middle age and (gulp) whatever’s to come. Every year, we hear of the goings-on in each other’s lives and share stories of wives, children, accomplishments, joys and sorrows, travels and thoughts on what’s happening in the world. We also share memories (with lots of laughter) of younger days when we were at summer camp together.

Although I see these guys (other than my brothers) just once or twice a year, I would do anything for them; and I’m pretty sure they would do anything for me.

Twenty years, one of us said last year, amounts to “a lot of paddle strokes, a lot of beautiful scenery taken in, a lot of great conversation that has been intelligent occasionally and funny always, a lot of wine bottles opened, beer cans cracked, and cups of whiskey sipped.”

This summer marks the 21st year in a row that we’ll come together for our annual excursion. It’s a tradition worth keeping.

Clarke Canfield is a longtime journalist, writer and editor who likes to be active. He is the communications director at Southern Maine Community College.

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