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From the June 2007 Conservationist

The Back Page

Adirondack Lifeguard

By Lisbeth Brooks

Lisbeth BrooksAlthough I had been around water all my life, the test was a bit intimidating nonetheless. Stepping onto that tiny pool deck, I didn't know the profound effect that taking a lifeguard exam would have on the next 25 years of my career ... and my life. The year was 1982. For most teens at that time, summer jobs were little more than a way to fill the time between semesters ... and the gas tank. For me, a summer job as a lifeguard was simply the consummation of a natural progression. I'd been spending my childhood summers camping at Moffitt Beach for as long as I can remember. Longer, in fact. Countless hours spent on that shallow beach left me with an affinity for the water and the sun, which has remained with me to this day. Those times left me, too, with a youngster's reverence for the lifeguards, whose raised white chairs and pith helmets are engrained among my earliest memories. There was little need to ponder what direction I would pursue for summer employment.

I spent that first summer as a lifeguard at Sacandaga Campground, in Wells, at the convergence of the East and West Branches of the Sacandaga River. One of the oldest of DEC's campgrounds, (built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the 1930s), Sacandaga had no natural beach. Instead, DEC staff created one every summer by constructing a dam in the river, making a swimming hole of sorts. The campground was my paradise. For two months I lived in this paradise, working six days a week, with the lifeguard cabin for my home and a bicycle as my only form of transportation. It was the best summer of my life. I'd sit in that chair, in the sand, in the sun, in the Adirondacks, and I'd think ... they pay me to do this!

The people with whom I interacted on any given day were campers. They were mostly families on vacation and, by definition, having fun. I enjoyed it all-even the huge responsibilities that come with lifeguarding, which somehow made all this seem more meaningful and important. I spent the following three summers at Northampton Campground on the Sacandaga Reservoir. This new venue, popular with a day-use crowd, provided new challenges and new opportunities. During my second summer there, I was appointed Assistant Chief Lifeguard, overseeing a staff of six lifeguards. My fifth summer as a DEC lifeguard found me at Lewey Lake Campground. Again, this new assignment brought new opportunities, some of which I hadn't imagined. That was the summer I learned about black bears, which are quite common at Lewey Lake. I would often awake at night to hear their grunts and snorts outside my cabin as they roamed the area, looking for an easy meal. Adding black bears to the mix only improved my Adirondack experience. By this time, I was certainly a "seasoned lifeguard." I would have enjoyed extending my youthful endeavors, but I realized I had to start thinking about changing my seasonal "avocation" into something more permanent.

As luck would have it, a permanent job soon became available in DEC's Albany office, overseeing the lifeguard program. It's hard to believe that was some twenty years ago. Although the water-safety program has opened the door to many fulfilling opportunities since then, not a year goes by without my reflecting on just how lucky I was to experience those wonderful summers.

DEC's Bureau of Recreation employs lifeguards at many of it's 52 campgrounds in the Adirondack and Catskill Forest Preserves. Housing is offered at many locations, and bears are optional. If you would like to spend a summer as a DEC lifeguard, you must first pass a practical water exam and a CPR exam. Exams are administered each year from January through June at various locations throughout the state, and are free to the public. Candidates need not be certified before taking the exam. For more information and to register for an exam, please visit our website at http://www.dec-campgrounds.com/, or call 518-457-2500.

Photo: provided by author