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From the June 2009 Conservationist

Old photo of three campers standing infront of their campsite

Photo: Phyllis Samson

Home Away from Home

Lifelong camping traditions at DEC campgrounds

By Ellen Bidell and Brian Scott

The smell of the campfire, the call of the loon, the camaraderie of friends, and the solitude of the woods. These are the things that keep people coming back to DEC campgrounds year after year.

Campers playing guitar around a campfire at a lakeside campsite
Photo: Darren McGee

Nearly 100 years ago, the first recreational campers in New York State packed up their cars with a weekend's worth of food, headed to a rural or wooded area, and often just pulled to the side of the road when they found the "perfect" camping spot. Those outdoor adventurers set up a simple shelter made of canvas held between several poles in which to spend the weekend. Today, accommodations run the gamut from a single-person nylon tent to large motor homes with a number of amenities and modern conveniences. While the gear has changed considerably over time, the reasons that people choose to camp have not, and camping is now one of the most popular outdoor vacation activities in the United States.

DEC operates 52 public campgrounds throughout the Adirondack and Catskill parks. Most campgrounds open in mid-May and half stay open through Columbus Day. Depending on the campground, the number of campsites ranges from only a few dozen to more than three hundred. Most can accommodate RVs, but several are only accessible by foot or boat. None offer water or electric hookups (these are available at some campgrounds administered by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation), but most have modern restrooms with showers.

DEC campgrounds provide a wide variety of experiences, including island camping, tent and trailer camping, boat launching facilities, hiking trails, beaches, and day-use areas with picnic tables and grills.

According to the U.S. Travel Association, one third of U.S. adults say they have gone on a camping vacation in the past five years and only six percent of people who have gone camping said it was not for them. But to some, camping is more than just a vacation, it is a lifelong tradition.

1987 photo of people on the beach with forest in the background
Limekiln Lake beach, 1987. (Photo:
Thomas Burger)

Thomas Burger and his family, of Canandaigua, New York, have been camping at DEC campgrounds every year for 44 years. They generally stay one or two weeks at Limekiln Lake, but have also visited Lewey Lake and Rollins Pond in years past. Limekiln Lake is located near the village of Inlet in the Adirondacks. Thomas prefers it there because of the location-there are many activities nearby, including a water park, antique shops, restaurants, museums, golf and hiking. There are 271 large campsites, a guarded swimming beach, and boating is allowed on the lake.

In addition to making lifelong friendships that started around a campfire, Thomas also recalls teaching his son how to canoe on Limekiln Lake. "In years past, black bears would roam the campground freely, adding to the Adirondack experience. It has given me a great appreciation for nature," he said. It does trouble Thomas to see some of the changes that have come with the passing of four decades. He feels that people don't appreciate enough what the campground offers and don't fully understand their responsibility to help care for and maintain it. "I have watched the excellent staff at Limekiln Lake continually improve conditions at the campground, adding a shower building, improved fireplaces, bear containers for food storage, and the creation of a new program for children to learn about nature," explained Thomas. "I would like to see more people appreciate these improvements and work to keep our campgrounds as beautiful and serene as they can be, so that they may be enjoyed for years to come." He says that his camping experiences have encouraged him to do what he can to help preserve the Adirondacks.

Another long-term camping family, the Fentons of West Winfield, New York, also prefer Limekiln Lake for their camping vacations. They have been returning to the campground for the past 35 years. In recent years, their trips have lasted the entire two weeks allowed at DEC campgrounds. Like the Burgers, the Fentons enjoy the campground's large sites. "Limekiln Lake Campground has big, roomy campsites in a variety of settings. Some are close to the water and the beach area, while others are way back in the woods," Tom Fenton explained.

"We generally try to make at least one trip to Limekiln around the 4th of July. On this trip, it has become a tradition to watch the fireworks in the evening at the public beach at Inlet. Another tradition has been to climb Rocky Mount at least one time on each trip. It is an easy climb, but the view of Fourth Lake and the surrounding mountains is spectacular," Tom recalls.

Five kids sitting at the waters' edge
Photo: Susan Shafer

"For us, camping has changed over the years, mostly as we have progressed from tents to a 5th-wheel camper. But even though our accommodations have become more comfortable, we still enjoy camping for the same reasons: hiking, canoeing, kayaking, building campfires and just spending time outdoors with our children, grandchildren and friends. We have made good friends that we keep in touch with throughout the year, and acquaintances that we only see during the summer, but we are often able to renew our friendships while we are camping. Either way, the experience will never grow old for us," Tom said.

Brenda Carmer has spent a lifetime camping. She first camped at DEC's Sharp Bridge Campground as a child in 1932, and has returned every year since. There were neither paved roads nor electricity at the campground when her family started visiting. Brenda has special memories of the swimming hole where she spent much of her time, wet wool bathing suit and all. Her father helped build a diving board made of lumber from a nearby mill and installed it at the swimming hole. "Sometimes, the campground was so busy during those early years that if the campground was full, people were willing to share their site with another family, rather than turning them away," recalled Brenda. She added that each campsite used to be marked with the names of the families who stayed there, rather than a number.

Located along the banks of the Schroon River, Sharp Bridge Campground started in 1920 with a single campsite. The summers spent at Sharp Bridge remain so much a part of Brenda, now 84 years old, that she is currently writing a memoir about her camping experiences. She even wishes her ashes to be spread over Sharp Bridge when she passes away.

What keeps people like Brenda Carmer, the Fentons and the Burgers returning to the same campground? For many, it is more than just the beauty of a particular location. Nearby activities and attractions can enrich the camping experience and keep people coming back year after year.

Ellen Bidell is a citizen participation specialist in Public Affairs and Education and Brian Scott is a conservation operations supervisor in the Bureau of Recreation in DEC's Albany office.