Summer at Spitfire Lake

A photographer recalls his first summer swimming, sailing and exploring at one of the Great Camps of the Adirondacks.

Words and images by Noe DeWitt

I’m a photographer and I come from a family of photographers. As you might imagine, many pictures hang on my wall, but there are a few that hold the closest place in my heart – those from Spitfire Lake, where my family vacationed every summer.

I was 10 when I first visited. My aunt and uncle invited both sides of their family, and between the 16 of us and their four dogs there was rarely a quiet moment.

My aunt and uncle owned one of what are called the “Great Camps of the Adirondacks,” conceived in the late 19th century as vacation homes for elites of the Gilded Age. Theirs was a large family-style compound with smaller houses for each family.

We had a routine on the lake and there were certain things we all did together. We woke up to the eerie call of the loon before we met on the screened in porch for a full country-style breakfast. And everyone ate dinner together in the main dining room.

Dressing up for dinner was obligatory. I wore a pair of brown leather boat shoes and a clean button-down shirt that my father made me tuck into khaki shorts.

In between meals we did what people do on lakes – swam, water-skied, canoed and sailed. When we weren’t in the water, we went inside to play pool or Ping-Pong in the game room, or walked through the woods to the tennis court to see who would be victorious that day.

After dinner all the cousins, still wearing our nice dinner clothes, jumped off the dock into the warm water, attempting crazy dives and flips. My uncle and aunt’s dogs stood guard at first, but the chaos became too tempting for them not to join in.

On humid days, the weather would turn and bring in Zeus-like thunderstorms, forcing us to take shelter inside where we’d watch old Clint Eastwood cowboy films until the storm passed. When the sun finally poked through the clouds, it filled the big Adirondack sky with rainbows. Then we’d run back outside and play until the dinner bell rang.

I explored every inch of the shoreline. I was always on the hunt for snakes and frogs. I skipped rocks until I couldn’t lift my arm. And if I wasn’t on land, I was sailing the 13 foot Sunfish. Sometimes my older brother joined me, but I wasn’t afraid to captain the little boat by myself.

I had my first sailing lesson that summer. I remember being overwhelmed as my instructor rattled off all the parts of the boat. She pointed out bow, stern, starboard and port, and laughed when I asked why they couldn’t just be called front, back, left and right.

Part of my first lesson was capsizing the boat. I think it was supposed to teach me how to handle a worst-case scenario. Or maybe it was just to scare the hell out of me. Either way, it worked. And from then on, my family usually found me on the water.

My uncle and aunt’s dogs stood guard at first, but the chaos became too tempting for them not to join in.

My uncle liked to gather the entire family and dogs in several canoes to portage from lake to lake. No one ever wanted to go in the same canoe with my uncle. He insisted on taking two dogs and all of his cameras to document our journey. It took great strength to counterbalance the canoe when the dogs moved from one side to the other. One wrong move and the canoe could flip everything into the water. I was the youngest, so my older brother and cousins always made me ride with my uncle. We came close to tipping a few times. The pictures my uncle took during our portage trips hang on my family photo wall to this day.

At the end of the day all sixteen of us would load up into one of the Gar Wood mahogany boats for a sunset cruise. We’d slip along the shoreline of the lake and wave to neighbors, usually sipping on a happy hour drink. It was the perfect way to take in the cool summer air while watching the sky turn magenta and violet.

The carefree summers on Spitfire Lake became an annual summer tradition. However, as the cousins grew older fewer and fewer of us regularly visited the camp. But now that I have my own two sons, I bring them to the Adirondacks. I enjoy watching them explore the same water’s edge, living the same carefree life and taking photos of it all so they can look back one day in the same way I do now.


See more of Noe DeWitt’s writing and photos on his site and follow him on Instagram.

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