“Until it Wasn’t” John Harbison

John’s daughters, Dylan and Meghan, at the cabin in Vermont

A cabin on the shore of Lake Champlain was my family’s summer home for many years. Because I was a university professor, I had the summers free to read and write in the Green Mountains state. The cabin was called Dick’s House, though nobody we knew seemed to know anything about Dick. Just that his name and a date, April 15, 1931, were carved on the mantel. Dick’s House had one room for cooking and socializing and four small bedrooms. One of them seemed to have been built into the limestone and mudrock bluff behind the cabin. We called it “the cave.” From the bed in that bedroom one could reach out and pick a lady’s-slipper orchid from the rainforest dripping behind you.

Each room was blessed with books, many if not most of which had a connection with the place: books with titles like A Field Guide to the Wild Flowers of New England, The Age of Schooners on Lake Champlain, and The Story of Roger’s Rangers, the band of New Englanders who fought against the French and Indians during Queen Anne’s War, and for children, like my daughters, there were the collected stories of Freddy the Pig, who lived and published a weekly newspaper in the Adirondacks. Freddy was a most intelligent pig. Unlike my daughters, however, he abhorred adventures.

Paper birches, white pines, and one impressive yellow birch stood on the limestone shelves that circled Dick’s Cove. These rocky shelves were ten or fifteen feet above the water line in summer. The girls could dive off the shelf in front of Dick’s House, pull themselves out of the water onto the floating dock, walk up the ramp to the shelf, and dive again. Even in the summer the lake was only lukewarm and it was evidently compulsory to holler before you hit the water, whether one was a girl or a dog.

The limestone ringing the cove was riddled with caves such that the shelves resembled a Giant’s Swiss cheese. One of these caves was especially interesting because if you climbed down into it you would emerge ten feet under water. For years I watched my daughters do this, noting that Freddy the Pig would have abstained. Sometimes we went spear fishing for supper. We never had a proper spear, but would tie a kitchen knife to a sawed-off broomstick. Occasionally we would paddle our canoes into the middle of the cove and dive for bass and sunfish. We kept the canoes tied to the dock when not in use, though that was not often the case in the summer. The girls seemed to live in them.

One was a fourteen foot birch bark boat with graceful lines, high at the bow and stern like the canoes of the voyageurs of fur trading times in the lakes and streams of the northwoods. We fashioned it ourselves on a frame from a spruce that we felled the woods and bent on the steam of our bathroom. We named it the Spruce Goose. The other was an abandoned wood and canvas canoe that we found covered with fallen maple leaves in the forest. We rescued it, replaced the rotten decks and broken ribs, and bought new canvas. We guessed it was an Old Town canoe. We found a serial number under the bow deck and called the Old Town canoe company in Maine. A representative said, “It was probably one of ours. I’ll check our records. It will take me thirty minutes and I’ll call you back.” Indeed she did and said, “It was made in 1931 and sold by our dealer in Burlington, Vermont” — which you’ll remember was the very year that Dick carved his name and the date on the mantel. My daughters demanded that we paint the canvas pea green like the boat the owl and pussycat took to sea.

Dick’s House is gone now. The girls grew up and moved away; I caught the cancer that is slowly killing me; and we rarely found an opportunity to visit the cabin together, though we still had to pay the high taxes levied against lake front property. So we decided the time had come to sell it. We were, of course, heartbroken. The new owner knocked the cabin down, carted it off on a flatbed truck, and replaced it with a shoreside mansion paid for with the sale of original stocks in the International Business Machines corporation. He no doubt believes he’s modern and progressive. But for four generations, Dick’s House, Dick’s Cove, Lake Champlain, a glacial lake 125 miles long and 12 miles wide was also our family’s summer home until it wasn’t. Now it isn’t there at all.

*Used with permission by John Harbison

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