Saturday, June 27, 2009

Black Fly Derby

We spent the past week at one of my favorite places, the Rap-Shaw Club in the Adirondacks of New York. The Club is one of a handful of surviving old-fashioned Adirondack sportsmen's camps. We became members of Rap-Shaw three years ago joining about 60 other families. The Club occupies two small islands on Stillwater Reservoir in the southwest corner of the Adirondack Park. The reservoir is almost entirely surrounded by the state-owned Forest Preserve. Except for the small settlement of Stillwater at the end of the road, there are no other buildings on the water. The 117 miles of shoreline and 45 small to tiny islands are lined with trees, trees, rocks, trees and a few beaches.

Rap-Shaw is one of the earliest private Adirondack clubs still in operation. Founded in 1896 and incorporated in 1901 the club moved to its current island home in 1942 after an earlier incarnation located further down the reservoir burned to the ground from a presumed lightening strike. The club's original stated purpose was to “afford recreation, legitimate fishing, hunting and camping, to promote the protection of fish and game, the preservation of the forests of and within the State of New York, and to assist in the observation and enforcement of the laws, rules and regulations relating thereto.” [from Otis H. Gardner, The Rapshaw Fishing and Hunting Club, 1901-1961. Syracuse, NY private printing, Jan. 1962] From its beginnings the club was composed of members from all walks of life. “At the Rapshaw Club a railroad brakeman was apt to find himself sharing a bunk with the president of his company.” [from an unidentified clipping in the collection of the Adirondack Museum, quoted in Barbara McMartin, The Privately Owned Adirondacks (2004), p. 49]

To get to Rap-Shaw you need to carefully navigate miles of backwoods dirt road, coming eventually to a parking lot with boat trailers, a ranger station, a general store and a bar/restaurant. Unless you've brought your own boat, now you have to call Jerry, the Rap-Shaw steward, to come over from the island with the club pontoon boat. Jerry built that boat from the pontoons up, funky and functional with wood benches in front and mismatched salvaged seats in the back.

Jerry pulls up to the state dock and loads your stuff. As you approach the island the Rap-Shaw boathouse comes into view with it's beautiful backlit loon logo. Jerry has pulled the club's John Deere Gator onto the dock with at least an inch to spare on each side. Gear goes in the Gator and Jerry roars off to deliver it to the porch of your cabin: Owl, Loon, Gull, Eagle, Chicken or Main Camp. Each cabin is a duplex with a shared bath, except for Main with its three bedrooms. Full occupancy is 28 people. The cabins date from the 1930s and 1940s. They are simple, clean and freshly painted. Comfortable single beds are the rule. Three times a day an old locomotive bell calls all campers to meals in the dining hall. Mike, the cook, turns out tasty meals that are served family style with campers bussing the tables.

As soon as I board the Club boat, I feel my daily cares and chores evaporate. My new daily schedule is up with the sun to walk Joli and listen to the loons, breakfast, boating, lunch, nap, swim, boating, communal cocktail hour on the porch of Main camp, dinner, boating and bed. One of the best features of the Club in my opinion is that each member can bring one dog. Our dog, Joli, knows Rap-Shaw well. She gets to run free, swim at any hour, chase sticks to her heart's delight and feed on table scraps. She also knows where Marie, the housekeeper, keeps her stash of dog biscuits.

Over the past decade the Club has worked hard to maintain its conservationist ethic with an emphasis on fishing and at the same time attract family members and people like us who love the woods and water from a seat in a quietly drifting canoe. Considerable funds were spent to upgrade the camp and make it accessible. The favorable result is measured by a pretty full reservation book and a balanced budget the past three years. The Club elected its first woman president this past year.

On Friday the hard core fishermen, women and kids arrived for the annual black fly derby. Old Adirondack hands know that it's generally a mistake to visit during June because of the clouds of biting black flies. At Rap-Shaw, as a challenge to the bugs, the Club conducts a fishing derby. Everyone hopes that the prevailing winds on the island and on the water will blow the bugs off target. Fishing all day Saturday from breakfast to dinner will give the person who catches the heaviest fish bragging rights for the next year. Small boats bob around the island jockeying for the best fishing hole. Driving rain showers Saturday morning only spurs the competitors on.

In the evening the setting sun glances off the waves and back lights the balsam that grow behind Loon camp. I drift into a peaceful sleep.

Merry has just begun a photo blog where she posts a picture a day. To see more pictures from our time at Rap-Shaw, and for other terrific photographs, check out

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