illustration by Brucie Rosch

Making new traditions at a family getaway

y story begins
like many others found in the pages of Adirondack Life, of summer—and some winter—holidays spent at a beloved camp. My grandfather Floyd Betters bought Camp Hohoiken on Upper Saranac Lake in 1964 from the Colgate family, of the toothpaste fortune. The story my grandfather told is that Mr. and Mrs. Colgate were at a party on one of the islands and someone slighted Mrs. Colgate, who turned to her husband and informed him that they were leaving, immediately. Mr. Colgate assumed this meant that he was taking his wife home for the evening, but what she actually meant was that they would be leaving Saranac Lake that night, never to return.

My grandfather had been born in Mineville 45 years earlier and found professional success in the food business, so buying a summer home inside the Blue Line made sense. His father, William Betters (known to generations of kids as “Grandpa Bill”), was among the oldest in a hardscrabble mountain family of 14. His parents had made their way down from Quebec to settle in Paul Smiths, changing the family name to “Betters” from its French origins, Lemieux, upon finding no one could spell or pronounce it correctly. My great-great-grandfather James Betters, who sometimes found work as a mountain guide, is memorialized in a stained-glass window in St. John’s in the Wilderness church in Paul Smiths. My great-grandmother Leila Mae Christian (known to generations of kids as “Ma”), hailed from Elizabethtown, where her family ran a boardinghouse, and where she met and eventually married my great-grandfather when she was just 16 years old.

Fast-forward to my own life history, growing up in western New York State, where Ma and Grandpa Bill had settled after my great-grandfather found work in the gypsum mines. Family photos document my learning to water-ski, feeding generations of ducks and chipmunks, and climbing big snowbanks in Saranac Lake. As my sisters and I grew up and went our separate ways, Camp Hohoiken was where we all gathered in the summer. My story then takes a similar turn to many from my own generation, which is the death of the patriarch, and the sale of the camp after half a century in the family. By this time my older sister was living in Boston, Massachusetts, my younger sister in Fairbanks, Alaska, and myself in Kampala, Uganda, where I worked in malaria prevention and control and my husband was a teacher. In an effort to hold onto an Adirondack family tradition, we booked a week’s holiday at a lovely camp on Blue Mountain Lake. There, my oldest daughter, Leila, found herself in a conversation with another guest who asked her where she was from; she answered as I often did, saying we lived in Uganda. But the woman pressed her, inquiring where she was from. Upon seeing my daughter’s confusion, as she had grown up in Africa, I realized that maybe we all needed somewhere in the USA to call home, and that place for me needed to be in the Adirondacks.

A few months later we bought a small, seasonal camp on Otter Lake, just south of Old Forge.

There is still a fair bit of work to be done on our camp, which we call Otter Space, but it already feels like home. So great is the tilt that a marble rolled on one side of the kitchen will inevitably end up on the other. Lights flicker now and then and, well, the dock probably needs to be propped up next season. And don’t get me started on landscaping; the previous owners spread gravel in an ill-fated attempt to avoid having to mow the lawn on weekends.

A year and half after buying Otter Space I took a job in Washington DC, bringing our decade-long residence in Africa to an end. We aren’t really the kind of family who should own two homes, but alas, we need somewhere to live in Washington and it turns out that I just can’t bring myself to sell Otter Space. I think of it as my forever home, whereas Washington is just home for now.

We are finishing up our third summer on Otter Lake. We don’t have a television and I refuse to get Internet, much to my three teenagers’ dismay. Instead, we spend the days appreciating the natural beauty that surrounds us and the nights reading and organizing games. We’ve enjoyed getting to know a different part of the Adirondack Park, and every year we find new trails to hike and new lakes to kayak. 

In my opinion, the best family traditions aren’t stagnant, but grow and change over time. My family no longer gathers at the palatial house on Upper Saranac; instead, we find ourselves crowded into our modest camp on a small lake, surrounded by family heirlooms, African art and a fair number of treasures that came with the camp. After so long living outside the country, it is nice to reconnect and be closer to my family and friends, and be able to invite them up for summer holidays at our beloved Camp Otter Space, where we are making the next generation of memories each and every day.

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