For these Tupper Lakers, camp is just across the street
Throughout 2019, in celebration of Adirondack Life’s 50th anniversary, we’re sharing an article per week from our archives—one for each year since 1970. In 2012, Lisa Foderaro reported on a community of Tupper Lakers who spend summers at a waterfront campground just down the road from their homes.
Sparks of late-afternoon light bounced off Little Wolf Pond, where children played a ﬁnal round of Marco Polo. The smell of grilled meat wafted through the birch trees. The whine of a Jet Ski rose in the distance. For Rick Pickering, looking relaxed in khaki shorts and bare feet, the scene on the waterfront here has framed his summer idyll for a decade.
From Memorial Day to Labor Day, he and his teenage son, along with their dachshund and Lhasa Apso, live in a cushy camper outﬁtted with air-conditioning and a 32-inch ﬂat-screen TV.
Unlike most summer vacation spots, Pickering’s is a Frisbee toss from his primary residence—literally. His house is about 50 yards across Little Wolf Road from his camper, so close that he can see when his lawn is getting scraggly or a package is by the front door. “They used to tease me,” he said of fellow campers in the town park on Little Wolf. “But most of them are just up the road too.”
Of the 18 campers who last summer signed up for a full season at the town campground, only one couple had traveled from outside Tupper Lake. The others, like Pickering, take advantage of the fact that their hometown is, by any measure, a vacation paradise, with mountain scenery and bracing lakes that draw visitors from hundreds of miles away. They are more than happy, then, to load pots and spices, books and DVDs, dogs and pet birds, into their RVs and campers and relocate to the lakefront for a few weeks or the whole summer.
With running water, weekly garbage pick up and cable TV, the experience is hardly roughing it. And life does not exactly stop: a school bus collects children during the ﬁrst half of June, at 7:10 a.m., while many adults set alarm clocks to rise for jobs. Yet for the campers, who range from young families to older couples, spending the season right on Little Wolf seems a world away from their year-round homes and usual routines.
“It’s different being in the camper,” explained Pickering, an aide at the state-run Sunmount Developmental Center, in Tupper Lake. “It’s like being on vacation, except you get up and go to work. But then you’re back here and it’s beautiful.”
A deep sense of community runs through the campground, forged from shared experiences that are somehow more vivid when they unfold out of doors. Those experiences create memories that lure people back: the otherworldly call of the loon, the paperbacks passed from one campsite to the next, the inﬁnite variety of sunsets. “Right there by that mountain,” said Carol Zepf, a camper whose site sits close to the water, pointing to where the sun would soon drop down. “It is stunning. It never disappoints.”
But there are challenges too, from swarms of mosquitoes at dusk to sudden storms that blow off the lake. For the past three years, Zepf, 73, and her ﬁancé, Jim Thompson, 79, have come for the entire summer, parking their circa-1970 trailer—19 feet long by seven feet wide—under the same pine tree. Last summer, during a squall, their canoe rolled up the beach and onto the grass before lodging between two trees near their site. The couple’s trailer was rocking so hard that they took refuge in Thompson’s pickup.
Sitting at their picnic table inside a screen enclosure, the couple talked about the late-spring gales the way locals in Provence speak of the fearsome mistral. “The winds of Little Wolf are famous,” said Thompson, a retired Presbyterian minister from Latham, outside Albany. “Everything has to be tied down. This is probably my third or fourth screen tent in ﬁve years, but you get used to it.”
Their neighbors, Jim and Sherry Bradley, of Tupper Lake, also wrestle with the elements. “That’s some of the entertainment,” joked Jim, a 55-year-old town native whose camper sports a satellite dish and indoor-outdoor refrigerators. “As soon as you see wind coming across the lake, we’ll run and help people take down their awnings.”
The Bradleys seem to dote on Zepf and Thompson. Without being asked, Jim, a barrel-chested millwright with a long beard, ﬁxed a broken step leading to the couple’s trailer. He also gave them a wrought-iron ﬁrewood holder for their site. “When they know we’re coming, Jim will buy and stack up ﬁrewood by our ﬁreplace,” Zepf said. “You almost feel adopted.”
For all the neighborliness, camping families and couples try to respect each other’s privacy, settling into their own routines. Some look forward to nights out—perhaps dinner at Red Fox Restaurant, then a show at Pendragon Theatre in Saranac Lake. Others give their Weber grills a daily workout, making runs to Shaheen’s Market for provisions.
Tom Proulx, a retired police ofﬁcer, and his wife, Connie, serve up the usual summer fare—hot dogs, hamburgers, grilled chicken and potato salad. But a couple of times a season, when their children and six grandchildren come for dinner, they dust off their turkey fryer and enjoy an 18-pound bird under the stars. “It feeds 10 of us, easy,” said Proulx, a Tupper Lake native who parks his 26-foot camper at Little Wolf from late May to early September.
Everyone has a slightly different relationship to home. There are those who dash back twice a day to check on things, while a few like to sever ties, pretending that they really are many miles away. Pickering belongs to the latter group. He even has his mail held at the post ofﬁce. “I was in there a month ago,” he said, looking over his shoulder toward home.
By contrast, Jim Bradley’s mother, 75-year-old Rosella, who has her own camper at the lake, goes home every day. “I like to get the mail and listen to my answering machine,” she explained, smoothing a red-and-white checked tablecloth outside her camper.
Pets are another conundrum. Rosella shares her camper with Jeb, a cockatiel, and Angel Marie, a Yorkshire terrier. But her daughter-in-law, Sherry, prefers to make house calls, stopping twice a day to care for her and Jim’s golden retriever, cat and snake.
Either way, though, pet owners save on the cost of boarding their animals. And in a town that just won approval from the Adirondack Park Agency for a luxury four-season resort, the campers are increasingly grateful for Little Wolf’s affordable fees. The town of Tupper Lake, which maintains 52 vehicle campsites (518-359-3000, tupper-lake.com), charges local residents $1,100 for the entire season. (There’s a $100 surcharge for out-of-town campers and an extra $50 for vehicles outﬁtted with air-conditioning.)
“It’s a great deal,” said Proulx, who brings his Shih Tzu along to the campground for the summer. “It’s a lot cheaper than if you were going to the state campgrounds. You’re right on the water. It’s quiet at night. It’s just like being in the forest.”