photograph by Lisa Bramen
Being neither sheik nor oligarch, and yachtless, I had always figured vacationing on a private island wasn’t in the cards. Then, after I moved to the Adirondack foothills in 2005, I learned about the state-run campsites on the islands peppering Lake George, which—for $28 a night—allow us commoners the chance to live like rusticated Kardashians for a while.
There’s a catch: island sites are some of the most popular in the Adirondack Park, particularly the ones small enough for a single party. You have to be quick—and lucky—to book one online the second they become available. You also need, if not a yacht, some sort of boat to transport yourself and your gear to the island.
Last summer, I finally got my chance, thanks to my friend Heather. More accurately, thanks to Heather’s father, Harold “Hal” Odell, whom I never got to meet.
Hal had booked the campsite more than a year before, taking advantage of a pandemic-related loophole and a bit of mysterious luck. Not long after, what he thought might be COVID turned out to be lung cancer. He died in June 2021, at the age of 73.
Hal had been camping on the islands since moving to Lake George in the ’80s. Back then there was no Internet. “If you were a local dude,” Heather says, “you just called up [the ranger station on] Glen Island and said, ‘Hey, I’m coming out tomorrow,’” and they would let you know what was available.
Born in Queens in 1947 and raised in Pennsylvania, Hal fell in love with Lake George on family vacations as a child. After college he moved to the Adirondacks and bought a pair of discount gas stations, in Ray Brook and Malone. The latter is where he met Heather’s mom, Paula. A few years later, they sold the gas stations and eventually landed in Lake George, where Hal became a sales rep for Coca-Cola. Heather credits his personable nature for Lake George being a Coke town in a Pepsi region.
They weren’t affluent, but Hal ensured the family always had a boat—christened The Guppy—to facilitate their island-camping habit. “It barely got us where we wanted to go, but it did the job,” Heather says.
These annual expeditions grew in complexity, and gear, each year: Water skis. An inflatable mattress pump (“That really upped everybody’s game,” Heather says). One year they brought along the camping version of the proverbial kitchen sink.
After retiring from Coke, Hal became a bus driver for the special needs program in the Lake George schools. “He was like a celebrity bus driver,” Heather says. “He loved being a bus driver and the community loved him.” When he got sick, the kids made him get-well signs, and a parade with state police cars and school buses drove past his house.
Growing up, Heather was “hyper-aware” that she lived in a place where other people vacationed, which at the time was a mixed blessing. “In my teen years it felt like I lived in a fishbowl,” she says. After high school she studied and then worked abroad in France, and pictured her future in New York City or San Francisco. But life instead led her back to the Adirondacks, where she and her husband, Chris, are educators living in Lake Placid. She says she’s thankful to have grown up where she did. “When I’m on the lake, it feels like home.”
She and Chris carried on the camping tradition with their two kids, bringing them out to whichever Lake George island the grandparents had booked. As Hal and Paula got older and mobility became an issue, Hermit became the favorite, in part for its even terrain. Every fall, it was a game for each of them to sit in front of their computers and see who could snap up the prime spots.
When COVID first hit in spring 2020, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) closed the campgrounds and canceled reservations. To compensate, the DEC allowed people to book reservations for 2021. Somehow, Hal got wind of this the day before it was officially announced, which was how he wound up with two weeks blocked off on Hermit and Watch Islands in the middle of summer.
After her father’s death, Heather knew he wouldn’t want his lucky reservation to go unused. She invited my family to join hers for a couple of nights on Hermit Island.
The only watercraft we had between us were a couple of kayaks, a canoe and an inflatable flamingo. Pontoon rentals were out of our price range, so we hired a water taxi, captained by a tanned retiree named Buzz, to drop us off on Hermit.
We had a dreamy weekend. Our kids floated and fished and played card games. We paddled over to Watch Island for a picnic, seeing as that was ours, too. We played Trivial Pursuit and drank beer and drove our in-joke of the weekend into the ground—the one about a person we knew who had insisted the sun sets over the east side of Lake George.
After the sun went down—in the west—and the kids went to sleep, we stayed up drinking by the fire and talking, the conversation eventually turning to Heather’s dad. She played some of his favorite music on her phone, including “A Song for You” by Leon Russell. Then she pulled out a container of her father’s ashes.
We followed her around the island with our head lamps, slightly drunk and awkward, while she sprinkled discreet little handfuls of ashes here and there. No one said much. But the soulful music, the smell of woodsmoke, the stars and the lapping waters combined into a fitting tribute to a man who found joy in the simple pleasures this place afforded. It might have been the most moving service I’ve had the honor to attend.
A few weeks later, our families planned to meet up at Ausable Brewery, in Keeseville. When we got there, Heather was in the process of purchasing a used 1980s-era boat someone had parked there. It was nothing fancy, but it fit her budget and would do the job.
She named it The Guppy.