Although this beloved Fourth Lake resort has been in operation since 1895, when it was known as Camp Monroe, Vikings didn’t land here until 1945. That’s when Al Byrnilsen, who’d been hired to broker its sale, took one look around and fell in love. Byrnilsen’s father, Olaf—a transplant from Norway—didn’t share that rose-colored view, worrying that it was foolish to take on a property that had seen better days and had no running water or electricity. But Al’s heart was hooked, and so he updated the old hotel, surrounded it with cabins and welcomed summerloads of guests.
When Al was ready to retire, in 1983, he turned the place over to his son and daughter-in-law, Rolf and Jan, who’d fallen in love on the grounds themselves. The two never had kids of their own, but instead nurtured broods of happy campers. Jan, a grade-school teacher during the off-season, first came to the camp as a children’s counselor; Rolf was the jokester who led campfire singalongs and taught generations to water-ski on his Boston Whaler—belting out “here we gooooo” at the start of every ride.
Rolf’s nephew Andy Dungey now owns the place along with his siblings—and that tenure started with a love story too. Andy’s parents met here in 1947, when his mom was cooking and waitressing at her father’s retreat. She and her friends would hang out on the dock after work, and her husband-to-be would canoe by with his crew to eyeball the pretty girls. One day the young Romeo got up the gumption to dive in to say hello and, says Andy, “He swam right into her heart.” They celebrated their marriage at camp, and their wedding portrait still hangs on the original hotel’s living room wall.
Love and tradition are at the heart of everything at Brynilsen’s, from the weekly reel-to-reel movie nights, to gabfests over donuts, to potlucks on the sundeck. What was once the hotel is now the kitchen, dining room and other common areas. In true Adirondack style, the place is packed with books, photographs, boardgames and memorabilia—right down to an antique upright piano with ivories just waiting to be tickled. Outside, there’s a bell that calls guests to activities and a hand-carved totem pole topped with a horn-helmeted King Olaf. On the office chalkboard Andy writes a list of happenings, always followed by an order to “Enjoy the Day!” The only thing missing is screentime: no wi-fi, no televisions. But no one misses that stuff very much.
Families come back to the same cabins on the same weeks decade after decade, their numbers growing with the years. (One of the oldest guests has been visiting since the 1930s, when he and his mother traveled to camp along an old teeth-rattling corduroy road.) Life-long friendships and romances have been born here. And even babies: 28-year-old Meg O’Neill, whose clan has been coming to Brynilsen’s for 60 years, made her debut appearance during her family’s annual week at camp. Once Rolf got word from the hospital, he announced the happy news down at the dock.
“This has been one of the most formative, important places in our lives,” Meg says, surrounded by a circle of cousins, aunts and uncles—from California, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Buffalo—who throw in their own favorite memories: square-dance nights in duded-up outfits, trips to watch the bears at the dump, swimming to the island, wisecracking at Monday-morning donut hours, bringing a boyfriend or girlfriend to see if they pass the “camp test” before the relationship goes any further. And if you come another week, and ask a different family, you’ll get a version of the same multigenerational love story. “It’s so natural. Kids end up doing the same things their parents did,” says Ryan Jermyn, of Rochester, whose son is a fifth-generation camper. “It’s fun watching them do what we used to do.”
Another tie that binds is Saint Olaf Chapel. In 1953, the Brynilsens donated an acre of land for the church, which was built with the help of volunteers and donations. It’s a replica of a 14th-century Norwegian chapel, with a Gothic altar, 15-foot wooden crucifix, and animal carvings among the rafters. There are still services from late June to Labor Day, though Andy says he sometimes has to scramble to bring in a borrowed minister.
Andy is used to scrambling. He starts opening camp for the new season every May—plumbing, electricity, spring cleaning and more, first by himself and then with the help of relatives. It’s a tall job: the resort has grown to 18 cabins and there’s always something in need of repair. “We don’t have a long season,” Andy says. “Most of the money goes back into maintenance.” And taxes. It might seem like old Olaf was right about the foolishness of the investment, after all. But Andy still sees the property with his grandfather’s besotted eyes. “We’ll never get rich, but we don’t care. As long as it stays in the family.”
Sadly, that might not happen. Andy, who is 64 this year and ready to retire, reports that the camp “is in a state of transition as to who will be running it in the future.”
Find Brynilsen’s Viking Village (315-357-3150, www.oldforge-ny.com/viking) at 2387 South Shore Road, between Inlet and Old Forge.