Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Looking for Love: Must Have a Lake, Loons, Moose, and Pine Trees


We welcome guest blogger Gwen Sayian - a writer who is deep in her hunt for the perfect woodsy getaway.


by Gwen Sayian gwsayian@hotmail.com 

Picking the right cottage/ camp is a challenge. It’s like finding the right person to share your life. You need someone who has all the right things, and few if any “bad” things. And of those “bad things”, you need to know you can live with them with eyes wide open.  

For the last few years, we’ve been toying with the idea of purchasing a cottage (“camp” I understand is the preferred term providing there are pine trees and moose).
We’ve been sailors for 40 years and we know salt water in all its renditions of cold fog, formidable seas as well as the whispered hiss of a boat as it moves through the quiet sea with barely a hint of a breeze to propel it. A glass of wine in the cockpit while enjoying a glorious sunset after a perfect sail on a perfect day is something that I will always treasure as one of the blessings of my life. But life is only so long and if you have dreamed of trying something else, you have to make it happen.

So begins our tale of finding a camp. My first experience with a lake house was when I was in high school the summer after my father died. I was the only child still at home and I suggested to my mother that we rent a cottage up north for a week. She was game for the idea and I was allowed to bring a rented canoe and a girlfriend. It was wonderful and an experience I still well remember. The hushed sunrises, the clean feeling of the lake water on your skin as you dry in the sun, the dull distinctive thud of a wooden paddle when it bumps the side of an aluminum canoe as you paddle, the slam of a wooden screen door as it bounces back to closed.

My husband had never experienced “camp” other than the Air Force kind and he was not eager for the idea until last summer. My daughter had surgery and we decided it was not a good idea to do an extended sailing trip, so I found a little cabin on a small lake just for the weekend, and he loved it! He loved the simplicity of life which is like sailing except without the work of trimming sails, pulling anchors, and navigation as our little cabin never moved in all the time we were there. The idea of a cabin as a new phase in our life was launched, pun intended.

We know we are not looking for a large open lake, the kind that is perfect for speed boats with tubing and water skiing as the focus for recreation. Kayaks are our preferred boat these days, so an interesting lake with multiple islands and coves to explore sounds about right. Our kids are older, no grandchildren yet, but realizing that at some point there might be little feet pattering around, a larger lake of at least 500 or more acres makes sense, just in case tubing does happen to evolve. How we’d ever pull a tube with a kayak, I don’t know but we’ll figure that out if the time comes.

We began, as most people would, with a Google search for lake houses in New Hampshire and Maine, and a dizzying variety of real estate websites popped up, all being the promised gateway to nirvana we sought in the woods. Thus began a new sport of geography trivia as we tried to pin point just where these properties were. A quick run to the car produced an old dog eared map followed by a thorough search of the house for the one and only magnifying glass, which was last used to find a lost contact lens back when Regan was in office.

We quickly realized the antiquity of our ways, and jumped to working multiple open web sites on the computer using Google Earth to identify lakes, state environmental sites for the size of the lakes, water quality, and the issue of invasive weed control.  Once we figured out the property we wanted to investigate, we played the challenging game of would you open the correct window on the first try for the information you want, or would you go from one web site to the next always seeming to miss the one you were actually looking for.

Word to the wise here: be wary of the unexplainable desire to search Google Earth for your house. It will only lead you into the time wasting but rather pleasantly entertaining game of “Where’s Waldo” as you search the surrounding areas for inconsequential landmarks like the convenience store or the neighbor’s house with the barking dog and illegal kennel in the backyard. Add to the collection of open web sites a few lake association and Facebook pages (check it out, as a number of lakes have them), and you’ve got a great game of jeopardy with lots of open web sites all collecting at the top and bottom of your computer screen, just waiting for you to guess which is which. Of course, if you have enough computers and the band width for it, you can spice up the experience and open each web site on different lap top to get a mission control experience. It will also impress anyone else who happens to walk by with your computing savvy and obvious importance.

Using those tools, we have been navigating the lakes, ponds and puddles of New Hampshire and Maine and building an enviable local knowledge without ever stepping out of the house. Of course you do need to take a few field trips, which we have, because nothing compares to the feel of a place, and Google Earth can show you all, but doesn’t tell you just how bad a pig farm can smell.

We also needed to face the boringly commonplace reality of how much can we really afford. It is said life is a series of trade offs and how it applies to your search for heaven among the pine needles is poetic. For us, we wanted to stay within three hours of our home, which is in a metropolitan area. I’ve read it makes for better resale value, and is also good for minimizing road rage. We quickly found we couldn’t afford the picture perfect camp settled on a sandy beach with a dock, a green border of pine trees and a charmingly sparse lawn with a few clumps of green grass generously interrupted with scatterings of pine needles. Too rich for our budget.

So we faced the question; do we go for the weathered, sway- backed shack on the sandy strip of lake shore land with exposed interior wall studs and linoleum older than your grandparents, or should we jump for the cute as a button little house with 3 bedrooms, 2 baths, with a right of way to a so-so beach and “filtered” water view?  “Filtered water view’ means you can see the lake if the wind is blowing hurricane force and the trees are being bent in a perfect parting, like Moses and the Red Sea. These questions are clearly determined by your energy level, expertise and if your brother in law is a decent carpenter who happens to be laid off.

Knowing that trade offs were in our future, we made a list: seasonal or year round; view or not so much; loons or are just ducks ok; dock access or beautiful sandy beach. By the way, if loons are a factor in your search you can find that on the web too, usually at an Audubon site. Linger for while when you're there as it will provide with you with renewed energy in your quest.

So this is where we stand at this moment, teetering at the brink of falling into conditional love, with our list of acceptable trade-offs, and the undeniable knowledge that our lists will mean nothing when we find our true love.

Web sites to help in your search:

* www.googleearth.com Use it to find your way around and identify lakes you might want to seek property on.
* www.Mainelistings.com for Maine real estate. You can enter the name of a body of water you want to look for property on
* www.trulia.com for New Hampshire real estate. You’ll need a local town name to search. There are other web sites but I found this one to be the most comprehensive.
* www.des.nh.gov/ Go to “Lake Quality Water Reports” and then “Summary Data.” You’ll find a listing of all the lakes with depths, fish populations, water quality etc. There is a companion page which explains the definitions.
* www.lakesofmaine.org An easy to use site for all information about a specific lake
* Web pages for lake associations. It will give you a good feel for the general tone of the community, and any specifics like no digging holes in the beach large enough for small children to disappear into.
* Face Book. Many lakes have Face Book pages. Inspiring pictures of sunsets, good information and a fine way to find out just who in the group knows everyone else’s business.
* Snow shoes if you visit in the winter, and mud boots if you visit in the spring.

Stay tuned.

Thank you to Cabin World for letting me set-a-spell and weave my tale.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Antidote for Christmas Cabin Fever

A view of the whole mantle. (We hand-carved the trout under the mantle)
Today all the Christmas decorations came down. Among them a mantle diorama of a cabin scene.

Our first winter season after buying our little cabin we had a severe case of cabin fever. It is so remote that we can't get there in winter, so we created a little 'cabin scene' to envision what it would be like if we could go there.

For the trees, we use white pine cones, the tips of branches from spruce (our Christmas tree), and any other shrubs that are still green, like juniper. We lean them up against the white wall. Then we set stones here and there to create the look of huge rocks, and use a small 7" round mirror for a pond scene. We add 'moss' (that model railroaders use) for the bushes.





We place miniature animals here and there, including bears, some moose, fox, and rabbits...even a house cat. Later we added a kayak and a canoe, including tiny paddles.

The miniature cabin even has interior 'lights' you can turn on when children are visiting.We know it's corny, but it really did take the edge off that first winter, and we've enjoyed it every year since.




The cabin lit up - after the rest of the diorama had been taken down.




Sunday, December 29, 2013

Advice on Starting the Hunt for a Lake House

One of our winter-time neighbors is starting to think about buying a cottage on a lake. As she talks about why it would make sense for her family, ideas fill my mind. What to tell her? What not to tell her?

In the end, I had three things to say.

1. Every lake place has plusses and minuses. You will know when you see 'the place' that's meant for you because it will rank just right on the most important features. It will 'speak to you'.

2. Keep an open mind as you look, because setting out to see places for sale may uncover other places that are good candidates. Take the side roads and explore. If there are people around, ask if there are other places for sale. Property owners may just be waiting for someone to ask. Leave a note in the door if you see your 'dream cottage' unoccupied and would like to make an offer. You never know!

3. Plumbing, plumbing, plumbing. Try, if you can, to have more than one bathroom if you plan on entertaining guests for any length of time. Add an outdoor shower too. They are heavenly.

Lastly, I should have said to her that she should try to get a feel for the culture of the lake community. Let's face it, there are party lakes, with lots of pontoon boats, and there are quiet off-the-grid lakes where silence and bird calls reign.

Happy Hunting!



Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Bathing in Lichen

In the woods, bird calls are often the loudest sounds we hear. They are a musical feast, a constant conversation in the trees that continues all summer from earliest dawn long into the night.

Our cabin is surrounded by tall hemlocks, white and red pines, and spruce trees, with a few maples and birches mixed in. We have many bird visitors, but most of the time we never see them because they stay high up in the trees. We know they are there because we can hear them calling. Fortunately I enjoy picking out the bird calls, driving everyone around me crazy as I name the bird that is singing. My husband is now used to this after more than 30 years of marriage. Even when I'm in the suburbs walking with friends, I want to say the name of the bird call I'm hearing, even if I'm in mid-sentence. It's an obsession, I admit it. And most of the time, I manage to keep it to myself, unless it's a Wood Thrush. When I hear that bird calling, I have to stop and listen, and create enough silence around me to hear its beautiful timid song.

A couple of weeks ago a warbler was calling in 'front' of our place near the water. I didn't know its call (warbler calls are the biggest challenge for me). I wandered out to investigate, mug of coffee in hand, and strained my eyes high into the branches of a white pine festooned with light green bearded lichen. About 20 feet up, I could only make out the outline of a bird flitting about inside a long thick beard of lichen. It seemed to be taking a bath in it! That was the key to identifying that warbler, a northern parula. I didn't get a good luck at him at all. But Sibley's guide revealed the parula loves to nest in and near bearded lichens. And then I checked the call on-line (Cornell website) and 'bingo', confirmed it was a northern parula.

Northern Parula in some Bearded Lichen
Blackburnian Warbler with his distinctive orange throat
 Another day this week my husband caught a rare low-altitude sighting of a Blackburnian Warbler with his apricot throat coloring. Doublechecking his calls, we confirmed who he was. We also spotted a Hairy Woodpecker and his mate pecking at a red pine that is on the decline. All summer I'd been missing the call of the Black-Throated Green Warbler, and this week his song started up. I wonder where he's been?

These days of early July we hear the songs of a Winter Wren, a Song Sparrow, Robins, Pine Warblers, and other Warblers I haven't figured out yet. The ravens and crows continue their long standing turf wars. Bluejays, nut hatches, and chickadees pass by with a few remarks. Then at dusk each night a mysterious bird flies through the forest with insistent chipping and then a kind of freeet call - and is gone. Then late at night when the weather is fine, the loons call on the lakes nearby.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Summer's Fanfare

The summer solstice at the cabin is magical. The longest day is followed by a lovely evening with a waxing moon rising over the water, then hours of lingering astronomical twilight. Later the moon stands guard over the forest and lake until earliest dawn. Darkness never really falls; light and shadow wander through the woods. Accompanying this spectacle is the chorus of frogs in the early hours of the night, then the dawn chorus of birds. Nature's fanfare for the opening of summer.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Raking the Forest



We are up at the cabin and it is very dry. Northern New England is stuck in a high pressure weather system. Fire danger warnings are up; no one is making campfires.

One of our neighbors at the lake tells me she always rakes away from her cabin in spring to clear out the dead leaves and pine needles. She does it to lower fire danger.

We never rake at the cabin. We let the pine needles, birch and beech leaves pile up as they always have, decomposing and hopefully enriching the soil of the forest floor.

But to each his own. Once a year, my sister rakes the forest around her cabin in the Northwest. I laugh at this, but she swears that it allows the moss to thrive. I also recently learned that another neighbor here at the lake also rakes the forest in spring. Gets up all the pine needles, and pine cones...from the driveway and the mossy rocks.

To me, the forest has not had rakers for thousands and thousands of years. Does it need it? I suppose if one wants to cultivate moss it makes sense. And I suppose if one has a staff to do it, it would be a nice thing to have done. But when I'm at the cabin contemplating such things, a certain woodsy slothfulness takes hold.



Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Moose in the Morning



Photo from Pinterest - http://pinterest.com/pin/265219865527729715/

 Wonderful poem by May Sarton, found today on NPR (and website) of The Writer's Almanac. You can link to it here  and listen to it recited.

Moose in the Morning

Oh wild and gentle beast,
Immense antlered shape,
This morning in the meadow!
Like something ancient, lost
And found now, promise kept,
Emerging from the shadow,
Emerging while I slept—
Wilderness and escape!
You set me free to shirk
The day's demanding work
And cast my guilt away.
You make a truant of me
This moose-enchanted day
When all I can is see,
When all I am is this
Astonishment and bliss.