The Lake Umbagog Blues

by John Delach

I can’t believe I’m here. Didn’t I vow that I’d never do anything again that the Army made me do. That included being awakened at insanely early hours, playing with guns, marching, climbing telephone poles and camping. But, no! Here I am staring out from inside of a tent while rain generously falls into our camp grounds on the New Hampshire side of Lake Umbagog.

Except for carrying a gun, I’m with three other jackasses, my buddy, Mike Cruise, who talked me into this mess and to whom I’m currently not speaking and two guys he knows who organized this outing, Lou, a yenta and a general pain–in-the-ass and Brubaker, our self-appointed leader who thinks he’s a Green Beret or Navy Seal and tries to treat us like plebes. He carries a shot gun that he affectionately calls “my alley cleaner” and insists that we paddle our two canoes this morning in the rain across the lake to our next campsite on the Maine side.

I prefer to wait, but Lou is Brubaker’s toady and Mike put this whole thing in motion so the next thing I know, the vote is three to one in favor of pressing on and I’m alternately paddling a loaded canoe in miserable weather or bailing it out. This is insane. I could easily be home at our camp in Marlow, NH watching television, reading, playing a game or taking a nap. Damn, that’s what my wife and Mike’s wife are doing at this same moment. (Later, Mary Ann tells me, “We thought of you and Mike out there in the rain having to schlep tents and gear and we agreed, ‘rather you than us.”)

One evening, following another of Lou’s horrible meals, Brubaker assigns Mike and me to KP. As we un-ecologically wash our pots, plates and utensils in the here-to-fore pristine waters, we watch in horror, the birth of a nation as hordes of mosquitoes rise-up from the shoreline attacking us with the viciousness of a sworn enemy. We hurry to finish our task, collect our gear and retreat to our tent, spraying the entrance after zipping it closed.

This all happened in the summer of 1999, but, I didn’t think about writing my story until something similar appeared in the August 4, 2016  Escapes section of the New York Times entitled, Paddling Through a North Woods Refuge, by John Motyka.

Take my word for it, Motyka left out a good bit of reality as he waxed poetically about Lake Umbagog (pronounced um-BAY-gog). Oh sure, there are lots of loons and their call is haunting, moose sightings are not uncommon and, with luck, we saw eagles. But nowhere in his writing does Motyka discuss, much less even suggest the existence of this creature that controls the lake before dawn and after dusk, the mosquito.

Motyka also omits any description of the sanitary facilities available at the camp site. So shall I, but let the potential camper beware.

Of course, Motyka didn’t have to contend with Lou and Brubaker. Lou had no problem indulging my cigars or Irish whiskey until I cut him off. In return he treats us to his cooking until we also cut him off from serving his abominations,  especially his breakfast special, and his piece-de-resistance, eggs and Wolf’s Kasha. He brags about it for days and when he ultimately sets the finished product before us, Mike and I look at each other silently asking the question, “Have we been conned or his he nuts?” The look of pleasure on his face is not that of a practical joker but rather, a man pleased with his creation. “Yup, he’s nuts.”

Our last campsite is on an island where we stay for two days. Brubaker explains that a ranger warned that a female bear with a yearling is possibly occupying the island. Great: This is when females are at their most dangerous as they still protect the cub even though the cub is active and could easily be attracted to our camp. “Don’t worry; my alley cleaner is ready and so am I.”

“Swell, Brubaker, the great white hunter.”

The island is in sight of our final destination, the campsite where we parked our cars. On the first morning, after we arrive, Mike and I have had enough of Lou, his cooking and Brubaker. We  announce, “We’re going to paddle to the car and drive to the closest town, Errol, NH (pronounced Erl) for breakfast.”

I don’t remember if they protested but I know I didn’t care. The local café serves an Errol McMuffin. I could have eaten three. When we return, all Lou and Brubaker want to know is what we brought for them. We are savvy enough to bring them some cold beer and two Earl McMuffins. Their need for fast food ends the seemingly endless cycle of their trying to be the tough guys.

Fortunately, real or conjured up, we never see a bear and the next day we say our good-byes to the two of them. “Next year, let’s do this again,” Brubaker remarks. “You guys ain’t half bad and I know a trip we can make on the Delaware River.”

“Fantastic,” I reply.

As we pull away, I ask Mike, “You ever hear that old joke about the woman who learns how to politely respond to her neighbors’ exaggerations about their kids’ achievements?”

“No.” he replies.

“She learns to say ‘fantastic’ instead of ‘bullshit”