12 Ways to Love Your Lake House
Whether you call it a cottage or a camp, here are a dozen tips for getting the most out of your home away from home.
- By: Virginia M. Wright
Maine's reputation for rocky coasts and lobster dinners overshadows the fact that the state has more than 2,500 lakes and ponds dotted with thousands of cottages and rustic camps (camp is Maine-speak for cabin). These lake houses represent a distinctively different summer vacation experience than the one offered by their seaside cousins. With some obvious exceptions, lake villages are rural and small with few, if any, of the tee-shirt shops, pricey boutiques, and gourmet restaurants that fill coastal towns. For that reason, a lake vacation means entire days spent by the water, on the water, or in the water (and unlike their ocean counterparts, swimmers don't sprint out of the water screaming about aching frozen ankles). That's a lot of time in one place, so how you maintain and outfit your camp is important. With that in mind, we offer these rules for getting the most out of your lake house.
1 A dock is more than a place to tie a boat.
A dock is a diving platform, sunning spot, fishing perch. It's where you sip your first cup of coffee in the morning or set up your lawn chair for a long read in the afternoon. "A dock is your summer deck," says Justin Ford of Rockport-based On The Water in Maine, which manages lake and ocean property rentals. "It lets you get right down on the water." In other words, if you have a lake house, you must have a dock or float.
"There are so many types of dock systems," Ford says, "and Maine companies are coming out with some revolutionary products. Some are very elaborate with modular accessories like barbecue platforms and picnic tables that you clamp onto the side like Legos."
Docks and floats typically require a permit from the local code enforcement office, as do changes in their size or configuration. They require special care in Maine, where ice will crush them if left in the water over the winter. Pulling them to shore takes some effort. Some camp owners hire a tractor or ramp truck to do the heavy work. Others schedule a float party when neighbors help each other, then enjoy a farewell barbecue together.
"We've tried everything," says Dave Hatch, who built the ten-by-ten foot float at his Damariscotta camp. "The lake drops during the summer, so there is a four-foot bank that the float has to come up in the fall. We've tried hooking it to a truck, and we've used a block and tackle. Strong backs and lots of grunting and groaning work best. Everybody comes up - both of my boys, their wives, and anyone else who is around - and we drag it onto shore."
Floating the dock in spring is easy by comparison, Hatch says, but every family member's presence is still required. "The water is higher so it's just a matter of pushing it," he says, adding with a hint of pride, "Our cottage is the first to get the float in after ice-out in April."
2 Beware city slickers who get a bit, uh, loony in the woods.
Several years ago Terry Bregy was awakened at 2 a.m. by a frantic phone call from the New Jersey couple renting his camp on Norton Pond in Lincolnville. The local teenagers were out on the pond, they said, making hooting and yodeling noises that were frightening their children.
"It never occurred to me that someone would not know what a loon was," Bregy says. He patiently explained the eerie tremelos and wails of Maine's beloved aquatic birds, but the couple wasn't buying. "You're being wise with me," the mother accused.
After Bregy fielded an almost identical complaint from another New Jersey couple a few weeks later - "they said it was very unfortunate that our neighbors thought that kind of thing was funny" - he placed a CD of loon calls in the camp. Families with children were required to listen to it upon arrival. "Especially," Bregy says, "if they were from New Jersey."
3 Speaking of wildlife . . .
Animals are a fact of lake life. Some, like deer, moose, and, yes, loons, are a joy to have around. Others like possums, raccoons, skunks, mice, and squirrels, can be a nuisance.
Camps, with their crawl spaces and uninsulated crannies, are especially accommodating to these little critters. Some property owners keep a live cage trap on hand for an annual spring eviction. Trash receptacles with tight-fitting lids will discourage skunks and raccoons on late-night raids.
Nancy Wilcoxon learned the hard way to landscape with deer-resistant plants. The white crab apple tree she planted her first year at the lake is now "a tall skinny stick with nubs." Still, she doesn't begrudge the deer. "They're fun to watch," she says.
Tip: keep a pair of binoculars and a bird or wildlife field guide at camp.
4 Don't drink the water.
Many cabins take their water directly from the lake. It's fine for showers and washing dishes and laundry, but it might look and taste funny or even be contaminated with chemicals or parasites like Giardia lamblia. Stocking the refrigerator with bottles of drinking water is, therefore, a common camp ritual.
New technologies may soon make bottled water unnecessary. "It's now becoming affordable to buy treatment devices that allow you to drink the lake water so you never have to worry about running out," Ford says. Some of these devices use chlorine, iodine, or UV light to disinfect drinking water. Others use a filter to improve the water's taste, odor, and appearance. Depending on the system, prices range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars.
5 Head off road rage.
Shared private camp roads can be a major source of discontent, often resulting in lawsuits. "The biggest mistake people make when they buy a camp is not doing enough research into how the road will be managed," Ford says. "They fall in love with a beautiful place by the lake, and they buy it, only to discover one or two neighbors don't want to pay for maintenance even though the law requires them to. Or the family that visits the camp two or three times a year may not feel they should pay the same as the family that uses the road year-round."
Maintaining a lakeside road is not just a matter of access. Road erosion is the leading source of pollution to lakes and streams, turning the water brown (from floating soil particles) or green (from a phosphorus-fed algae bloom). Unstopped, these problems can fill the shoreline and kill some fish species.
The best tool for managing camp roads is a road association, formed by the property owners themselves. An association collects dues for maintenance and repairs and establishes an impartial means for resolving problems. Visit the Maine Bureau of Land and Water Quality Web site for camp road maintenance tips, including how to form a road association: maine.gov/dep/blwq/ docwatershed/camp/index.htm
6 Turn off the TV.
There is by no means widespread agreement among cottage owners on the television question, but those who banned TVs spoke most appreciatively of the natural surroundings, their wildlife visitors, and the time they spent on the lake with family and friends.
"No TV," David Hatch says. "That's the way it was when my grandparents built our camp in 1948 and it's true today. If it's raining, do puzzles or play games. We've got a whole closet full of games - Monopoly, cards, Scrabble, Risk, Battleship. The rest of the time is to be spent outdoors or in the lake."
7 Indulge your whimsy.
People are naturally less fussy about furnishings when it comes to their lake house. Economics is almost certainly a factor - who furnishes a rustic cabin with expensive new furniture and appliances? - but a breezy summer spirit also prevails. Comfy but well-used armchairs, faded braided rugs, and whiskey bottle lamps find a second life in a summer cabin.
A pink oven range called to the Bregys when they bought their Norton Pond camp several years ago (they have since sold the place). "We'd never seen a pink oven before, and my wife adored it," Bregy recalls. "We decided to match the other appliances. I took the refrigerator and the over/under washer/dryer to an auto body shop and had them painted Mary Kaye pink. We installed a countertop with pink boomerangs on it. We bought a pink retro radio and we had pink baskets hanging from the beams of the open pine ceiling."
In another creative burst, Bregy installed shelves between the upright two-by-fours on the cabin walls and filled them with the thousands of paperback books he'd inherited from his parents. "They served as insulation, decoration, and inspiration," he says. "It looked really nice."
Unfortunately, the humid environment was not kind to the books. "After three or four years they started smelling musty," Bregy confesses, "so we had to take them out."
8 Stock and pack as if you were going to an island.
Often tucked down dirt roads miles from any town big enough to host a supermarket, lake camps can feel as remote as an island house. When it comes to packing for a visit, it helps to think like an islander (especially if your camp is on an island in the lake).
Carl and Marge Hommel, who split their year between Frye Island on Sebago Lake and Florida, have equipped their lake house with its own set of everyday basics like pots and pans, utensils, tools, and grill. To reduce trips off island, they shop for a week's worth of groceries at a time.
"We do a lot of things to get ready for the move up there," Carl says. "We ship dozens of boxes containing things we need, and our kids help us load and unload. I have a computerized checklist of all the things that have to be done: turn off the power, turn off the water, suspend telephone service, etc."
Another tip: stock your camp with items you or your guests frequently forget, such as bathing suits, sweatshirts, beach towels, and sunscreen.
9 Monitor your septic system.
Few Maine lake houses are served by public sewers, and many older camps do not even have septic systems, relying instead on holding tanks which must be pumped frequently. Some towns require property owners to provide a copy of their agreement with a licensed tank pumper. Often such camps cannot be converted to year-round use because their lots are too small to accommodate the required septic system.
If the house does have a septic system, it, too, needs to be monitored. A failing septic system is a smelly problem anywhere, but sewage is especially harmful to lakes, rivers, and groundwater. Inspect the leach field for breakouts annually and have the tank pumped at least every three years.
10 Hire an off-season caretaker.
It's a good idea to hire someone to check on a shuttered cabin periodically during the winter, when heavy snow threatens roofs or, in the event of a break-in, rain and snow get inside causing damage that is more costly than anything that was stolen. "People feel more comfortable if they know someone is watching their property," says Mike Morin of M&S Caretaker Services, on Norway Lake in South Paris. "It's about peace of mind."
Morin holds the keys to about a dozen seasonal homes in western and southern Maine. "I do walk-throughs on a regular basis. I flush toilets if the power has been left on and check security inside and out. I e-mail digital pictures of the homes to the owners through the season." He shovels snow from roofs, performs handyman work, and watches for signs of pest infestation.
Justin Ford advises camp owners to have their road plowed even if no one is using it. "Contrary to popular belief, that's not so fire trucks can get in because it's very unlikely there will be a fire. The reason to do it is to make it look like someone is there and discourage thefts."
A Cottage Sitter, a device that looks like an answering machine, can detect and monitor temperature extremes, power failures, leaks, smoke, and break-ins, allowing the property owner to reduce caretaker visits. The devices cost between $350-$550.
11 Consider renting.
We know, we know. Renting is hardly a way to enjoy your very own lake house, but consider the Buxton retirees who are debating whether to sell their modest Lake Megunticook camp in Camden. Family ties to the camp stretch sixty years. The couple honeymooned there, and they spent part of every summer on the lake when their children were young.
"Because wealthy out-of-staters are paying whatever is asked for lakefront property, real estate taxes have become astronomical," the husband says. "The taxes on our camp are ten thousand dollars. That makes our two or three yearly visits pretty expensive on a per visit basis."
Buying or keeping a camp in this economic climate is "the dumbest financial decision one can make," he asserts. "It is easy to rent wonderful camps throughout Maine for whatever number of weeks one might want for the tiniest fraction of what it costs to own, maintain, insure, and pay taxes on a camp."
The couple also fears that the camp will become a source of discord between their adult children after they are gone. How will their heirs divvy up the maintenance costs when some will be able to visit more frequently than others? "As a lawyer, I saw that camp properties were the biggest source of dissension in the estates with which I was involved," the father says. The decision is up to you.
12 Keep the memories.
A camp log is guest book, diary, and "to do" list, all rolled into one. Over time, it becomes a piece of family history that makes for great reading when you're lazing in that hammock or watching rain fall on the lake.
The Hassons' camp log spans more than three decades and two camps on Schoodic Lake. The log has been a way for family members to not only record good times and observations, but also communicate about repairs that need the next visitor's attention. "It's fantastic to go back thirty-five years and read about everything from who was visiting to notes to the next person to check the pressure on the pump," Bob Hasson says. "It brings back a lot of positive feelings."
For more tips and to share your own lake house stories, click here.
- By: Virginia M. Wright