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How We Came to Norway Pines

In an essay excerpted from the new Wildsam Field Guides: Maine Coast, author Susan Conley remembers the offbeat encounter that turned an old summer camp into a cherished family escape.

Norway Pines, author Susan Conley's family camp in Phippsburg, featured in Wildsam Field Guides: Maine Coast
Photo by Emily Conley
By Susan Conely
From our June 2022 issue

Our Maine cottage sits above the ocean on a granite ledge where you can see for miles on the inky horizon. It’s a modest, tight, white clapboard house with sturdy bones and green trim around its windows that keep watch for nor’easters. Like most Maine cottages, it has a little bit of understated Yankee razzle in its clean lines and audacity to perch so close to the ocean these last 150 years. We added the small bathroom off the kitchen in 1978 — lock when you’re in there. Don’t mind how the screen door slams and the floors all creak. The well was dug 100 years ago, and it’s almost gone dry this week, so do mind how long you run the faucet.

The story goes that when my dad left Maine for college, he fell for a city girl who agreed to marry him as long as she never had to live in his home state. This was in 1962. Did they even have electricity up there yet? But Dad was a third-generation Mainer — a working-class boy from a river town called Bath — and the first person in his family to actually leave the state. Like most Mainers I know, he couldn’t stay away for long. He came back in 1969 with a wife and daughter. I was two. He told my mother what he loved most about Maine was the ocean, how you could hear the waves crash against the rocks on the shore. He wanted that for my mother. The sound of the sea at night. Maybe then she’d stay.

Bath was still a scrappy shipping town 10 miles from the sea, where you could smell salt water in the air. At one point, 21 shipyards hummed along its shores, and it ranked only behind Boston and New York in shipbuilding output. Today, people have certainly caught on. Because where else in Maine can you walk along the river to a natural-food grocer and a bakery and a family-owned pharmacy that sells ice cream next door? There’s even an unpretentious café where tourists and old-timers gather, and I swear the tattooed, pink-haired baristas here are the friendliest in the state. But back in the ’70s, when my dad returned, the town was still about ships and the pride of Bath-Built.

Excerpted with permission from the new Wildsam Field Guides: Maine Coast (Wildsam; Paperback, 128 pages; $20), out now.

If you followed the river south 10 miles, to the start of the Phippsburg peninsula, you ended up where the summer cottages were — shingled Capes, proud Saltboxes, and fancier, Tudor-looking things with turrets and gabled porches. But even if my parents had been able to scrape together the money they needed, finding a cottage in coastal Maine in the ’70s was already almost a fool’s errand.

Years passed. Then they heard from a friend of a friend about an old boys’ camp deep in the woods down a long dirt road in Westpoint — a fishing hamlet on one of Phippsburg’s narrow fingers in Casco Bay. The owner was the only daughter of the camp’s founders — apparently, a real piece of work. Stubborn, the friend said, with a thing out for developers. Thank God. No one was going to parcel up her 20 acres and subdivide it. She would sell only to a family.

The first time we met Helen, it was July of ’75. She stood on her green porch waiting for us with a fox stole hanging off her shoulders. I was eight, and I’d never seen someone wear a fur before. Much less in high summer. She was tiny, even in her black leather heels with the big button on the side. She had a soft, pale, powdered face and a warbly laugh that reminded me of a little songbird. She herded us into her ancient kitchen with the black potbellied stove and paraffin lanterns and served us strawberry ice cream in pink parfait glasses. It was then that she heard my mother’s name for the first time, a name passed down for generations through our family. Helen was aghast. “Thorne?” It was much too hard a name for a proper lady, she said and laughed the warbly laugh. Then she shook her head and thought for a moment before declaring, “From now on, I will only call you Rose.”

My 6-foot-tall mother was headstrong. I thought surely she’d balk at the mere suggestion of a name change. But no. It turns out that a Thorne can become a Rose overnight. It was then that I knew how much my parents wanted this place.

“And now,” Helen announced, looking a little elfin in her long, dark, silk party dress. “You must swim.” Which really meant my poor six-year-old brother and I had to climb into the freezing water and pretend to delight in the bracing cold.

We didn’t know much about navigating granite cliffs yet. Or swimming in rocky coves. We were beach people then — weekly renters on nearby Popham, with its miles of glorious dunes and sand; my mother, aka Rose, made me shower off as much as I could before getting in the car to meet Helen. My brother and I didn’t really feel like swimming, and our suits were out in the station wagon. Plus, it was starting to drizzle. But I didn’t have to look at my father to know the answer. We would swim.

Seven wide concrete steps led down the steep ledge to a black metal ladder bolted into the rock’s face. At high tide, the water came up almost to the top of the ladder, and this is where my brother and I hovered. We were fearful, at least I was, of the troughs inside the waves and the whitecaps that spilled over their own tops. But off we pushed into the churn, then dog-paddled in little circles while Helen clapped and laughed. It appeared we’d passed this portion of the audition.

It was true. She would only sell to a family. Other stipulations decreed that the family she sold to had to be from Maine. Check. And they must promise never to break up her 20 acres or separate the cottage from the woodshop with its pump for the well, or the concrete birdbaths, or narrow, wooden outhouses, or clubhouse in the woods. (My younger sister, who went by the alias “Koochbird” and was never seen without a toolbelt, would soon take ownership of that and hang her handmade sign over the front door. It still reads “Kooch’s Cottage.”) But where was Helen’s family? What was this plucky woman in a fur stole and heels doing alone down a mile-long dirt road in an ancient, heatless Maine cottage with chamber pots and paraffin lamps?

She had no siblings. No people, apparently, left to call her own. Village lore later said that she had rejected all her suitors, sent up by New York City parents during the camp’s heyday. But really? All of them? Her father and mother had been dead for decades. But in 1880, they’d been spry honeymooners from Gotham who rented a skiff from a fisherman in Westpoint Village and rowed themselves around the tip of the point. They followed the stretch of uninterrupted forest in the wooden boat for miles.

What did Walter and Dorothy Keyes see in that swath of Abenaki Indian land? Plenty of pine and fir and birch, abundant granite ledge, a great deal of blueberry and raspberry, generous amounts of Rosa rugosa, and breaks in the trees, or at least I’m imagining they saw breaks in the trees where they thought they could build their boys’ camp.

Camp Norway Pines’ official motto was “Do Something. Be Something.” You can still read the strong imperative on the peeling cover of the camp logbook. Each summer, eight campers rode the locomotive from New York City to Brunswick, where Walter picked them up in his horse and carriage and brought them into the woods, where the boys commenced to get very busy doing the things. Walter built a swim platform for the boys to jump off, complete with a wooden slide that he anchored in the cove where my brother and I auditioned for Helen. He also built an elaborate woodshop where the boys spent afternoons sawing and hammering and chiseling the simple chairs and tables and benches we use at the cottage today. He even went so far as to buy an actual island for the camp. A rocky, wild outcrop called Carrying Place, which the boys rowed to each day. The camp’s scrapbooks are filled with black-and-white photos of them all heading out to sea, sporting their fantastic, one-piece bathing costumes.

After our swim, my brother and I toweled off on Helen’s porch. Then she took us upstairs to see the campers’ dorm room. It was a simple square, with two windows to the sea, exposed pine walls, and a pitched roof that intersected with the half-dozen rafters. Look closely and you can find the campers’ names carved into the door — the great-grandfathers and great-uncles of the children who later became my friends almost 100 years later. Because some of the campers couldn’t get away from Phippsburg. Or rather, they came back. The place set its hooks in them. It does that here, almost as if the coastline has some sort of homing device. Not many can make a clean break. I couldn’t.

After the tour of the dorm room, Helen led my brother and me down the hall to her own little bedroom, which looked like some kind of opium den. Dark-green and black velvet curtains hung on the windows. The floor was painted black, and there was more of the dark velvet on the many long bolster pillows and on the elaborate bedding heaped on her wooden bed. A mirrored dressing table sat in the corner, covered in pink lace and laid with face potions in glass jars. My brother and I raised our eyebrows and got ourselves out of there. When given the choice, I took the dorm room with Koochbird. My brother got the adjacent guest room, renamed “The Larry Bird Room” after he hung the poster of the Celtics star over his bed.

My parents slept in Helen’s lair. They say she is a good ghost, and I believe it.

The cottage has room for all of us — Helen and all her eccentricities, the campers, my father’s dream of sleeping by the sea. It’s a place that keeps you honest. Where you still have to do the many things, or the house will not remain standing. A place where you can still be something too. Something truer to yourself, perhaps, by living next to the churning sea and the crash of waves against the rocks. Maybe this is why Helen lived here all those summers down the long dirt road. It’s why I do. Maybe it was the place she felt closest to herself, the place where she believed she most belonged.

Novelist and essayist Susan Conley is one of several terrific Maine writers (and Down East contributors) whose work appears in the new Wildsam Field Guides: Maine Coast. The story-based travel guide features reflections from and interviews with Maine writers, boatbuilders, oyster growers, and others, offering travel guidance and insight into the state’s culture, history, and more.