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Family finds way to thrive in uncertainty

August 28, 2020

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, August 26, 2020

We finally did it. After years of aspiring to extend our annual weeklong summer camping trip into a two-week respite from our day-to-day lives, we succeeded!

Our vision was formally set in motion the morning after Labor Day 2019 when I logged onto a website to compete for a coveted site at our beloved Grand Isle State Park in Vermont. By 9:10 a.m. we had secured a two-week reservation at our second most favorite site. I printed the confirmation email and tacked it on the cork board in our kitchen where for months it fueled enthusiasm and anticipation for what would certainly be the highlight of our 2020 calendar.

Along with daughter Zoe, nearly 14, and son Adam, now 11, my wife Lori and I have connected with the air, land and water of the Lake Champlain Islands for seven of the past eight years. It is a place where morning tea is sipped while watching the sun rise over the lake, where moon light shimmers on the water during evening swims, and a chorus of crickets and katydids floods our tent after nightfall. In the spaces between, we paddle, hike, fish, swim, and skip stones, worn smooth by the endless churn of waves, until our arms hang tired from their sockets. We nourish our bodies and souls with simple meals, campfire conversations and deep sleep.

In March 2020, six months after making our camp reservation, COVID-19 was rising, adding additional complication, stress and anxiety to our daily lives. In the following months, anticipatory talk of our two-week planned adventure helped us weather the unpleasantness and mounting uncertainty of life in a global pandemic.

As the trip grew near, Adam and I sorted and reorganized gear in the garage, making a list of items we needed to secure before our departure. Zoe and Lori carefully planned meals and procured ingredients to sustain our active bodies while away.

Two weeks before our planned departure, COVID-19 levels in our home county – after weeks of steady decline – spiked more than 60%. In short, Vermont’s travel restrictions required that we quarantine at home for two weeks before travel, an impossibility given Lori’s health care job. I carefully culled websites and called the campground hoping to identify a loop hole in the restrictions, to no avail.

Initially immobilized by anger and despair – how could this happen, after years of envisioning this trip! – we resolved to create the best alternative plan we could muster. By the following morning we had secured a campsite for two weeks in the eastern Adirondacks on the New York shores of Lake Champlain, a few miles across the water from Grand Isle.

To be sure, it was not the trip we originally planned, as the campsite lacked the privacy and quietness to which we have grown accustom, at times leaving us irritable and sad about the loss of our preferred site. Still, we consider ourselves fortunate to have had a new, different and in many ways amazing experience.

The list of highlights is long, with many lasting memories. Adam and I, twice ripped it up on nearby mountain biking trails. We all swam, floated on inner tubes and leisured on the sandy shores where the Ausable River recharges the lake with rain and snow melt from the Adirondack high peaks.

We marveled at a frog, the size of a grapefruit, as it hopped through our camp, and lay spell bound on the beach watching a meteor shower while waves lapped near our feet. We relished an overnight trip and hotel stay in Lake Placid where we visited former Olympic venues and played in Mirror Lake – swimming, canoeing and stand-up paddle boarding.

We even weathered, in good spirits, an 18-hour rain delivered by Tropical Storm Isais. And, on our 15th wedding anniversary, Lori and I sipped our morning tea as the sun rose over the sparkling lake.

In truth, the details of the trip – both the one we originally planned and the one we ended up experiencing – were simply different versions of the same vision. In this enduring vision, we plan a family trip in a special place where we can be active outdoors and reconnect to ourselves and each other. The vision is about honoring what we as a family find meaningful and restorative.

Two weeks of vacation is a luxury unavailable to many and exercised by even fewer. Traveling during a pandemic is not without risk, especially at a campground with 120 sites and only a handful of public toilet and shower facilities. And tenting in a tropical storm is not advisable. But while these challenges conspired to derail our plans, we remained flexible, put passion ahead of fear and together held fiercely to the sacredness of our family vision.

And, come Sept. 1st, I’ll be online to reserve a prime campsite at Grand Isle for August 2021!

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website


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