Night Camp

imageAt sunset at our camp on the lake, we gather on the dock to watch the sky turn yellow and pink and orange over the mountains that line the western shore. Clouds become silhouettes surrounded by a golden, electric glow. The eastern sky dims to indigo. After the sun has gone, we leave the still-light dock and slip into the dark woods among the pines and hemlocks and birches. Night falls rapidly in the forest, where shade abounds even at noon. The dusty smell of pine straw rises from the warm ground into the cooling air. Chunky toads speckled with brown and tan, camouflaged against the leaf litter, come out for their evening romp. We are quick with our flashlights, hoping to spy them when we hear them hopping. Or is it the rustle of a field mouse scampering? No, not this time. It was a toad.

Tonight, as we watched the sunset, a juvenile bald eagle soared directly over our heads not much higher than the treetops, coming from behind and then veering over the forest. It was dark brownish-gray, the underside of its wings flecked with light gray or white. We debated what it might be. Some sort of hawk? None that we knew. One person noted that its wings were vulture-like, and that tipped my son and me toward the possibility that it was an eagle. A glance in a bird guide quickly settled the discussion. We get bald eagles here. One frequents a tree over the camp beach. A few years ago, two of them perched for a long time directly over the heart of the camp, and someone passing through would have seen a couple dozen of us on our backs on the forest floor, watching the national birds above. The show lasted for more than an hour. With the binoculars that were passed around, I got a better view of the eagles than I had ever had before outside of a sanctuary. Sleek, white heads. Husky, brown bodies. Curved, sharp beaks that were all business. The birds preened and looked majestic – just another day’s work for them.

As darkness falls, a few boats run for home with bow and stern lights. At the camp, the hall turns bright as some folks gather to read or chat or play a game. The sturdy, old-school canvas platform tents that we stay in glow white with lantern light. The high buzz of crickets replaces the bird calls that dominate the daytime. As the activity of camp wanes, the sound of the water lapping against the rocks seems to get more prominent. I love falling asleep to that rhythmic sound. It seems almost to rock me back and forth, suspended between sleep and wakefulness, a cocoon of muzziness enveloping my mind. Often, when I awaken for a moment late in the night, I find that the lake sounds have gone, the wind having died. The water has become a luminous sheet outside of our tent. A half-moon heads for the horizon. On the lake, a loon calls, its cry sounding like a breathy, mournful whistle. Three tones, low-high-low, sometimes repeated, perhaps with a monotone call thrown in. A barred owl replies from deep in the woods, eight short hoots divided into two measures of four each. In a few hours, the grey light of dawn will throw the trees into relief against the tent walls. If I’m up, I will think about an early morning dip in the glassy water, long before the breakfast bell rings from the hall.

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