by Rod Johnson
Okay, this is one of those stories that requires a side note saying, "Don't Try This!" Just take these tales with a grain of salt, and realize that we were kids who took chances in an era when it was expected as part of growing up. We were warned before the fact and scolded after, but regardless, risky behavior continued. The old saying that God watches out for kids and drunks may be true, you decide.
Growing up beside the Mill Stream that leads from Great Pond into Belgrade Lakes village offered a plethora of great opportunities to learn about nature, boating, fishing, as well as some that were not so noble. As we grew up through the formative years, we learned to paddle small crafts around the stream, then to operate small outboard motors on older wooden boats.
My dad, Clifford Johnson had a boat rental shop where the Lakepoint Realty is now. At the age of 8 years or so, after my heavy hinting, Dad turned me loose with a tiny .9 horsepower Evinrude Scout on a 14-foot, canvas-covered cedar boat. Yes, that's nine-tenths of one horsepower.
Uncle Karl Johnson owned a marina across from Bartlett's store (now Day's) where we local young boys watched as other older summer kids came in for gas. They had larger motors and were water skiing out on the lake. At that time, the largest outboard that Johnson made was a 25 horsepower. The older motors seemed to have more power then and a 25 would pull 2 people at once. Glenn Baxter had one that still runs well today and pulled a lot of skiers during the 1950s and 1960s. The Gawler family has one, too which was Ken Bartlett's, the previous Day's Store owner.
Before long, Uncle Karl said we could "surfboard" behind his 2.5 horsepower on a small dory. Of course we could never stand up because the boat barely moved with 3 or 4 kids hanging on while being dragged slowly through the water. That was the beginning, with bigger engines and water skis not far behind. Our parental boundaries were "not out of sight" and skiing in the Mill Stream was considered safe, and not against any law at that time.
After a summer or two of being confined in the stream, we were let go to spread our wings and go out to the lake. Soon after, when 10 to 12 years old, the skiing was all over the lake behind 10 to 15 horsepower motors and constantly skiing into the stream and down to the marina docks, now the MLRC Annex area.
The dangerous part was that we had challenged each other to skiing around the little island we know as Pentlarges Island and Cove. Huge boulders and overhanging tree limbs were ever present. Driving the boat and skiing through there requires "threading the needle" accuracy to not run into them, as many are above the water line. This area can be seen when you travel through the stream en route to the village. Don't go in there unless you want a broken propeller or worse.
We moved to Long Pond on some days when a boat was available to tow us, and we often had a chance to ski there behind an old lapstrake wooden craft called Black Maria, powered by a 12 horsepower Elto. The boat came from the Herman family camp on lower Long Pond, one of the camps where my father was the caretaker.
We began to ski under the Castle Island Bridge up to Bartlett's store (Day's) for a soda break. This required ducking slightly so as not to hit your head on the huge log beams that held up the bridge, now changed out to steel I-beams.
If the boat was not available, we decided that jumping into the foam off the dam spillway was the next best challenge, as merely jumping off the bridge on the stream side had become old hat. A couple of us did get some bad bruises there from hitting hidden rocks and no doubt we were lucky kids to not have died on some of these stunts. Do not do this!
As the teenage years were in full bloom, bigger boats and horsepowers, along with new water toys of varied sorts, came into vogue. The 360° trick skis (also called banana skis) appeared, so skiing backwards was the next big goal. Then it was shoe skis, only 16 inches long with a starter ski they fit into to get up with. The disc, a 36-inch circle was fun, especially with a chair placed loosely on it only to get swept off when hitting a wave. I still have one of the old 1950s surf boards and some trick skis stuck down cellar. The kids of today seem to prefer wake boarding or something like that, and being pulled by a twenty thousand dollar special ski boat. How crazy is that!?
Here's hoping that you found this interesting and that it may have stirred your memories of younger days when life was simpler, but probably just as risky. What do you think?
Rod Johnson was born and raised in the Belgrade Lakes in the 1950s and '60s.