Summertime in the Belgrades
July 4 – 10
The Guide Ghosts of Great Pond, Part 1
by Rod Johnson
It was one of those odd weather phenomena. The stars were extra bright over the lake at twilight, but a front quietly slipped in and set a heavy dense fog right on top of Great Pond in Belgrade. You couldn't see the bow of your boat, let alone where you were headed.
I had gone out to Hoyt's Island on Great Pond earlier in the evening around 7:00, prior to the foggy conditions settling in. My little, 15-foot Chris Craft had carried my date and me across the water to visit my friend and co-worker Hunt Dowse.
Hunt's family owned the south end of Hoyt's for a couple of decades, prior to the current owners, Bill and Joan Witkin. We both worked at Day's Marina back in the village, along with another common friend Ralph Pope. We were the mechanics and Ralph did everything but that.
Hunt's parents had gone to Boston for a couple of days, so we boys had schemed earlier in the day to have a rendezvous there, do some swimming at the beach and then stoke up a fire in the big rock fireplace. The deal was due to end at 10:30 or so as the girls had 11 p.m. curfews back at their village homes.
While swimming, we couldn't help notice the heavy fog that began to surround us. At first it was funny, then became eerie as we couldn't see each other 20 feet away, getting less as the minutes went by. We abandoned swimming and quickly scrambled back to the lodge living room. After boisterous stories by all three of us as to what just happened, we built up a nice fire and burned some of the dry hemlock that Hunt's father Leonard had been painfully splitting with a sledge and wedges.
At 10:40, someone said we'd better head across the lake lest we be in deep doggy doo-doo with the girls' parents. After the first attempt to even get down the path to the boathouse, we realized this was a problem. With no phone at Camp Mandalay we couldn't call the girls' parents.
After some incorrect decision making we voted to head across the lake in the soupy fog. While getting into the two boats, mostly by brail, we made a pact to idle slowly, keep our steering tillers straight and stay together. We then guessed the heading for the entrance to the stream and took off. Within the first 15 minutes we were separated and I never saw Ralph and his date until the next day when at work.
It seemed like an hour when I became aware that land was no more than 10 feet in front of us, just a massive something, without defined features. Instantly the shift went into neutral and we drifted forward enough to gently thump a huge boulder, then began seeing the black forest behind it.
The decision was made to turn right and slowly follow the shoreline, moving no more than 1 or 2 miles per hour. After a nerve wracking slow ride with my eyes playing games on me, a dock appeared on our bow. I'll be damned if it wasn't the same dock we had left from on Hoyt's Island, jutting out in front of the camp's three boathouses. This was both bewildering and comforting — at least we knew where we were. I later learned that power boats tend to go in circles due to "prop walk" if the tillers are held perfectly straight.
At that point, we decided to hold onto the dock and take our chances that the fog would soon lift. After hitting the kill switch the old Chris Craft's Gray Marine four-banger went quiet, with a couple of last gasps: Thaw-haw, thaw-haw.
The silence of the next few minutes was mind boggling, then, semi-familiar sounds came out of the fog and nearly jumped us out of our skins. It was a motor sound, chuga-chuga-chuga, lightly laboring and getting louder by the second. Not expecting to hear or see any other crafts that eerie night made me wonder if this was a nightmare.
However, within a few short seconds the noise was upon us and the plumb bow of an old guide boat could be seen. As she passed by in all her glory, nearly scraping the Chris Craft, we got a 2-second look at her lap strake hull with fine varnish decks and gunnels, complete with brass and bronze fittings. Her oars were properly mounted on the rails, her chairs forward and aft ready for the next sport. But what totally blew us away was — yes, a skeletal looking old man trailing long white wispy hair from under his campaign hat, corn cob pipe ablowin' sparks, sitting amidships with his frail hand on the small spoke side wheel.
Before one could begin to fathom the scene, the fog engulfed the stern as the craft and its driver had slid out of sight and the chuga-chuga-chuga petered out quickly. At that same moment the smells of felt and wool, varnish, turpentine, motor oil and yes, white perch came wafting in the back draft. There may have been just a small whiff of Narry Gansett as well, just to top it off.
Within minutes, a breeze began to rattle the Chris's bow pennant and our visibility improved somewhat. Not five minutes later, the stars shown brightly and the lights of L.L. Bean's place on the mainland gave us a heading to go home. We fired up the Grey Marine and put her up on plane, anxious to minimize the number of hours that we were past curfew.
Without a doubt, we had just seen one of The Guide Ghosts of Great Pond. Join us for the next two weeks, as the story
Rod Johnson was born and raised in the Belgrade Lakes in the 1950s and '60s.