There’s a lot of space for social distancing in a forest. I haven’t been in a forest lately, but I spent loads of time as a child in the middle of the Allegheny National Forest, in north-central Pennsylvania, at a place called Twin Lakes.
The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) created the Twin Lakes Recreation Area in 1936. Some of the budget was diverted to another project, so Twin Lakes only ever had one lake. The irony never occurred to me; I just knew that it was a great place to be a kid in the summer.
My family camped at Twin Lakes every year of my childhood. We even had a vehicle that was used only for camping. My parents’ green and white Volkswagen—"the bus”—was already old in the early 1960s when I was a kid. My dad, a civil engineer, built a wooden cupboard that lived in the bus. It housed a frying pan, a coffee pot, a bucket, tin coffee cups, plates, and silverware. Mom would add staples like cans of beans, loaves of bread, jars of peanut butter, and coffee.
We always started our two-week stay on a weekday because there were empty camp sites during the week. On summer weekends, every campsite was filled, and sometimes the Johnsons—the family who managed the place for the Forest Service back then—would even allow people to camp in an overflow area above the parking lot.
While Dad was at work, Mom drove my sister and me, our camp shelf, our tent, lawn chairs, and beach towels, to Twin Lakes to pick out our campsite. The bus broke down more than once on the nine-mile drive from Kane, but we just waited, and eventually Dad would come along after his workday at the papermill in Johnsonburg. (On some of our camping days, Dad had to go to work, putting on his necktie before driving away from the morning campfire.)
We headed to the upper camping loop that had large, private campsites, barely distinguishable from the forest except for a fire pit, a flattened spot from a previous tent and a picnic table that blended in with the trees around it.
A large, square tarp over the picnic table didn’t just keep leaves off the table, it kept us dry, because it always rained at some point when we camped.
We pitched the tent, green canvas, fading more each year. Dad had a tent heater, like a squat version of a Coleman lantern. He’d light it inside the tent before bedtime, and we’d be toasty when we all first crawled into our sleeping bags. But the mornings were cold, even in August. Nothing like shivering on the way to the bathhouse at dawn, being greeted by a couple of fat frogs just hanging out.
I loved listening to raindrops on the tent. I loved our beach towels hanging on a rope tied between trees, flapping in a breeze. I loved pollywogs. (Were those fat frogs really once that tiny?) Also called tadpoles, they were easiest to catch in the shallow part of the lake where the little kids played. In a cup, they looked like wiggling commas. I loved the campfire, lighting it, stirring it, staring into it. I loved Little Debbie oatmeal pies, Mom’s special treat. But mostly, I loved making mountain pies: toasted sandwiches in a metal contraption with long handles. Set a piece of bread on each metal circle, fill with pb&j (or cherry or blueberry pie filling), squash it closed, then set it in the embers. Best toasted pb&j ever.
Over the years, Mom brought some unlikely things camping. One summer, she brought an easel, stretched canvases, and oil paints. The only time I ever painted with oil paints was while sitting in the middle of the forest. I imagine my painting was a bunch of green blobs, maybe with a slash of reddish-purple or white like the trilliums growing with abandon nearby.
Another unlikely choice for camping was one of our cats. Mom brought the cat because it was the only one that ever came running when she stood at our backdoor and tapped on its bowl with a spoon signaling dinner time. Her signaling device didn’t work in the forest. Neither my sister nor I can remember the cat’s name, but there was no cat after the first day, maybe even after the first hour. I imagine it went on to live a happy life, married a bobcat, and its progeny visit Twin Lakes every summer.
Our dog, Cindy, came with us one summer. She didn't run away. She was too lazy to run anywhere.
For all the years that we camped, the caretakers of Twin Lakes were Phyllis and Vern Johnson, our neighbors in Kane. They had four kids, and the kids worked along with their parents. They collected the garbage. They helped serve food in the pavilion, including the world’s thinnest hamburgers. They played cards and games with camper families who converged in the pavilion in the evenings to sit by the blazing stone fireplace at picnic tables made of whole logs.
If the mornings at Twin Lakes were cold, the lake water was colder. Suck-in-your-breath cold. I learned how to swim in that frigid water. I was maybe nine or ten when it was time to prove that I could swim by making it out to the wooden dock anchored in the middle of the lake and then swimming back. No boats were allowed on the lake, but there was a rowboat for emergencies and, apparently, for swimming tests. Bill “Moose” Johnson, a few years older than I, was given the task of rowing beside me. I made it.
Sometimes we would see the same family a couple of years in a row. One family from Georgia had a red-headed daughter my age. Her name was Melanie Mink. We were pen pals for a couple of years. I wonder where she is social distancing at this moment and if she ever thinks about those off-the-grid summers.
I haven’t been to Twin Lakes for decades. My husband is a city guy, and he uses a wheelchair. In the photos I’ve seen lately on Facebook, the lake and the grounds look amazingly the same, but I’ve learned that it’s taken a lot of work.
After the CCC building frenzy in the 1930s, places like Twin Lakes became liabilities for the National Parks Service. Although Twin Lakes remained open throughout the years under the authority of a site management company, in 2018 it was no longer open for overnight camping, due at least in part to a water issue--precipitated by a 1970s sewage system--deemed too expensive to repair.
That’s when a (truly) grass roots group of folks formed Friends of Twin Lakes ANF to “improve, beautify, sustain and preserve Twin Lakes Recreation Area for current and future generations.” Boy Scouts from Kane, Johnsonburg, and Ridgeway helped out by clearing brush and repairing steps, picnic tables, and benches. The nonprofit has received grants and donations, and one of many projects in the works will make the path around the lake accessible to folks who use wheelchairs.
With the exception of possibly running into a bear and her cubs, Twin Lakes might be one of the safest places to be right now. But when the national forests are fully open again and life is back to normal, large numbers of folks will go fishing at Twin Lakes (the lake is stocked with trout), and there are plans for live music, story times, even yoga. The campsites will be full. It will be time again to get up close to nature and to one another. Or time for a walk in the forest, not because we have to keep our distance but just because we want to.