During May, when the northeast still struggles to release itself from winter’s icy grasp, I can’t help but turn my thoughts to the approaching summer months. Right around Memorial Day, bass season opens on Lake Ontario. Growing up, this annual event served as the harbinger of summer vacation. My grandfather owned a fishing camp in the Thousand Islands on Lake Ontario, more specifically at Mud Bay, aptly named for the murky, opaque water that fills it. Every summer, my family—including aunts, uncles, and cousins—made several trips to the Islands. Over the years, we developed several traditions that I look back on with great fondness.
It takes about three hours to make it to the Thousand Islands from Rochester, a trip that, when I was a kid, felt like an eternity. We plagued my parents with that age-old question: “Are we there yet?” We knew the end of the trip was near when we turned onto the unpaved road, made entirely of uneven rocks, that led to Grandpa’s cottage. The car bounced all the way down the street, inspiring our first tradition. Without fail, we would begin shouting “bumpety bump bump, bumpety bump bump” again and again, adapted from the well-known Frosty the Snowman song, until we finally reached the cottage. Our vacation was officially underway.
I associate certain toys and games with our trips to the Islands. I remember a set of miniature farm figurines with stately chestnut stallions no higher than my little finger and itty bitty pigs the size of a fingernail. The game Cootie also resided exclusively at my grandpa’s camp, and I remember spending hours assembling the colorful, kooky “cooties.” My grandpa had an antiquated television with knobs instead of a remote and more static than channels, but we did get the show Pappyland, a favorite among all of us kids. Alongside Pappy and his sidekick, Doodle Bug, we learned to draw all sorts of wonderful critters. We celebrated the Fourth of July with a Polish twist, dancing through the cottage and banging on pots and pans to the tune of jaunty polka music. Best of all were the hours spent playing cards at night. As the oldest of the cousins, I was the first initiated into the adults’ game nights. We stayed up for hours playing Oh Pshaw! (also known as Oh Heck! or any number of less savory alternatives), a strategic card game in which each player endeavors to guess exactly how many tricks he or she will take each round. The loser got to scoop out bowls of ice cream for everyone at the end of the night.
When we were not enjoying these games, we were on my grandpa’s boat. As soon as we left the shallow, chocolate milk-colored bay, my grandpa raised the bow and picked up speed. This was our cue. The children gathered in the bow, all life-jacket clad, and clutched the rail, singing “A Sailor went to Sea Sea Sea!” as loud as we could, believing that we had thus guaranteed a safe and successful journey. We spent most of our time on the lake fishing. I was always very squeamish, unwilling to bait the hooks with wriggling worms or touch a slimy fish. Instead, I often opted to lie in the sun and read a book, or assigned myself to the merciful role of fish-measurer. Any bass not yet 12 inches long was tossed back into the lake, and I ensured that only the appropriately sized ones made it onto the dinner table. I was a very liberal fish-measurer and there are some bass out there who owe me thanks.
By Labor Day, my grandpa pulled the boat out of Mud Bay and sealed up the cottage. I would have to withstand the winter months once more before returning to the Thousand Islands, but it was always worth the wait.
For me, play in the summertime was unique, unlike any other time of the year. What are your fondest memories of summer days? Share your story with us at America at Play: Play Stories.