Umbagog Lake is the 12.3-square-mile heart of its namesake 20,000-acre National Wildlife Refuge. The lake and surrounding terrain are chock-full of wetland and upland habitat for endangered species, and migratory birds like the northern harrier and great blue heron. Within our first two days we’ve seen loons, eagles, and ducks galore and know there are moose, osprey, badgers [corrected] bobcats, and mink hiding just out of sight. The lake itself is partly a flooded-over field that used to serve as the timber industry’s connection between the northern waterways and the southern paper mills. It’s eerily shallow—that’s what the name means in the Abenaki language—with an average depth of 14 feet and the opportunity to often see straight down to the rock-covered bottom.
By the time we take the narrow channel to the lake from the Magalloway, the sun is starting its descent and the wind has kicked up from the south. We dig in to cross the 2-mile-wide northern neck of the lake to reach our reserved campsite on the eastern side. Conversation is pointless in the wind and even the poodle has enough sense to stay low and not rock the canoe. I keep us heading straight for a point on the horizon, and when we finally break around it, Dad tells me I did a good job.
We spend night two where the Rapid River spills into Umbagog. A dozen kayakers join us in the maple-canopied campsite; they’re here for one of the four annual releases that help the normally languid Rapid earn its name once again.
Earlier in the day, I learned that Dad grew up kayaking—the boats were easier to come by than canoes. When I was a child, his tales of Poland always painted a land with endless wilderness to explore, dense forests where friendships could be tested and secured, and lakes and rivers on which to paddle, swim, and sail into adulthood. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized that 1950s and ’60s Stalinist starkness, artistic repression, and ongoing stringent socialism were the untold foreground in each story. Tonight, over couscous and salami, I ask my dad if he felt lucky to have the outdoors when he was growing up. He shrugs and says, “I suppose we went there to escape the reality of the gray life.”
“Did you ever think the outdoors could be your life?” I ask.
Dad laughs. “I thought it would be nice to live in the mountains, sailing every day, skiing every day.” He pauses with a faraway look in his eyes as if imagining it. “But I had this as a dream—not something I would actively pursue.” He didn’t know anyone who made a living in the outdoors and besides, he also had a dream to be a business success. “But I kept it as my passion, and shared it with you.”
I survey our campsite, layered with state-of-the-art sleeping, cooking, and outdoor living gear, all of which I use constantly. I look back at my dad. “So,” I say. “What you’re telling me is that your outdoor recreation was a direct result of Soviet control of Poland, which means I, in turn, owe my professional life to Eastern European communism?”
We’re sitting side-by-side in camp chairs, rocking in tandem. My dad pauses his movement, looks at me, shakes his head, and smiles. “Now, Majka…”