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NORTH COUNTRY AT WORK: Behind the scenes with Upper St. Regis caretakers
November 2, 2018

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UPPER ST. REGIS LAKE - Caretaking for summer homes and camps has been a way for people to make a living in the Adirondack North Country for well over 100 years, and Upper St. Regis Lake in the northern Adirondacks is home to some of the oldest, biggest, most Gilded-Age camps around.

The lake's residents arrive here each summer from all around the country to spend time at "camp" - multi-million dollar, water-access only properties nestled behind walls of pine. They require a lot of upkeep, and that's where the job of caretaker comes in.

It's early on a September morning that I meet Pete McConville at the boat launch of Upper St. Regis. It's one of those perfect early fall days - sunny but crisp - and he's enjoying it as much as I am. The heat has yielded, the blackflies are gone, and so are the majority of the lake's summer residents. "In August, it's like the lake is being stirred with a mixer," Pete jokes.

We see a few other boats on our way to Camp Woodmere, where Pete has been caretaker for nearly three decades, but the season is over. We arrive at camp and tie up at the open dock; Pete has already closed the camp's boat house and taken the camp boats out of the water in preparation for winter.

Two other Upper St. Regis caretakers meet us at the dock, having come over in their own watercraft. The three men represent three generations on the lake - Dick Donaldson is the oldest and has been working on the lake for over 60 years, Pete McConville has 29, and John Dupree has 15, though it's more like 23 if you include his childhood - his father was the previous caretaker and John took over at the age of 20 when he died.

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A tight-knit community

They're thick as thieves, part of a tight network of around 20 caretakers who work and even live part-time on this lake. Dick calls the caretakers a community - the sort of people you can rely on for tools or hardware, for advice, for a hand at the dock. The other caretakers will be the first to arrive if there's a fire, the way there was at Dick's camp in 2009 when he lost ten buildings. Jon was first on the scene:

"It felt like Armageddon. We had a propane tank blow a top and land next door at the Allen Camp."

They all understand what each other are doing - managing a sprawling property on an Adirondack Lake - in a way that no one else can.

"It's nice that we can rely on each other. ... You need a tool, you call one of these guys," says Pete.

Most of the camps here follow the typical Adirondack Great Camp set-up: a main building with a huge fireplace, dining room and living space - almost like a mini ski lodge, and either connected or separate sleeping cabins scattered around it. There's always a boat house - most of the camps are water access only - and perhaps a few specialty features, like a tennis court or a lakeside pavilion. Pete's camp has 23 structures on it.

The camps also share the Adirondack Rustic aesthetic - big timber frames, exposed sheeting, lots of cedar log-work and bark siding. They're not winterized, so they have the playful look of summer. The dominating colors are brown, gray, and green, and while these properties are worth millions of dollars each and require massive amounts of upkeep, the wealth is largely hidden behind trees. It seems like the camps have organically grown out of the forest.

They haven't. But it's the caretaker's job to make them looks as though they have.

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Jacks-of-all-trades

This is a year-round job. Forget the idea of playing hermit and making sure raccoons don't ransack the house; caretakers are always busy, and have to truly be a jack-of-all-trades. Pete says:

"You're always, constantly doing maintenance, whether it's glazing windows, dock work, boat work, plumbing; there's always something going on."

John hires people to help him in the off season, Pete has a full-time helper named Barb, and all three bring in specialists when they're needed. Still, they do a lot of it themselves and the trio rattles off their many occupations: carpenter, plumber, electrician, landscaper, boat refinisher, mechanic, builder.

John says that a caretaker's job is to make life at camp seems effortless and easy, to make the physical camp itself seem as though it never changes. But they're battling mother nature.

"It's hard to find a building anywhere in the world that's 150 years old and kept well and utilized every year in the same manner," says John. Pete points out the steel cables crisscrossing near the ceiling of the wooden pavilion we're sitting in.

"This building was splaying out. I had this rigged up with steel to pull the main beams in and support the peak. Everything was going out! Everything is always moving. Door works great when it's dry, high pressure. Once you have humidity, door starts sticking. Everything moves!"

John points out too that if things go south, it's hard to get your hands on materials to mimic the interiors of these structures. A hanging tree is a huge danger, and a caretaker is constantly grooming the land and forest around the buildings.

"In the spring it's like a bomb went off. It looks like you were in the middle of a twister, leaves and pine needles and branches. That's three weeks of raking, at least, full-time."

Keeping a place locked in time is all-consuming and means there are very few shortcuts. Dick sees it like this: "They have problems, and we're problem fixers."

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Every season

We meet in September because things have calmed down a bit, but they explain there's still plenty to do early fall is all about closing up for winter, which entails everything from covering the furniture to storm proofing the screened-in porches to draining the pipes. That's no easy feat when a property has two dozen buildings and a water tank that holds thousands of gallons of water.

Later fall and even into the winter is the caretakers' chance to do bigger fixes and any noisy construction that's needed, when there are no camp residents around to be bothered by it - remodeling a kitchen or renovating an old cabin. They rely on old logging roads and cow paths for access until the lake freezes solid - then they can ski in or take sleds over the ice.

Early spring is a mad dash of trying to prepare camp - clearing and grooming the forest, turning everything on, checking the lighting and plumbing. Just about every week has a different set of tasks assigned to it, all geared towards preparing for the summer season, which starts the July 4th weekend and ends Labor Day weekend. That's when the families arrive, and sometimes it makes for a tight deadline. Pete remembers a wood floor and varnish problem that had him right up to the wire.

Once the families arrive, caretakers do smaller, everyday fixes to keep the camps running smoothly while they're occupied.

"Every morning there's a list of things that they want done, whether it's this door's squeaking or that window. It never ends."

And occasionally a curve-ball project gets thrown their way. Dick remembers a family member bringing home a small sink with the idea of just popping into a corner of the main cabin. There was a big piece of masonry right there.

"I spent four days with an army shovel digging a trench all the way back there so I could get to it. And that was going out and buying this little sink!"

But the way the day-to-day work varies wildly is exactly what Pete, Dick, and John love about the job. Dick says "I could be painting the boat today, and tomorrow I'm working in the cesspool." For most of the year, they work alone and on their own schedule, tailored to what their particular property needs.

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A caretaker and family

"Each camp is different and each caretaking job is different, because you're working for individuals," says Pete. Between the three men, their families come from California, Maryland, and New Jersey. "[They're] different people, different styles, they want different things. And a caretaking job you have to fit. It's like a hand and glove. You have to fit with the person you're working for. If you don't, you move on."

They all feel a strong connection to the families they work for or have worked for. Pete recently officiated the wedding for one of the kids he watched grow up, and John has been on vacation with his family, the Allens, in the Bahamas - they've known him since he was 11 years old. For about 15 years Dick sailed with the Duncan family during Upper St. Regis Lake's annual regatta.

They've all watched kids grow up into adults. Dick puts it like this:

"It's rewarding to see them. Sometimes those snot-nosed little brats, you'd like to string him up by the thumbs! And then they turn out to be a very, very nice adult. And you look and you say: there's progress."

Pete explains that most caretakers are here for the long haul:

"Dick's been here since Jesus wore sandals. ... These camps don't turn over, these jobs don't open up a lot. Just working on this lake, we have a pride as caretakers. Just to be on this lake. It's a prestigious lake. They're good people up here. "

Each caretaker knows his camp like he knows his own hand; they've touched pretty much every surface on the property at one point or another. Pete says he's done certain roofs three times since he started nearly 30 years ago.

"I know this camp better than anyone who's ever owned it."

Things have changed while they've been there. The camps have appreciated hugely in value; a lot of new construction and restoration has been going on for the last decade.

Pete says the pattern of how people come has changed - they used to be up for the entire summer, now it's more fragmented. What was new money is now old, and split up between many descendents.

After 125 years being owned by the same family, Pete's camp - Camp Woodmere - actually went up for sale in May; he says he'll come with it as long as he and the new owners fit. John will move into more of a property management role at his camp next year, so he can focus on his budding construction business. Dick says he's not retiring anytime soon.

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(This story comes to you from North Country Public Radio's North Country at Work project, which explores the working lives and history of our region. To see all the stories, check out www.northcountryatwork.org/)

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