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Our special memories of Wisconsin's Northwoods are anchored to both a time and a place. My family spent many of its two-week summer vacations camping at Crystal Lake near the town of Sayner in Vilas County. It's a beautiful little lake with sand beaches and crystal clear water. I still stop by every year, usually in fall, and walk through the campground. On our route, my mind's eye still sees the faces and hears the voices of people who shared our wonderful time more than 20 years ago.
For us, "the vacation" was always two weeks in August, usually the same two weeks. Preparations would begin well ahead of time. Camping and fishing gear came out of storage. We were tent campers! None of that trailer stuff. The old wooden "kitchen" my dad had built was always the first thing packed because it was so huge. Before Dad hoisted it into the boat with other gear, Mom would fill it with cooking supplies, dinnerware and food. She baked for weeks ahead of time. I especially remember chocolate chip cookies, oatmeal cookies, and the sweet rolls she called "ding-a-lings." You'd think she was baking for an army, and in truth, she was! Her family and hordes of friends met every year at the campsites.
Counting the days to this trip was unbearable ... worse anticipation than Christmas Eve. Everyone went to bed early the night before because we would get up at 3 a.m. We always stopped for breakfast at the same cafe in Antigo. My sister and I hated breakfast food, so we always ordered a cheeseburger (which never failed to embarrass our dad).
The most welcome sight was the end of the journey – the check-in station at Crystal Lake where the wait ended and the fun began. For two weeks we'd swim, hike, water-ski, fish, sing around the campfire, pick blueberries and catch up with old friends. Regardless of the weather, we'd have a great time. One year, it rained 14 out of the 16 days we camped, but it didn't dampen our spirits a bit (well, maybe a little). Good fishing always called Dad back to Allequash Lake. Mom made stacks and stacks of blueberry pancakes. There were huge ski parties on Big Muskellunge Lake. We would run through the campground and roundup kids who wanted to water-ski. Many a kid learned to ski behind Dad's little red boat! The Fallison Lake Nature Trail beckoned and always provided something new to discover whether it was trees downed by beaver or a large beaver lodge in sight of the trail.
A few years ago in fall, we visited Crystal Lake with my parents. It was cold. It snowed, and it didn't matter. I could see it in their eyes – transported to a comfortable time when they were young, times were good and friends surrounded us. We visited the original red water pump – epicenter of the campground. When Mom and Dad first camped there, the grounds consisted of eight campsites clustered around this hand pump. Now hundreds of sites fill the space between Crystal and Muskellunge lakes. As we strolled through the campground, they pointed out sites they had used and remembered where their friends pitched their tents. They told the old stories, some from before my time. We visited Allequash Lake and found the site of our ski parties on Big Muskellunge. We remembered some of the "big" events – like the year my mom's sister visited or when my brother cut his foot on a piece of glass.
This year, my husband and I visited Crystal Lake in summer. We sat and watched the children playing on the beach and swimming. We talked with several young families. We learned that the campground is still creating great memories, but now for other families.
I always call my sister when I'm at Crystal Lake. She thinks I'm teasing her. Actually, I just want to share the experience and, for the moment, drag her back here with me to reminisce. Before my husband and I leave, we hike the Fallison Lake Nature Trail, where there are still signs of beavers.
Some people warn about living in the past, but we're not grasping to reclaim our youth. We know you need to move on and create new memories. I just like to come back to search again for the contentment that can be kindled by a place and an old red pump.
Donna Krischan is a professional photographer from Big Bend specializing in landscape and garden photography.