By Dr. Patrick L. Cooney

Phil and Lila were virtual newlyweds in 1959 and Phil was looking around for some place to take a vacation. He talked to his sister Mozelle about his quandary and she suggested a camping trip and more specifically a camping trip to Lake George. Mozelle was quite the outdoors person  --  so much so that she had been the president of the Queens College Outdoor Club.

Phil had always enjoyed the outdoors and he was intrigued. But he knew very little about camping. Mozelle suggested that she go along with Phil and Lila for the first few days of the vacation so that the couple could learn the ins and outs of camping. 

So in 1959 the three Ducketts traveled up to Lake George. They all camped together on Huckleberry Island. Mozelle just stayed a few days -- long enough for the Ducketts to learn some of the basics of easy camping.  With gratitude in his eyes, Phil admitted that "She taught me everything about camping." He added that Mozelle was simply a great teacher.

Phil gained greater camping expertise in other ways as well.  He always liked to read about his avocational interests and he learned a lot from the Boy Scout Field Book. He would bring it with him every time he camped at Lake George. To carry their camping equipment and supplies back and forth to the island they used a rented canoe. Later they rented power boats from Norowal Rental Boats. He would take supplies by motor boat over to the campsite.

Phil loved the camping experience. He loved the relaxation of being completely away from work and commuting and all the hassles associated with modern life. He enjoyed sitting in a chair and watching the sun come up in the morning and then go down in the evening. In fact, he loved it so much that this first trip would prove to be the beginning of 35 Lake George vacations over a period of 39 years ranging from 1959 to 1998. The times he missed going to Lake George are accounted for by his having two children, John and Dawn, and taking his wife on four Caribbean vacations.  Among the islands on which they camped included Gourd (Lila & Phil in the Narrows Group), Duran, Horicon, Sagamore for family camping, and Vicars for canoe camping (all in the Mother Bunch Group).

In 1960 they came back to Huckleberry Island.

Phil is an engineer and very cognizant of mechanical things (unlike the author of this piece). In writing down the dates of his vacation years he notes whether the transportation was by canoe or boat along with the horsepower of the motor of the boat. For instance, he notes that in 1961 it was a 5 HP motor, followed by a 7 HP in 1962, a 10 HP in 1963 and a 15 HP motor in 1964. You can obviously see a progression of greater and greater horsepower as the years past.

He had to take a break from Lake George camping in 1965 because his son John was born. And in the following year of 1966 his daughter Dawn was born.

This was followed by a camping hiatus for the years: 1967, 1968, 1969 and 1970. As a substitute source of comfort, the family often went to Jones Beach on Long Island.

Then in 1971 Phil and Lila felt the children were big enough to take with them on a Lake George vacation. They went back to the islands of the Narrows and this time with a 25 HP motor boat.

Phil would say that it always took him two days of vacation before he could wind down and get relaxed. As he said himself "I was so up-tight." He would warn the kids that it would take a little time for him to feel back "normal" again.  He also told the kids of the rules:.  None of the following was allowed: portable radio or TV, telephone, newspapers or watches. Phil wrote me "For our camping vacations I tried to eliminate schedules and to cut us off from the world as much as possible."

At camp the kids would be running around the whole time. They virtually lived in their life vests. John and Dawn swam a lot and even snorkeled.  John learned to fish at Lake George . He found he loved it   Other activities included boating and sightseeing, canoeing, hiking and nature walks, reading, talking around the campfire and stargazing.

The children would always be in their tent on the platform and the adults would be on the ground. The adults had the tiny tent and the kids had the large one.

John told me that the weather always changes at Lake George but that it is almost always windy. He added that the lake is different by month. In July the water seems cleaner and there are .less ripples in the lake allowing one to see the fish and lake bottom. In July the water is also colder. By August the wind rarely stops blowing so there are fewer opportunities to see the lake bottom.

After the early years of camping, Dad was the cook. The family would have pancakes and bacon for breakfast almost every day. For lunch they would have tuna fish or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. And for dinner Phil would use the old grill brought from the home kitchen stove to make beef stew, chicken and hamburgers. The stew took a long time to make but it would last for two or three days. (They would always buy a block of ice to preserve food and the ice would last about three days to be replaced by another purchased ice block.)

One hot summer the meat in the cooler spoiled after 48 hours and Phil had no fresh meat to cook for dinner. John, who was about ten years old at the time, said " Don't worry dad I will catch four fish for dinner".  About an hour later, John returned with four of the largest bass that he had ever caught in his young life and Phil cooked the fish for the family's first  fish dinner.

They continually returned to Lake George, even when John had a broken leg. John commented that he had three different ailments that had been healed by Lake George, one of which was a bad stomach virus.

In 1972 they switched from the Narrows group of Islands to the Mother Bunch group of Islands. Phil also upped his motor power to 35 HP. He returned the next year but for once he did not increase his horse power. However, the following year, he switched to a new marina, Werner’s in Silver Bay, and upped his horsepower to 70.

For the next 18 years he continued his camping trips in the Mother Bunch group out of Werner’s in Silver Bay. In the mid 80's there was a major forest fire on Tongue Mountain and for years after the burned out area was noticeable from afar. Also in the mid 80's the Duckett family witnessed a small forest fire on Black Mountain which was put out by repeated runs of one helicopter dropping water on the fire. The following year they hiked to the burned out area to examine the damage.

Over the years Phil and his family noticed many changes. For instance, in the early years the rangers told them that the water of Lake George was safe for drinking and that they were very proud of that. In the middle years the rangers said that the lake water was not safe for drinking but the water at the spring was safe for drinking. In the later years campers were told that neither water source was safe for drinking and to bring bottled water.

While Phil says he does not have a favorite island on Lake George, John asserts that his favorite Island is Horicon. This was not so much because of the nature of the island itself but rather the nature of the time that he spent there. He stayed there two times and these were in his early teen years. He and his sister had their favorite fiction books and would bring their chairs out to sit in the rising sun and read while their bodies warmed. They had to read so much non-fiction during the school year that they wanted to get into some good fiction and just relax and enjoy it fully.

Phil often invited friends to come up to Lake George when he was vacationing there. In all they had some seven visits from friends/ relatives. His brother George and his sister-in-law Dolores came up to visit them, as well as his sister Mozelle, who commented "I thoroughly enjoyed my return visit, especially the meals that Lila cooked over the open campfire." Bill Powell, brother George’s best friend, along with Bill's wife Carol were with them on Horicon Island and Bill taught the kids to water ski. Tom, one of Phil’s co-workers, also visited. He came to love Lake George and was up there some eight summers with Phil. Tom loved to boat and would travel the entire 32 mile length of Lake George from bottom to top. He also loved to use his boat to take his wife to a fancy Lake George restaurant.

Phil found Island people to be very friendly and often helpful. He added that it was not all that noisy on the islands, even with the drone of the motor boats. There is, however, a lot more noise on the weekends. John only remembers a couple of negative interactions. Sometimes Phil had to chase picnickers off his island camping site. For instance, Horicon Island has two docks but only one tent site and this would attract many interested in a nice, isolated picnic area. Then Phil would have to come over and show them his permit for the island site. Sometimes he got a rough response, especially when picnickers would resort to the argument "Now listen here, Mister, I pay taxes for this land."

But the good experiences always outweighed the bad.  A few incidents illustrate this.  One year their boat engine failed while boating not far from a
campsite.  The husband and wife (the Waldens) at the campsite saw their predicament and drove their boat out to theirs and towed the Ducketts back to their campsite where they called our marina for repair service. It took four hours for their boat to be repaired and returned and for all that time the Waldens offered the Ducketts the hospitality of their campsite. The Ducketts visited the helpful couple several times on subsequent camping trips.

One year they met a man named Dick and his adult son and daughter who were camping nearby.  Dick, like Phil, always brought his family camping at Lake George at the same time each year. While their children water skied, Dick and Phil would talk for hours about their camping experiences and love of Lake George. For several years after that, Dick would find out where the Ducketts were camping and then would bring the family extra firewood in his pickup truck.  The wood would last the Ducketts several nights.

Phil's daughter Dawn graduated from Harvard and married a man named Glenn from San Diego, California in 1990.  Glenn came out a couple of times to camp with the Duckett family at Lake George.  The year 1992 was Dawn’s last Lake George trip with the family. With her husband, she was on her way teach for the Peace Corps in Gabon, west Africa.

The next year, 1993, was Lila’s last Lake George trip. So, the following year, 1994, it was just Phil and son John at Lake George. Then John decided not to go every year to Lake George but every other year, so that Phil went alone in 1995, with John in 1996, alone in 1997 and with John in 1998.

Unbeknownst to Phil, 1998 would be his last trip to Lake George for awhile. In October of 1998 he had major surgery.  There were complications after the first surgery requiring a second major surgery which was followed by a year or two of recovery. Much to his regret, he felt he had to give up any thought of another trip to Lake George.

But Phil still held out the hope that he could return to his other love: Bear Mountain in Bear Mountain Park. For many a year he hiked the heights of Bear Mountain and Harriman Parks once a month. And now his more modest goal was to climb all the way up Bear Mountain the hard way, from the steeper north side and not the more gradual south side. He would tell all his physical therapists, doctors, family and friends that his goal was to get back to Bear Mountain.

And recently he did manage to take the hard way up Bear Mountain.  And since he could hike up Bear Mountain the hard way, the author figured Phil could also hike and boat Lake George, especially if we stayed in a motel instead of camping. 

And now for an even more interesting comment on the Duckett family.  The Ducketts are an African-American family.  And that makes their story of devotion to Lake George even more remarkable, for when we visited Lake George I did not see another African-American face other than those of Phil and John Duckett.  

A Few of the Islands and Mountain Trails of Lake George

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