The Belgrade Lakes are a cluster of seven bodies of water north of Augusta. There’s no Belgrade Lake per se, but Belgrade Lakes Village fills a narrow land strip between Great Pond and Long Pond. At the center of the village is Day’s Store, the region’s source of gas and staples, plus tackle, freshly baked goods, wine, pizza, and hand-dipped ice cream. In summer films are screened on the back of the store, visible from boats as well as lawn chairs. The line-up usually includes On Golden Pond. Never mind that the 1981 movie starring an elderly Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda was filmed in New Hampshire; it was in his cottage on Great Pond that Ernest Thompson wrote the play. It’s set in a classic summer cottage on a wooded lake, where mail is delivered to their dock. Today, Norm Shaw, the lake’s current mailman, stops at that dock on his daily rounds.
Diane Oliver, the third generation of her family to orchestrate Day’s Store’s many services, tells me that all seven of these lakes are still like Golden Pond. Summer after summer the same families come back to do the same things, mainly swim and fish. Our wake-up call at our cabin at Bear Spring Camps on Great Pond is the putt-putt of my neighbor’s outboard motor, a pre-breakfast summer fishing ritual for a father and son. It once netted them a 23-inch pike.
We take a swim and then hike up past the basketball and tennis courts, on up the hill to breakfast in the big, old-fashioned dining room of a sprawling, gabled farmhouse. After breakfast we hit the wicker rockers on the flowery porch and visit with other guests. So goes the day: paddling, swimming, eating. The sunset is silken, and we sit listening to the call of loons. We stoke the fire and watch the stars appear one by one, and when there are too many to count, we lie on our backs on the dock and find Orion’s Belt and the Big Dipper.
The Belgrade Lakes offer plenty of vacation rentals, but what’s unusual here is New England’s largest concentration of old-style commercial fishing “camps.” This vanishing breed of no-frills lodging offers the ultimate summer luxuries: water at your door, a boat at your dock, sit-down meals, and plenty of other kids for your kids to play with. Peg Churchill is the fourth generation of her family to run Bear Spring Camps, the affordable, old-style summer escape that we discovered when our sons were small, one that probably hasn’t changed much since E. B. White summered here as a kid.
Regulars like to say that the Belgrade Lakes are frozen in the 1950s. Not quite true. There’s the Belgrade Lakes Community Center with its indoor pool as well as a beach, and the Belgrade Golf Club, with an 18-hole course and a spiffy restaurant. On the other hand, by North Pond there’s still the Sunbeam Roller Rink in Smithfield, which has been around for more than 50 years.