Kezar Lake, From One Summer to the Next

Despite their number, beauty, and clarity, Maine lakes feel like secrets. While so many flock to the coast, a certain sort of person—a lake person—seeks a different kind of sanctuary inland, out of the way. So out of the way, in fact, and so well protected by those who love them, that Maine lakes have made it through the centuries remarkably unscathed, lightly developed and less used than most any in the country. Some lakes in Maine—and as a lake person from away I can assure you this is not the case everywhere—are literally transparent. Unlike the ocean, they are easygoing. Reliable. A lake can be counted on to sit still sometimes, to warm up in the summer.

By now I’ve lived here for several years and I’m convinced that every lake in Maine has been called the best lake in Maine. People get possessive about “theirs” in ways the ocean does not allow for. Lake person reading this: yours is the most beautiful of all, made distinct from every other Maine lake by its unique dollops of island, the near or far-off mountains or hills coating the horizon you look out upon, the dilapidated camps and winterized camps and mansion-camps and houses that belong to your neighbors along the shore and the rural roads that spiderweb out from it. No doubt yours, and all Maine lakes, are shaped by the people who live around them—physically altered, yes, but also created like myths out of experience, imagination, and word of mouth. When it comes down to it, a lake is probably as much an individual’s idea of it—of the special sanctuary it offers—as it is a blue spot on a map or a basin filled with water, surrounded by pines. This is a story about Kezar Lake, anyway. Attempting to get to know this quiet nook of Western Maine, I visit Lovell in summer, winter, and spring.


Summer on Kezar Lake

It is July. On our way to Kezar Lake, photographer Greta Rybus and I pull over, crackling onto a gravel-strewn driveway and wide parking lot/helicopter pad to see what wicked good food and drinks we might find at the Wicked Good Store. “The restaurant’s closed,” the women under an umbrella in the nearby roadside field tell us as we approach them. It’s past 1 p.m. on a midsummer day. Helen Ramsdell and her daughter, Victoria Drew, of Rams Farm in Denmark, Maine, sit in lengthening shade behind a table covered in their various goats-milk products—lotions and cheeses—and earrings, too. The other vendors who gather here to sell their goods to lake-bound passersby have already gone.

When we ask Ramsdell and Drew  about the lake, they tell us about the people it brings. People come from all over New England and the West Coast and the world; many of them have been coming to Kezar for generations. The population spike brings new energy and more work to the rural area in the summer, they tell us. Many who grow up in Lovell leave to find steady work elsewhere, and those who stay often scrape together a series of odd seasonal jobs to keep the heat on in the winter. After inviting us to their farm later in the day, Ramsdell and Drew encourage us to chat with Shirley Chaplin, the “Boat MD,” who works out of the building a few hundred yards back from the road near a trio of antique gas pumps.

Beneath a good amount of grease, the boat doctor’s got the kind of deep tan that looks like it’s been on all year, and it probably has, since he’s part of the Western Maine contingent that flies south in the winter. “It’s an old English name,” he says, when I ask him to spell Shirley, “and Chaplin is Chaplin like Charlie.” He shows us around his workshop. He’s been fixing boats, cars, snowmobiles—basically anything with a motor—since he was 18, and the work has brought him up and down the East Coast, although he prefers the Lovell area, his hometown, to just about anywhere else.

“None of this would be here,” he says, gesturing toward nothing in particular with a fistful of blackened rag, “if it weren’t for the lake.” Certainly all the motorboats scattered about the tall grass wouldn’t, and neither would most of the stores and gift shops and restaurants in Lovell—not that there are many of those. I get the sense that what is here has been around for a while, has stood the test of time and couldn’t be gotten rid of without a fight. Summer folks come to experience a certain degree of quaintness, but more than anything they come for the lake. “It’s gorgeous,” Chaplin says about Kezar, although he doesn’t get much recreational time on the water in the summer, he’s so busy with work. “I decided to sell my boat a while back, but I don’t think I would have trouble finding one to use if I wanted to. Just about everyone with a boat on this lake would probably lend me theirs if I asked.”

Kezar Lake is a long and twisted ten miles, approximately 2,500 acres of cool, fresh, deep lake that has been a famous retreat—especially for well-to-do families from Boston, New York City, and Philadelphia—since the early twentieth century. Around that time, traditional Maine fishing camps were built up around Kezar—rustic, waterside cabins available for rent for weeks or months at a time, complete with maid service and world-class meals served in breezy dining halls (I imagine tailcoats and heavy flatware and crickets and the sounds of laughter traveling across still water; there’s also a rumor that Greta Garbo tanned in the nude while visiting the home of Hollywood crooner Rudy Vallée). Eventually many of these hotels and lodges disbanded, camps were bought up and rebuilt, but there are still throwbacks to elegant collective living in Severance Lodge Club, a community of private homes on the eastern edge of the lake. To this day, the lake remains largely undeveloped, and a generous portion of the waterfront property remains in the hands of the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Kezar’s original summer people.

Greta and I get our first peek at the water down West Lovell Road to the Kezar Lake Marina and Loon’s Nest Restaurant. Crossing the bridge at the narrows, we find the maze of docks bustling with groups coming in from the lake and going out, on motorboats but also kayaks and dinghies. A lot of tan, teenaged marina employees move confidently about on the docks, tying tricky knots and filling gas tanks. It isn’t difficult to spot the man in charge: Lee Conary is in his element this summer, and probably every summer. “You can’t complain on a day like today,” I hear him say to someone leaving his shop. Conary is a youthful, middle-aged man who has been running the marina for decades now. “Kids who worked for me 20 years ago have started bringing in their kids now,” he tells me, “saying this is Johnny or Bobby or whatever, and he’s old enough to work for you now. I don’t feel old.” Conary shakes his head. “I’ve written letters of recommendation for kids who went off to Harvard, MIT, the Naval Academy, Wal-Mart. This is a real bouquet of humanity. It’s a place for people from all over the country, the world. And that’s been the joy.”

Conary is set on getting us out on the lake, and makes fifteen-year-old Liz Grzyb the envy of all her coworkers when he assigns her to the task of being our tour guide for part of the afternoon. We putter down the narrow slip of water, past a couple on a dock in the shade of towering pines, dipping their toes in the water, and it is all very lovely, but when the lake opens up and New Hampshire’s White Mountains come into view, the majesty of Kezar overwhelms. I notice even shy Liz Grzyb looks our way to gauge our reactions, and I think she is satisfied with our wide eyes and dropped jaws. Given the beauty of Kezar Lake and its relative proximity to Maine’s largest city (less than one and a half hours), as well as to Boston (less than four), the waterfront is remarkably undeveloped. We pass few boats, and the brown and deep-green camps I detect along the shoreline blend into the woods that surround them. More obvious are the Adirondack chairs, bright white and red, planted in rows upon the shore like huge flowers.

Stephen Anderson, a lifelong Kezar resident and the newly appointed president of the Severance Lodge Club, has told me that National Geographic named Kezar Lake the third most beautiful lake in the world, which comes as little surprise, although the appeal of the lake for the people who love it cannot be distilled to any ranking. From what people have told me, Kezar is Kezar because of the people. The beauty is in the landscape but also in particular porches and smells, in forest grounds slick with pine needles, dense with memories of midnight swims and first kisses.


A frozen lake in winter

It is January. Greta and I turn down Pleasant Point Road, toward Quisisana, a music resort in hibernation. The rambling, boarded-up wooden halls and small cabins are tucked away in the trees, infused with cold and coated in a layer of snow. In the summer, these woods echo with the sounds of Rodgers and Hammerstein, but now, nothing. We park and walk out onto the frozen lake, admiring the vastness, the scalloped edges of the White Mountains a darker blue than before, and it is still beautiful.

Along Main Street toward Fryeburg we pass farmhouse after frosted farmhouse—the remnants of the robust nineteenth-century Lovell—and finally enjoy the privilege of tucking into one, in the company of artist Roger Williams, his wife, Jane, and their four dogs. Surrounded by his oil and watercolor landscapes inspired by trips out West and to Europe, but also by Lovell, we talk about what brought Roger Williams to Maine from Ohio almost 40 years ago. His story is a classic one: a vacation to the Pine Tree State inspired a move. Williams traded a well-paying job with one of the largest advertising agencies in the country for a change of life, an opportunity to paint more.

He thought he might settle on the coast, but the charm and affordability of the 1834 farmhouse with room for his horses was too perfect to pass up. Now, together with Jane, he’s made this farmhouse more perfect than ever. They’ve lofted the space where we sit to let in more light, and fixed up the screened-in porch that runs along the side of the house, filling it with lovely wooden antiques and knickknacks that fit the country, lakeside aesthetic that defines western Maine. His studio was picked up for nothing in a sale ($100) and then picked up—literally hoisted and carried—and put down behind the house and garage. This light-filled shed is thoughtfully cluttered with art books and paints, canvases, plants, and pictures. In the woods behind their house, Jane and Roger have built the treehouse of every kid’s wildest dreams, where Girl Scout troops and soccer teams camp out in the summer.

To some, Kezar might seem out of the way; for others, it is the way—the roads through Bridgton and Sweden lead home. Lovell is a place where people work to create the community they want to live in rather than expecting it to work miracles for them. Proof is in the library, which has garnered tremendous support from summer folks and year-round Lovell residents alike (Roger helped build a play space for the kids room), the school system, and Fryeburg Academy, which is well over 200 years old (and where Jane is on the school board).

Lovell itself is not fancy, no matter how many grand homes exist down long dirt roads. Neither Roger nor Jane nor Stephen Anderson nor Lee Conary chose to live here for the fine restaurants or museums or theaters (although it can’t go without saying that Lovell is home to world-class beer bar Ebenezer’s Pub and Restaurant, also at the end of a dirt road). Lovell is a place where families spend evenings chopping vegetables together instead of waiting for their plates to arrive. They fill their spaces with local crafts and art of their own making, or their neighbor’s. Perhaps there is no better example of this than Lynda Rasco and Bill Rudd’s Harvest Gold Gallery, perched on a hill with a view like a painting. The tender love and care that has gone into maintenance of this centuries-old home is reflected in the rooms upon rooms of art and jewelry and sculpture inside. Here, art isn’t a painting in a gallery as much as a way of life, a summer meal of fresh brook trout and buttered corn, an afternoon in the garden.


First signs of green and warmth in Lovell

It is May. I’ve come to Western Maine to see summer waking up, to put my finger on the pulse of Lovell in spring. Buds are popping, and the trees are blooming in that new, light-bright green. There is the sound of machines in the air, men at work patching roofs, painting siding, raking yards. I go right up to the lake’s edge and stand beneath the towering pines that shaded the peaceful pair I noticed on the dock last summer. The water I’d walked on in January is blue again, sparkling in the sun, inviting me in. Sheets still cover the porch furniture of some lake homes, and cobwebs still fill corners, but in others I see windows already ajar, winter’s dampness leaving on the breeze.

When hunger strikes, I visit Rosie’s for the third time since July, order another soda in a glass bottle and eat another sandwich at the bar while listening in on the friendly chatter all around me. Rosie’s is a diner and convenience store where just about everyone in Lovell from any walk of life is known by name, and even, in some cases, by order.

“Every day I get this one guy in,” Rose McKenzie told Greta and me from across the counter last winter. “He always gets a poached egg and one slice of dry rye toast, and he likes it on a larger plate and he likes it with a fork and knife and a cup of coffee, and he never wants a spoon. On Sunday,” she goes on, “he gets crispy bacon to go with it and an extra egg.” A lifelong Lovell girl, McKenzie has a dry wit and the face of an eternal high school sweetheart—small features and pink cheeks and a little smile to go with the blunt way she has about her. When she’s not taking orders or making orders to keep the restaurant and convenience store fully stocked, she’s also the town’s unofficial postmaster, passing off thank-you notes, checks for plumbers or contractors, invoices for home owners—all left in her care with the knowledge that so-and-so will be by soon enough.

I asked her if it’s true that Stephen King, who lives in the area, put her in one of his books, and she practically zips her lips. I can’t find out from anyone else, either. Lovell people are protective of Lovell people, and I don’t know if anyone in town is as universally adored as Rose McKenzie.

She has created a place for everyone, for any time of year—although she prefers summer. “It’s busy, but everyone’s happy. I look out the window and I see people walking to the park, to the library. It’s nice.” When we ask her how she describes Lovell to people who have never been there she answers, without a pause, “I just tell them it’s the best town in Maine.”

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