Swim to the platform? Let’s play sardines! A summer day on Rangeley Lake at one family’s lakeside getaway.
On a certain section of Rangeley Lake-a grassy stretch on the north shore-the family is gathering on the sunny lawn. They’ve come from Cape Elizabeth, Yarmouth, Boston, and beyond. The day stretches sweetly on in the sunshine- warmed scenery, with dogs fetching (or napping) and the youngest children toddling from parents to aunts to cousins. Swim now, and swim again. Watch the water and the line of mountaintops. Sit, swing, and read. There’s no reason to go anywhere else.
It’s a beautiful, golden-light morning, and Dana Wigton woke up again at her camp. The place is a they-don’t-build-them-like- this-anymore classic, constructed partly of logs and partly of shingles. A long, wide porch connects two of what was once three separate cabins that were built side by side over the past 100-plus years. Just across the broad green lawn, Rangeley Lake glistens.
Altogether, this is called the Log House, and it’s the family gathering place all summer long, for those who can get to the private compound for the weekend or a week or two. It’s just a few minutes’ drive or boat ride from Rangeley’s Main Street shops and shorefront. The number of family members gathered here can add up quickly. Wigton has four grown children and 11 grandchildren. Her four siblings also bring their families to Rangeley Lake—some residing in newer homes right next door on adjoining parcels of their great-grandparents’ original 150-acre tract.
Friends are frequent visitors at the Log House, too, and I’m lucky enough to be included one sweet summer day. Another early guest is one of Wigton’s daughters, Courtney Thoreck, who made the three- hour drive northwest from Cape Elizabeth and turned in to follow the property’s unpaved road through the woods to get here. She’s a mom of four children herself, but her companions this day are two black Labrador retrievers that immediately jump out and scamper toward the lakefront. Thoreck is wearing a cowboy hat in the bright sunshine, and her smile beams as she looks up at the lineup of roof peaks that she’s visited often since she was a child.
“I could get here with my eyes closed,” she says. Every mile, every turn from Cape Elizabeth is familiar. One of her dogs began barking excitedly along the way, Thoreck says. “He knew exactly where he was going, too.”
The Log House(s)
Inside these century-old structures with stone fireplaces, a cozy camp style is in full effect. There’s a long dining table, plenty of wooden chairs, books, games, and plush sofas. Trophy-sized salmon from the family’s catch on the lake are mounted on the wall. On side tables are family photographs in frames—three of Wigton’s children held their weddings here. In the kitchen, an old iron wood stove is still in place. Wigton says they light it on cool late-summer nights to help warm the house, and she recalls her uncle using it regularly to bake bread. Beds with fluffy comforters and quilts fill the upstairs spaces, so there’s a place for everyone. Even the garage has been converted for second-floor sleeping rooms. “To me, it’s a treasure,” Wigton says, showing us around the rooms—all with log- and wood-paneled walls. “It’s a place to get away, zone out, and be together.”
There’s always maintenance to be done, including repairs and revamping of the porch and the septic system, a new outdoor shower, and painting of the exterior. To help with everything, Mike Greifendorf is the general caretaker. He’s busy felling a birch tree today, and at one point he appears to let everyone know about the deer that have wandered into the rear yard, in case we want to see. Also, the woodhouse is well- stocked, but he’ll bring more soon. “The kids love fire,” Wigton says. “They keep the fireplaces going all day, all summer.” That day, logs have burned to hot coals in the large stone barbecue grill where everyone will meet at picnic tables for a cookout at lunch.
The day rolls on with conversation and sun-warmed relaxing. Other family guests drive up or walk over from neighboring lots, and a few arrive by kayak. Another Wigton daughter, Mandy Queally, arrives with her two young children, Annabelle and Otis. They’ll be swimming soon, but first, the kids are interested in the s’mores to be made with marshmallows toasted on sticks. More than a dozen family members will be coming by, and that’s considered a smaller crowd at this family’s gathering spot for six generations—Wigton says there can easily be 20 or more on some weekends.
Fish and Photographs
On the porch, which is outfitted with wicker furniture and soft cushions, Wigton has been going through and organizing a stack of old family photo albums on one of the tables. In black-and-white photographs from the early to mid-1900s, we see men holding up stringers heavy with fish. Women holding fish. Campfires. Family around fireplaces. Boats, guides, and fishing parties.
Fishing was a major part of the lake’s attraction for Wigton’s great-grandparents in the early 1900s, she explains. Visitors could arrive by train from Portland, and the Rangeley Inn and Tavern, which is freshly updated and still in operation, was already open and welcoming guests. It was 1912 when steel company owners William A. Garrigues and Lily Maxwell Garrigues of Plainfield, New Jersey, bought their 150 acres of lake-facing farmland here and began building the log house and planting trees. Wigton says, “They’d found a rural piece of heaven on the lake.” The property would eventually include docks, the wide lawn, horseshoe pits, and grilling/picnic areas. There’s also a two-story boathouse, which served for many years as the in-water garage for the family’s classic Chris Craft motor boat, a favorite for summer night cruises.
Watching her lift each photo while sitting in a house so full of memorabilia and memories is one of those experiences when history becomes fascinating and real. She tells me about a dear aunt who lived in the Log House. According to Wigton, Helen Garrigues was married to the always- dapper Bill Garrigues, Jr., who was a summer resident of Rangeley for more than 90 years. Aunt Helen typically wore rubber bands on her wrists, and the family believes that it’s her spirit that somehow still playfully leaves bands in unexpected places, including the dishwasher.
During this visit to the lake, I do some exploring nearby and stop a few miles west in the lakefront town of Oquossoc, at a museum that celebrates the history of the Rangeley Lakes region. It’s the Outdoor Sporting Heritage Museum, situated across from the Oquossoc Grocery (which has good sandwiches, fresh produce, and fried haddock baskets for takeout). The collection there includes photographs strikingly similar to the Garrigues’s images, along with a double-ended Rangeley boat on display. The wooden watercraft was famously stable in the water, and helped to make the area a legendary fishing and tourist destination by the late 1800s. By 1900, at least 200 fishing guides were reportedly working in the area, and fishing for landlocked salmon and lake trout is still popular here.
At the Rangeley Inn, where I’ve booked a room, the Tavern looks like a handsome wood-walled counterpart to the Wigtons’ place. There, overlooking the wide porches of Main Street, my dinner is a delicious noodle bowl with shrimp, mushrooms, and carrots. There’s also fresh steamed mussels in a broth with thyme, and a very vanilla (I can see the bean specks) crème brûlée served in a Weck jar. Downtown Rangeley has several restaurants and cafes, notably the 1960s-era Pine Top Frosty ice cream stand, where customers line up for seafood baskets and ice cream cones, while begging ducks from Haley Pond wander near. It’s still August, but in this lake town, more than 100 miles north of Portland, there’s a sweater-worthy chill already when the sun goes down.
Stay to Play
While at camp, the family can get into plenty of friendly games and competitions. There’s a tennis court through the woods and up the hill. (Years ago, Wigton says, there was plenty of excitement the day her mother walked up to find a bear inside the court fence.) The bocce set with balls that glow in the dark is a favorite with adults. And in the converted garage is a pool table and dart boards that get plenty of use from the family’s teenagers.
Thoreck spends part of the afternoon on a paddleboard. She’s trying to get her younger dog, Murray, used to the experience of balancing while she stands and paddles along the shore and around the swim platform. Meanwhile, the more seasoned dog, Sawyer, watches from the shore.
Dana’s brother, Dick Wigton, created the Wigton International Mountain Pursuit competition on a lark in 2000, when friends gathered to swim across the Rangeley town cove, bike to the base lodge of Saddleback, and then run to the top of the mountain. Known as the WIMP, the triathlon-style event became popular, and the weekend it was held always culminated in a campfire breakfast at the Log House. Family and friends continued to organize it annually for about a decade, he says, attracting as many as 150 participants.
Here’s one for the younger set at the lake: sardines, a reverse version of hide- and-seek that Wigton and Thoreck say the kids love to play on summer nights. Whoever is “it” runs off as quietly as possibly to find a hiding place and then stays perfectly still. When others find that person, they hide with him or her, and whoever is last to find the hiding group becomes the next “it.” The kick is that once your eyes adjust to the darkness, you suddenly realize that near the firewood bin or the clothesline or outdoor shower, there are other kids hiding still and quietly too. In the dark, you’re not alone; you’re packed in like sardines. Meanwhile, out there in the moonlight, the 6,000-acre Rangeley Lake shimmers on.
There’s a rule of thumb that a five-hour- or-less drive is the optimal distance for a vacation place. Dana Wigton has hers. And she’s joyful about sharing the stories and the space.
When showing me around the kitchen, she points out the ceiling that’s lined with thick wood beams and hung with dozens of coffee cups in all shapes and colors. This is another tradition at the Log House, she explains. After visiting once, if you’d like to return, you are asked to bring your own coffee cup to keep here. Looking up at the mugs, I think of the people and good times they must represent to this family—so many summer mornings on the lakefront. It’s something small and simple, but worthwhile: a reminder of the possibilities and promise of more wile-it-away days to share in the years ahead.