Indian Lake, New York (CNN) — Imagine waking up to the sound of birds and waves from an adjacent lake gently lapping at the shore.
Instead of reaching for your phone to check Twitter or Facebook, you reach for a book. Your day begins in utter stillness: no television, no Wi-Fi and no electricity.
This is life at Timberlock, one of the oldest family resorts in the Adirondacks, where guests book a year in advance to unplug and unwind from late June through late September.
“Believe me, it is more important than ever to have no electricity. Not having electricity forces you to come together, and is a huge bonus in my view,” said Judy Kenyon, 79, whose family has gone to Timberlock every year except one since 1981.
The 2018 season is nearly sold out, and guests can book for 2019 beginning February 1, 2018.
Back to basics
Guests stay in lake-view rustic cabins with basic bathrooms with a shower or tub or “tentlets,” tents with wooden floors and cots but nothing else. A communal outhouse with showers is just down a nearby path.
There is no electricity in the cabins, but guests 12 years and older can curl up with a book at night in the adult lodge, a large wooden cabin with a huge stone fireplace and lots of cozy corners. A wide porch on one end, with comfy rocking chairs and big, plump cushions, offers gorgeous views of the lake and wilderness area on the distant shore.
The nearby kids’ lodge, complete with ping-pong, foosball and other games beckons children of all ages.
Three times a day, the ringing of a bell signals it’s time to eat, with meals served communally in an open-air dining area filled with long picnic tables overlooking the lake. Think steel cut oatmeal, homemade muffins and fruit salad for breakfast, and Caesar salad with chicken breast and lentil soup for lunch.
With no phones at the table, guests engage in conversation with family, friends and with total strangers, who aren’t strangers for long. After dinner, co-owner Bruce Catlin or one of the regulars lights a campfire and guests gather to swap stories or sing songs. Those who have been to Timberlock before — which is nearly everyone — bring the fixings for s’mores to share.
The cool nights are completely and utterly dark, which makes for exceptional stargazing. Occasionally the flicker of propane lamps can be seen bobbing through the woods in the hands of guests walking along the trails.
As picturesque as Timberlock is, what makes it special, and what draws generations of guests, is the sense of family; not just one’s own family, but the extended Timberlock family.
This isn’t surprising, considering that only three families have ever owned Timberlock, which was founded in the 19th century as a logging camp and hosted its first guests in 1899. Current owners Bruce and Holly Catlin, both 56, took over from Bruce’s parents Dick and Barb in 2000. Dick purchased the camp in 1963 after falling in love with it as a child in the 1950s.
Holly began going to Timberlock when she and Bruce were dating in college, and she hasn’t missed a summer in 32 years. The Catlins’ three children have all worked summers at the camp, and their two sons, Nick, 17, and Gus, 20, may take over one day. (Their daughter, Caroline, 25, who was a psychology major in college, is the outlier.)
“It is a hard place to describe,” said Holly Catlin, sitting in an Adirondack chair next to the open-air fireplace on a warm September day.
“I think of how many people have come here and made lifelong friends. That’s a very big part of this. It is a really wonderful thing and that’s something I haven’t experienced as a guest elsewhere.”
It’s not unusual for families — many of whom have been coming for 30 years or more with succeeding generations — to coordinate their vacations with other families and watch their children develop lifelong friendships.
In an age when children spend their days on the computer, watching television or looking down at their phones, Timberlock demands engagement in the best possible sense. Kids are free to roam, making the camp reminiscent of days gone by when children left their homes in the morning and returned at dusk.
Dan DiPaolo, 22, was only four months old on his first visit, and he’s been coming back every summer since. His family stopped returning as guests when he was 11 or 12, at which time he joined Voyageurs, an adventure camp for teens at Timberlock. He started working on staff when he was 16 and began leading Voyageurs two years ago.
“The Voyagers kept me coming back,” said DiPaolo, speaking in the camp office after serving and clearing breakfast. We’d go on extended or overnight trips, back packing, rock climbing, water skiing and all the good things we have around camp here, but Voyageurs is a little more hands on, and teaches a lot of wilderness skills. It also teaches kids how to take care of themselves out in the woods, and how to get along and help each other out.”
Jan Fairhurst, 62, and her family have been going to Timberlock for 30 years.
“When our kids were little we would give them the option of going to Disney World or Timberlock, and they would all scream ‘Timberlock!'” Fairhurst said.
Kids and adults alike can get active with swimming, water-skiing, sailing, kayaking and other water sports; hiking, tennis, biking, horseback riding, archery, volleyball and various other ball sports, plus off-site golfing.
However, if guests want to do something that isn’t scheduled, the Catlins say they will make it happen. Likewise, guests can curl up with a good book without any pressure to join an activity.
“It’s like having a party at your house for ten straight weeks,” said Bruce Catlin, sitting in his office in the original 1860 structure.
“It’s not glamping”
Mary Benton Frasier has been co-host and cook for those “parties” for 20 years. Her mother was the camp cook from 1975 to 1987, and Frasier began helping out as a teenager. She now cooks two meals a day (the Catlins are in charge of breakfast) and sleeps in her own cabin five nights a week.
“Timberlock is a nice way to go camping without actually camping,” said Frasier, 56, on a cool September evening after dinner. “It’s not glamping. We’ve been around long before glamping,” she added laughing.
Actually, Frasier isn’t too far off. In an unpublished article, “Timberlock, A History of an Adirondack Summer Camp” by John Sasso, one early guest described Timberlock as a place “where you can enjoy all the romance of camping in a tent while having the protection of a hotel, without the unpleasant features of either.”
Over the years, a few guests have arrived with hairdryers and television sets, expecting to plug in. But Bruce Catlin said that he asks first-time guests some hard questions when taking a reservation to avoid such misunderstandings.
There is a landline for guests’ use and for those who absolutely must check email, there is an Ethernet cable. Most guests forgo both and relish the opportunity to be off-line.
“It’s actually become one of our biggest selling points,” said Bruce Catlin.
And just how much do people want to disconnect? Enough to book their vacation a full year in advance. At the end of every week, a calendar for the following summer is passed around for guests to book their spot, and by the end of the season Timberlock is nearly booked for the following year.
Jaimie Seaton is a New Hampshire-based writer, who has lived in Europe, Africa and Asia. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including Newsweek, the Washington Post and O, The Oprah Magazine. Follow her on @JaimieSeaton.