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Ginger Quill Memories

2010 May 27
by Frederick B. Smith, Jr.

My memories are not that clear.

I remember feelings, brief moments and impressions. Most memories run together. Many things that I did over and over, like playing cards with grandpa, I can only really recall as a composite of all the events in one memory. I remember playing cards, but each memory of playing seems attached to the same game. In fact each little memory came from many of the games I played with him. I’m sorry I can’t hold those memories together chronologically and remember details. So much of the wonder of Ginger Quill was in the details.

Grandma Fishing on the Au Sable

So many memories come back to me with smells, and Ginger Quill had distinctive smells. Even as we arrived up north in the forest we could begin to smell the pine. We drove with our windows open in those days because we had no air conditioning and mom and dad both smoked. When we arrived and stopped the car at Ginger Quill the smell was intense — pine, fur, and balsam. It was not overpowering, and at the time we were probably too young to pay attention to it. It made an impression though. Walking into the main cabin you smell the cedar walls, the pine floors and the fireplace smoke; again, it was not overpowering, but soothing. There was the smell of fly dope in dad’s tackle box, the smell of waders in the tackle room and the oil and gas where the small outboard engines were kept. The smell of pine in the bathrooms and those little football shaped gel bath oil beads and bubble bath beads.

There were the sounds of the wind through the trees, the low, not quite rumble of the river, punctuated by the trickle of water over a tree limb. The endless assortment of birds and the occasional large gunshot from Camp Grayling. The water pump coming on and the constant hum of the generator. The sound of canoe paddles striking the sides of canoes, a pole crunching into the gravel riverbed and riverboat chains being dragged over the rocks or being picked up and dropped into a boat. Mostly the sounds at Ginger Quill were quiet, soothing and peaceful.

I remember running like crazy around the dining cabin to the gazebo or down to the main cabin dock, stopping with a scream after encountering a large snake sunning itself on the sidewalk or the dock. We went screaming to the first adult we could find yelling “rattlesnake, rattlesnake, rattlesnake.” Those poor snakes. Few were poisonous and, in all the years I spent at Ginger Quill, I never really saw a rattlesnake.

I remember swinging wildly on the gazebo swings and peeling the bark off the swings to get at the sawdust left behind by boring insects, constantly being reprimanded by adults. I remember peering down into the water inside the boathouse seeing the large trout swimming in water brilliantly lit by the sun.

I remember playing with those large medicine balls and the exercise pins and climbing on the fireplace rocks. I remember chasing bats in the “Boy’s Cabin” with tennis rackets and snowshoes. I remember the rough stucco walls scratching my skin. I don’t, however, remember girls at Ginger Quill. I remember the caretaker’s daughter Bonnie Borchers and grandma, but I must have been there alone most of the time or with my brother, Geof, or cousin, Chris Olson. I do remember sleeping with Barbie Defoe once but it was at the small Defoe cabin and I was about five.

I remember chasing  Bonnie around and pulling her bathing suit top down and how upset she got. I wasn’t sure why she was upset but the fact that she was made it all that much more fun. Somehow grandma found out and we had a very serious talk. Most talks with grandma were serious. She sat on the daybed and I on a straight back chair. Next to me was a large green bottle as big around as I was and almost as tall. I came away from that talk more confused than ever. I still didn’t know what the big deal was but I did know I was not to do it again. I think I was ten. It could have been the beginning of my…. Oh, never mind.

I remember sitting on the main cabin lawn on bright blue chaise rockers drinking Squirt out of brightly colored anodized aluminum tumblers. Gnats swarmed around our heads and occasionally flies would take a chunk out of us. Grandma would often complain about all the canoers but when they tipped over in Ghoul’s Hole, she invited them to dry their things on the lawn and fed them lunch.

Map of Camp Ginger Quill

I remember poling upstream being very difficult, but easier each year. I remember one foot on the dock and one in a boat as the boat went out into the river so I fell into it — the cold Au Sable. I remember holding on Dad’s neck (feeling the rough stubble on his neck and smelling his Yardly aftershave) as he swam across the river at the dining cabin. My cousin Chris and I canoed down from Stephans bridge often but once we met Trish Hayes and another blond girl on our way down. I fell madly in love with that little blond girl but never saw her again, except in a few dreams. I was probably twelve. Chris always found friends on the river.

Grandma often had us clear rocks from her garden path and paid us a penny a rock. I played canasta with grandpa most every night for 1/10 of a cent a point. I always won or he let me win. I didn’t care at the time. I’ll always remember him yelling “YIP” with delight when he had a red three and collected 100 points. I would have to excuse myself to organize my cards on the window seat at the end of the Main cabin living room. I would always hold my cards to the end and call “canasta” all of a sudden, catching grandpa by surprise. He would then take me back to his safe and give me several crisp unused one dollar bills.

Grandma always read to me. She made Christopher Robin, Winnie the Pooh, and Alice in Wonderland seem like real people. They were my friends. She would play classical music and sing. I remember the fishing log and the old whaling log books. Tying flies that would never catch a fish, the dark river at night and the gloop of a fish rising unseen. The chipmunks, the tapping of woodpeckers and Bucky our pet deer and the sadness we felt upon hearing he’d been killed.

I remember being sent out with Bonnie and Butch Borchers to pick wild blueberries. Somehow my bucket had more leaves and twigs than berries and Bonnie’s bucket was full to overflowing, each berry perfect. I remember getting into trouble. I was probably goofing off when I should have been picking. I remember fishing among the trees across from the Boy’s Cabin. The current wasn’t too strong and there were always fish rising there. Never caught anything, though. I caught my first fish right off the main cabin dock. I remember my first guided fishing trip. One of the Wakeley boys (18) was my guide. I felt like a man, a real big shot. Didn’t catch anything as I remember but a really big one got away. I remember the huge infestation of green worms.

I don’t ever remember sleeping better than I did at Ginger Quill. Probably the cool nights, comforting surrounding, soothing sounds, the hard work and play each day or maybe the sense of love and peace.

On occasion I went fishing with Dad. I sat in the center of the boat in a specially-made boat seat with a back support. I don’t remember fishing much nor do I remember Dad catching many fish. I do remember sandwiches, soup and cookies though. I remember peeing over the side of the boat into the river. Everyone did that. So I thought. One day when several of the women saw us off at Stephans bridge, I had to go to the bathroom, so I started peeing off the bank into the river. I was unceremoniously grabbed and carried, trailing urine, to a nearby bush. I didn’t understand why it was OK some of the time and not others, but the point had been made.

I remember our caretakers, the Borchers — the large woman named Zoe with her friendly smile and bright demeanor and her husband, Al, who was somber and stern, along with their children, Bonnie, and her kid brother, Butch.

Butch could cast a fly line like a grown man and didn’t think much of our skills. Bonnie was smart and more mature than I. Her parents were very strict with her. She was a talented accordion player. Zoe and the kids were very Catholic. Al was not. I remember seeing Al in the hospital when he was dying of cancer. He was so thin Zoe could pick him up with one hand. He converted to Catholicism just before he died so his funeral was a high Catholic Mass. We all went but of course were lost because it was very long and all in Latin. We joked about the priest saying his father played dominoes, or what sounded like that. I remember feeling very sad.

My closest high school friends Buzz Berger, Jim Knake and Mike Gruber and I took a one-week canoe trip every high school summer from Ray’s in Grayling down to the back waters. We had tents and sleeping bags but spent at least four days in the “Boys Cabin.” We all became big smokers on those trips. I remember the caretaker coming in to check on us as four cigarette butts flew into the fireplace in formation — as if he cared if we smoked or not. Those were great trips. We slapped our paddles on the water just to make noise. Mike broke a paddle and tried to tell Ray’s that it had dry rot. Mike bought the paddle. We fished for breakfast but came away hungry. Those were great “coming of age” trips for us. Sleeping in wet sleeping bags after tipping over, waking up in a driving rain storm. Mosquitoes as big as humming birds and enough of them to carry us off. I remember seeing Buzz’s arm outside of his sleeping bag so covered with mosquitoes that you could hardly see his skin.

My first hunting trip was in the Ginger Quill woods. Grandma let us do it because she knew we wouldn’t hit anything. Dad and I went bow hunting for deer. Never even saw a deer. Probably making too much noise. Did take a shot at a flying squirrel though. I was shaking so much I missed him by three feet. Later that day we went partridge hunting with shotguns. Didn’t find any partridge but saw twenty deer. Last hunting trip of my life.

I remember the few times we went to Ginger Quill during the winter. We were up north skiing. I went once with Aunt Cynthia and Uncle Dwight, along with cousins Chris and Cathy. Another time Dad took us up with Andy the Swede, our exchange student that year. We drove to the corner store one cold wintry day and the road was packed solid with snow and ice. When we got on the main road Dad started showing off and tried to scare us by jerking the wheel and sliding a little. We slid a lot and got stuck in a snow bank for two hours.

The main cabin lacked insulation so the fireplace and heater had to work hard to keep us warm. The river was magnificent. This river was like a black ribbon slicing through the snow-covered landscape. The snow was perfect, covering every inch of the ground in a pure white blanket. The evergreens burdened with their heavy load of snow still stood full upright with contrasting dark green and white and the hardwoods stood naked, small patches of snow clinging to their branches. And still the steady roar of the river brought the water right up to the snow’s edge. Everything was either land or water, even man made structures. The dock, save its lack of trees, was just another part of the riverbank. Of course we ran all over and messed it up.

My college fraternity (TKE) formal was held at Ginger Quill. It’s a faint memory now but I do remember it was unlike any other formal before and since. It was my senior year at Alma and we wanted something unusual. There were probably a hundred college students doing all the things college students did back then and loving it. We pulled all the furniture back in the Main Cabin and created a dance floor. We snuggled by a warm fire and we drank beer. We necked in the woods until the mosquitoes got to us and we sang on the dock to canoers who paddled by. In the end they cleaned up and put everything back where it belonged. I remember my cousin Jill down on the dock singing “howja, howja, howja like ta bite…..” although that could be one of those memories that comes from hearing about it and not actually having been there.

More recently my wife Kathy and I were on the river. We stayed at Gates’ but waded from Ghoul’s Hole to Wakeley’s and the next day canoed from Burton’s Landing down to Wakeley’s. On our canoe trip we met one of the new owners of Ginger Quill. They invited us in and we spent the night there. It was an overwhelmingly emotional experience. Much had changed, but the spirit is still there. People are still being touched and they are caring for it. I feel blessed to have had Kathy with me to share the visit, as she had never seen Ginger Quill when we owned it. We didn’t sleep as well as I had remembered, but I was pretty emotional. We stayed in the corner bedroom at the end of the living room.

The sounds and smells were the same.

I swear I heard Grandpa yell “Yip.”

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