The main lodge, a dark brown chaletesque structure at the edge of the lake, today holds 24 guests. Back then, though, the three floors were intended for just one or two families and their entourages, with a nursery and servants' quarters on the third floor. Syracuse University reconfigured it to include more dorm-type rooms, with just one communal bathroom at the end of each hall. Looking past an open door to a room at the end of my hallway, I tried to imagine Gene Tierney standing in front of her mirror, putting on her frock for dinner.
The great room downstairs, however, remains cozy, with a giant, rough-hewn table for playing games, built-in bookshelves full of classics and a log fire popping and hissing in the hearth deep into the night.
By 1901, 26 years after his father's death, William Durant had driven his fortune into the ground and his sister was suing him for mismanagement. So the prodigal son sold his dear Sagamore to Alfred G. Vanderbilt, and the new owners expanded the camp to include several more buildings (the bowling alley was their idea), including the Wigwam guest cottage where the men of the party would sit on the porch overlooking the river to smoke cigars and drink.
Alfred Vanderbilt died in the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. But Margaret Emerson, his second wife, continued to come to Sagamore every summer. Margaret, a member of the Croquet Hall of Fame, did not want for guests. Among her visitors were Tierney, Gary Cooper, Lord Mountbatten and Madam Chiang Kai-Shek.
Meals then, as now, were announced by the call of a triangle. On a paneled wall at the end of the dining room is a photograph of Vanderbilt and his well-dressed comrades relaxing over dinner. Turn around, and the room remains, eerily, almost identical. But dinners are more informal nowadays, with chafing-dish buffets and bus-your-own plates.
My husband, Paul, a hiker by avocation, had discovered the joys of canoeing, and we went out before breakfast and after dinner every day, paddling in the mist on Sagamore Lake. We made a few day hikes, and one rainy day drove into the town of Blue Mountain Lake to visit the terrific Adirondacks Museum, offering a marvelous overview of the park and, yes, even the great camps.
Paul paddled around Sagamore Lake while I drove the back roads and little towns shopping for a classic Adirondack chair for him. Many of Sagamore's guests were there for Family Week, which included a full schedule of hikes, games and picnics. Another dozen or so had come from as far away as California for the rustic furniture and blacksmithing workshops.
One of Sagamore's missions is to keep alive the rustic Adirondack traditions, and there is a definite sense of education about the place. Summer interns lead intensive two-hour tours twice a day.
An undiscovered treasure
White Pine Camp on Osgood Pond also offers daily tours. In fact, Kirschenbaum, instrumental in saving and restoring Sagamore, is part-owner of White Pine, and calls it a museum as well as a lodge. He'll point out the asymmetrical buildings and use of windows in unexpected places, as well as the whimsical, roughly hewn "brainstorm" siding (so called because Ben Muncil got an irresistible flash of inspiration for its design) used in their construction.
Across the pond from the elegant tea house at White Pine Camp is Northbrook Lodge, where we stayed for our last three nights. We were met in the parking lot by a shaggy dog named Huxley, and owner Laura-Jean Schwartau, both of whom accompanied us to our room.
When we opened the door, we got a mental whiff of why people came to the Adirondacks. The room was enormous, with log walls, a big fireplace and bay windows overlooking the porch, thick trees, and the lake beyond. Sunlight warmed the crocheted cloth over a small table with a dainty fringed lamp. Two rocking chairs on the braided rug pointed toward the fireplace.
If Sagamore is the grand poobah of great camps today, Northbrook is the still-undiscovered treasure.
Laura-Jean, a bespectacled young woman with a ready smile, emphasizes the lack of organized activities here. As she and her brother did growing up at Northbrook after their dad bought it in 1952, visitors make their own fun. Northbrook was built in 1918 by Wilfred McDougald, a surgeon and member of Canada's parliament. McDougald was involved in a conflict-of-interest scandal over a water power project on the St. Lawrence River, and smuggled alcohol during Prohibition. Laura-Jean can show you where he hid his contraband in the cellar, behind an enormous combination-lock door.
All the guest cottages have private baths and most have working fireplaces and refrigerators. Our room was so comfortable we had to drag ourselves away from it for meals, shopping excursions in Saranac Lake and a trip to Lake Placid to go bobsledding on the Olympic runs.