Back in the summers of 1962 and 1963, Bob Mercer signed on as a counselor at a boys camp in East Orland called Flying Moose Lodge.
For two summers, he led excursions into the wilds of Maine, from Baxter State Park to the Allagash to the Appalachian Trail.
After two years, he left Flying Moose Lodge.
But Flying Moose Lodge never left him.
“There’s an ambiance about the place,” Mercer, a Bucksport resident, said earlier this week, revisiting his old stomping grounds as another season’s Flying Moosers (“strong and husky, here we gather, tanned and dusky,” according to a popular camp song) went about their daily business. “There’s a feeling that when you walk down the path, the world ended at the public beach, and this is a whole different world here. After 40 years, it still feels the same.”
David Crane, a 54-year-old who serves as an assistant director of the camp, first came to Flying Moose as a wide-eyed 8-year-old.
He never left.
Then again, not many people do, according to those who know best.
“If you’re lucky enough to land here, it just becomes part of your DNA,” said Crane, who lives in western Massachusetts in the off-season.
For 90 seasons, save a hiatus during World War II, campers have been making treks to Craig Pond for their own Flying Moose experience. Sometimes they spend a single summer there. More likely, they return, and years later visit to pick up their sons or grandsons after three-, four-, or seven-week stays at camp.
“It’s almost like there’s a bigger picture,” said 13-year-old Ted Leathersich, a third-year camper from Beverly, Mass. “You just can’t leave.”
Leathersich said he’s already planning on becoming a Flying Moose counselor when his camping days are done.
“It’s just the greatest place ever,” he said.
Chris Price, who owns and directs the camp along with his wife, Shelly, said he understands the sentiment.
“The lake’s magical,” Price said.
Few campers would doubt his words. Around here, after all, moose reportedly fly. Young boys learn to camp, and cook, and embark on trips that sound ambitious to much older ears.
Down the narrow gravel road, among the 26 buildings that make up Flying Moose, there are plenty of things to see, plenty of things to learn.
There is, however, one thing to be aware of.
At Flying Moose Lodge, campers have been known to carry a highly infectious disease that, according to legend, draws urban and suburban youths back to the woods, year after year.
They call that affliction moosepox.
Way back when
In 1921, Harry Domincovich and Alfred A. Smith — both teachers at Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia — opened Flying Moose Lodge as a woods camp for boys.
Harrie Price III — Chris Price’s father — bought the camp in 1940. Chris’ brother Harrie Price IV also served as a director before his death in 1994.
None of those past directors would have a hard time stepping back into the daily flow of the camp, should they stop by for a visit in 2010.
“If [original campers] walked in here now, [they’d] be right at home, 90 years later,” Crane said. “They’d be jumping into a trip and they’d go on the same trips. The dining hall is a little bit longer, but it’s in the same place. The songbook [is the same].
Everything. I’m getting chills just talking about it. It’s just this amazing, on-going, unchangeable institution.”
Chris Price said that’s exactly the point.
There is no electricity at Flying Moose Lodge.
Lighting is provided by Coleman lanterns or flashlights. The canoes are still canvas-over-cedar, although campers now help build the boats each summer.
And the “magic formula” that Harrie Price III wrote about in a book about the camp, “A Bad Case of Moosepox,” still works.
“Stated in its briefest terms, the Magic Formula provides that every boy go on a four-day camping trip every week that he is at Flying Moose,” Harry Price III wrote in 1988.
Today, those trips are still the cornerstone of Flying Moose’s operations.
There are plenty of base camp activities, including tetherball, pingpong, and there’s a workshop called “Caboose” that campers can use to work on canoes or build other products. “Opera,” the camp’s skit night, takes place weekly and is always popular. Canoe games and skill-building take place when Flying Moosers are in base camp.
Still, the trips are the focus.
Young, inexperienced campers go on less-challenging trips. Older veterans may advance to the level — as a group did this week — that they can conquer the Appalachian Trail’s 100-Mile Wilderness on an extended, 10-day journey.
“The program’s the same as it always has been,” Chris Price said. “Every Tuesday, they go out [on a trip]. Fridays, they come back.”
The campers are not merely following counselors around in the Maine woods, Chris Price points out.
“The kids can decide which mountains to climb and which way to go up or down,” he said. “[At that point], they’ve bought into it. [They] have ownership of the trip, and they get more fun out of it.”
Flying Moose welcomes campers from age 9 (“If they’ve been away from home for more than 10 minutes, and been away from home other than Grandma’s house,” Price said) to age 16.
According to the camp’s website, rates range from $3,300 for a 2½-week session to $6,500 for a full seven-week stay. Flying Moose can accommodate as many as 50 campers. This year 37 registered, Price said.
Campers can measure their progress in a handy booklet called the “Mark of the Moose and Maple,” which assigns points to a variety of outdoor skills.
Among other skills, a novice must fry an egg, tie a square knot and master basic canoeing skills.
To reach the top of the six-level ladder and become a “Distinction” camper will take years of effort.
Mementos are awarded for each successive level a camper reaches, and Distinction campers — one or two a year generally reach that lofty level — receive a paddle emblazoned with the Flying Moose emblem.
A philosophy that works
Around the lodge — Flying Moose’s general meeting hall and classroom — free time meant different things to different campers.
Some played games. Others worked in the nearby Caboose.
But in the lodge, Troy Ufford-Chase, a 12-year-old camper from Stony Point, N.Y., took the opportunity to work on his piano skills.
“What do you want to hear?” Ufford-Chase asked two observers before launching into a beautifully solemn rendition of Pachelbel’s Canon in D.
“I can’t remember if it’s D major or D minor, though,” Ufford-Chase apologized.
Chris Price said that while some say the camp is unorganized, it really isn’t. It is, he allowed, relatively “unstructured.”
And that’s fine by most.
“Our goal is to have the kids come here, enjoy the outdoors, pick up some skills they don’t learn anywhere else, and enjoy being kids,” Chris Price said. “Through that, it builds confidence in the kids.
Parents will write to us in the fall. They’ll say, ‘What did you do to him? He cleans up his room. He eats his vegetables. He does his homework without arguing.’ So we do something right.”
The 13-year-old Leathersich said he notices a big difference when he leaves camp and adjusts to his normal home life.
“It changes you,” Leathersich said. “After my first year, I didn’t sleep in my bed anymore. I just slept on the ground for like three weeks. And I didn’t watch any TV or anything.”
Camper Jake Stockdale, a 12-year-old from Somerville, Mass., has spent three summers at Flying Moose Lodge.
His mother also noticed a difference in him after his first summer.
Not that the difference is the kind that Chris Price is talking about.
“My mom made me take a shower the first time I got home,” Stockdale said.
A little bit of trail grime doesn’t bother the Moosers, of course, It just comes with the territory.
They wouldn’t have it any other way.
“You just want to be here when you’re not here,” Leathersich said. “At first you start out and you’re a little bit homesick. Then you’re Flying Moose sick and you want to be here at base camp. And then you want to be out on trips. And then after that, you just want to be here your whole life.”
Flying Moose Lodge
Where: On Craig Pond, East Orland
What: A trip-focused summer camp for boys
When: Seven weeks each summer since 1921 (with a hiatus during World War II)
Who: Owned and directed by Chris and Shelly Price
How to get in touch: Go to www.flyingmooselodge.com for more information.