June 23, 2018
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Maine couple facing life’s challenges in a secluded camp they call home

Renee Ordway
By Renee Ordway, Special to the BDN

What strikes you first when you arrive at Dam Camp is the camouflage vinyl siding that nearly makes the structure disappear into the pine and birch forest that surrounds it. The siding is appropriate. The owners appreciate their privacy and seclusion, hence their location, eight miles in from the pavement.

Just inside the door of the small, rustic camp, however, is command central. His and her laptops are on the countertop — separate workstations divided by a laser printer. To the left is a big screen TV, though it was never turned on during my 24-hour visit and apparently rarely is.

Inside the camp it’s a toasty 70 degrees because of a small fire in the woodstove. It’s a perfect spot to watch the white caps roll across Millinocket Lake, just steps away from the back door. The deck overlooks Mount Katahdin.

Last week I packed up a small overnight bag and threw a sleeping bag, parka, two pairs of mittens, a hat, scarf, boots, a gallon of water, Band-Aids, a notebook and pen in the back of the car.

Then I headed north.

I drove through Medway and East Millinocket until I reached the dirt road where Lori-Ann Willey had instructed me to wait. She arrived in her dusty red pickup, and I proceeded to follow her at a decent clip along bumpy logging roads until we arrived at the camp she and her husband Paul call home.

When they kindly invited me (at my request) to spend some time peeking into their modern way of living off the grid, they stressed two very important rules.

Rule 1 — Bring warm clothing. If you think you have enough warm clothing, bring more.

Rule 2 — No matter how tempted, do not approach the cat.

The Band-Aids I brought were in case I forgot Rule 2.

I didn’t. I adequately ignored Achoo (a canine-sized Maine Coon cat) for the proper amount of time, passed inspection and soon he was seated upon my right shoulder.

It was my first visit as part of a larger story I’m writing about this couple’s lifestyle choices — the good and the bad.

Paul and Lori-Ann, both from Palmyra and graduated from Nokomis High School, married in 1984. They travelled around the country while Paul was in the Army and had three children before Paul began to experience odd, but serious medical problems. His feet would splay uncontrollably, and the left side of his face was covered in what looked and felt like rug burns. He underwent two surgeries on his feet, but by 1995, he was medically retired from the service. By 1998, he was using a wheelchair.

After years of tests, treatments and surgeries, Paul was officially diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. Today, he spends nearly all of his time in a power wheelchair.

Despite that challenge, the couple have chosen to spend as many years as they can in their secluded spot, located on leased land on the edge of Millinocket Lake. Since they purchased it in 2004, they have expanded, insulated it and dug a well. Paul has installed 10 solar panels which provide them power. They have Direct TV and a good internet connection.

They have a compost toilet, tucked in a corner behind a curtain. They heat their water in a kettle on the kitchen stove. In the winter, they leave their truck eight miles away in a logging yard and snowmobile in and out of camp.

Lori-Ann chips away ice from the lake and hauls water in five gallon buckets back to camp. The compost toilet doesn’t work in the winter.They use a pail.

Trips to town occur at least once a month so they can pick up Paul’s many medications. They can go weeks without seeing another human being.

During my visit, there were no people about, but the Willeys have regular visitors. Cyril, a red squirrel showed up many, many times at the back door awaiting a peanut which he easily takes from your hand. He shares the bounty with a handful of chipmunks that will run up your pant leg or join you on a bench on the deck — for a peanut of course.

Besides the many chores necessary to maintain their lifestyle, Lori-Ann and Paul busy themselves with their hobbies. Lori-Ann is a talented painter. An easel sits in a sunny corner of the camp along with jars and jars of brushes and paint.

She is an avid photographer, snorkeling and using underwater cameras to capture life beneath the surface of the lake during the summer and cataloging pictures of the natural world around them, especially of their beloved mountain.

They have a website, damcamp.com and a Facebook page where she displays her pictures and blogs about their daily life in the woods of Maine.

Paul, a Macgyver type if there ever was one, busies himself on the computer. In November 2000, he won $100,000, the largest purse ever awarded to the winner of an online golf tournament. The following year he won another world championship and $50,000. He’s been written about in Sports Illustrated and was dubbed the Tiger Woods of online golf, despite having only about 60 percent use of his hands at the time.

He’s retired from online golf and today enjoys chatting with others about his way of life and all things technical. He’s also a bit of a weather nerd.

Fall is a rather easy time at camp. The roads in are dry and in pretty good shape. Just a small fire provides plenty of warmth. I’ve been invited back this winter. They assure me things will be different — colder for sure, tougher (I’ll have to pee in a bucket). But they promise me that if I come back this winter, they will also welcome me in the spring and again in the summer.

I’m in.

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