Outdoors: Fontana flashback

While Western North Carolina may be a tourist destination — as well as home to quite a few transplants who now enjoy our mountains, woods and lakes — there are still a few of us with longer histories here who recall a different era.

Here's what I remember: Fontana Lake in 1975. I was 15 years old, it was the middle of summer and the lake was near empty of people. If a boat went by our boathouse, we knew who was in it and where they'd been (into Bryson City for a haircut and some groceries). We'd throw a hand up in greeting. Otherwise we spent the day fishing, swimming, cooking, cleaning and just sitting. If a boat went by that we didn't recognize, one of us went to check on it — to make our presence known, to be friendly.

Days gone by: In the 1970s, author Cinthia Milner and her sisters called Fontana Lake home every summer. Photo courtesy Cinthia Milner

My Papaw grew up in the valley that became the bottom of Fontana Lake. His family's farm was there before the Tennessee Valley Authority bought everyone out and flooded the area. I never saw it as he remembered it, except in a few rare pictures the family valued highly. But when the lake was low, we'd climb into the boat, and my Papaw would drive us over to the old farm site. We could see the tip of a roof sticking out of the water. If we leaned over the edge of the boat and squinted, we could still see the rocking chairs on the front porch. Why those had been left behind (and hadn't washed off the porch when the water came pouring down) I never learned, but there they were, eerily reminding us of days gone by. That place was more home to my Papaw than I'd ever know.

But the lake was home, not some exotic location where you went hiking into the wilderness. I don't remember anyone ever suggesting a "hike" in the way outdoors enthusiasts mean it today. Hikes meant going to Aunt Kate's house: two miles over a ridge, one mile through a valley and about another half-mile up a dirt road.

Fishing was an ongoing, morning-and-evening event, not some special outing. My Aunt Louise, terrified of water but a true fisherman nonetheless, got up at 4 a.m., and if you wanted to go with her, you got up too and tagged along. We fished until the sun made it too hot to catch anything, and then she'd let us jump in the lake for a swim — as long as we didn't rock the boat too bad. Evenings, everyone sat on the boathouse and fished. Old couches cluttered the porches. They were covered in a green fabric that scratched your skin. If you had sunburn they weren't too comfortable, but if you were eaten up with mosquito bites, they felt pretty good.

A "vacation" was camping up in Linville Gorge or at Mount Mitchell, and every year we noticed the little changes: An old oak had fallen in a storm; somebody had built a house; a creek had dried up. Though we were a working family, not wealthy or even middle-class, we'd stay two weeks, sometimes three.

But summers at the Fontana boathouse were special. We had a view of the mountains surrounding the lake, and we watched the sun go down behind them every night and rise above them again the next day. We wore sweatshirts at night and bathing suits or blue-jean shorts during the day. Our boathouse was two miles from Fontana Dam, and my sisters, cousins and I regularly took the boat over there for adventures. We hiked up trails, took canoes down every trickle of a creek and went squirrel hunting. We camped on every ridgetop and flattop between the dam and the boathouse.

We did all of that — unchaperoned — at the ages of 15, 14, 13 and 10 (just the sisters, that is). Four teen and preteen girls (often accompanied by assorted cousins and friends) routinely went camping, fishing, swimming, water skiing and driving boats, all on their own, on miles of a lake in the middle of a remote forest. What parent nowadays would allow that?

We fell asleep on the boathouse each night, lulled by the sounds of the mountain creatures settling around us. Some gardening magazines suggest extending your living area outside to better complement your home and allow you to enjoy the outdoors. We didn't need that. The outdoors framed the walls and floors of our real home: the mountains.

It was as natural as breathing and as normal as everyday life. We didn't know there was a difference, or that some folks lived indoors and did outdoor things only when they could. We just knew that we lived outdoors and did inside things when we had to.

[Cinthia Milner lives in Leicester.]

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