Nature in their sites

TUPPER LAKE – There’s something about Fish Creek and Rollins Pond that people can’t get enough of. For most, it’s the memories of summer evenings spent around a campfire with family, listening to loon calls echo across the surface of the water, and days spent fishing, kayaking and hiking.

Those memories are fixtures in many lives, but they are practically a part of Wendy Mongillo’s DNA.

Her great grandfather, Charles Paeglow, was the first in her family to visit Fish Creek in 1931. The campground was a humble encampment back then – a far cry from the 350-site, bumper-to-tree-trunk parking that exists today.

The first hint of what the location would become was a lean-to built by the Conservation Commission on Fish Creek Pond in 1920. The campground opened in 1926 and had 20 sites, sanitary facilities and a well for drinking water.

In 1927, the size of the camping area was doubled, and it doubled again in 1928. Increasing demand caused it to continue expanding in the 1930s, which is when Paeglow had an idea.

The Great Depression inspired an entrepreneurial spirit in Paeglow, who began setting up a row boat rental stand on the shore of Fish Creek Pond every summer. Paeglow built all 10 wooden boats, which he rented out for 50 cents a day each, and used his Model-T Ford to tow them from his home in Albany. It was a 9-hour round trip back then, and since Paeglow could only tow five boats at a time, he had to do it twice.

Unlike present-day campers, Paeglow didn’t have a choice on which campground to stay, but his son, Winie, did. In 1957, Winie took over the business and moved it to Rollins Pond Campground, an offshoot of Fish Creek Campground, which was completed in 1955 to handle Fish Creek’s overflow. Additional expansions were completed in 1958 and 1960, and Rollins Pond now consists of 287 campsites.

Winie’s son, Joe, eventually took over the Rollins Pond Boat Livery, which is still in business. Today, Joe’s children – Mongillo and her brother and sisters – all pitch in to keep the livery running.

“We just love it,” Mongillo said. “It’s just history, and we don’t want that history to end. It’s been in the family so long, it would be a shame to walk away from it.”

Brockport resident Marcy Crosier can relate. Her family started camping at Fish Creek about 25 years ago, and she’s never been able to walk away from it. She has been able to paddle away from it, though. Crosier’s family used to take a motor boat out on Fish Creek Pond every summer, but that changed the year they decided to rent kayaks from Mongillo. With the change in watercraft came a change in venue, as Crosier’s family soon began favoring the quieter, less crowded environs of Rollins Pond Campground.

Kayaking gave Crosier a new way to see nature, and provided her with one of her favorite Rollins Pond memories. While paddling her way back to camp in a rainstorm one day, Crosier saw two deer – a doe and her fawn – swimming across the pond.

Crosier said she is now content simply staying at the campsite weaving baskets and reading. These days, the nature comes to her. She saw a family of loons on the water from her campsite last year, and the sounds they make still fascinate her.

“The sound of the loons is just intriguing,” Crosier said. “We relax and just enjoy the nature. Out here you can watch the sun set from your campsite; you can just sit on the water.”

Sitting on the water is something Lynn Rosencrans of New Jersey still likes to do, but she does it in a boat. It all started when her son began attending nearby Massawepie Boy Scout camp. After dropping him off, her family pulled into Fish Creek Campground to spend some time in the region. Her first impression was not one of awe. Rosencrans was shocked by the close proximity of the campsites, which seemed punctuated by the lack of understory beneath the tall red pines that thrive along Fish Creek Pond’s shore.

“The first time we came through we were heading to Rollins, and when we pulled through Fish Creek I wanted to turn around because I was flabbergasted,” Rosencrans said. “It’s like the Bronx.”

Rosencrans stood on the sandy shore of Rollins Pond, seven years after her first visit, and explained how the campground has drawn her in. Like Crosier, she also enjoys the ambiance of Rollins Pond, and the adventure opportunities it offers have yielded several water-related Adirondack adventures. The longest was a six-day, 80-mile canoe paddle from Blue Mountain Lake to Rollins Pond.

“As much as I like to hike, I find that when I’m here I’m drawn to the water,” Rosencrans said.

Being drawn to the water seems to be a recurring theme amongst the patrons of both campgrounds. Mark Sutton of Watertown casted a line off the bridge spanning Fish Creek, flanked by his wife, Christine, and two daughters, Hannah and Maria. It was his family’s second time visiting Fish Creek Campground, and he said they’re already scoping out which of Fish Creek’s 355 sites they want to reserve for next year.

“I learned about it through friends, and we finally decided to come out and try it,” Sutton said. “Now we’re back. It’s great for the kids; they can go bike riding, fishing and swimming, and it’s all easy access and stress free.”

Sometimes, nature can serve up some surprises that aren’t entirely stress free. Wendy Phillips of Rochester has been visiting Fish Creek for about 25 years. It is a tradition her parents started that she has continued. Her brother drives from Virginia to meet her, and her son, Ryan, who turned 9 on July 27, celebrates his birthday at the campground every year.

“It’s just calm, peaceful and relaxing,” Phillips said. “For us, it’s getting away from the normal.”

One year, normal almost turned deadly when a microburst touched down on their campsite. Trees ripped through one of their camper’s awnings and demolished a tent, but no one was injured.

“We’re still willing to come back to Mother Nature,” Phillips said. “The only problem is, it’s getting so popular it’s getting hard to find a campsite.”

Phyllis Swan of Horseheads remembered the microburst, too. The force of the burst took hold of her family’s screened-in dining area and gave it a twist, but left their site otherwise unscathed. For Swan, who has a life filled with Fish Creek memories, the microburst is just that: a brief, intense moment that passed like a flash of lightning.

Swan visited the campground for the first time with her family when she was 14. That was 56 years ago. In that time, Swan said her hiking and kayaking excursions have gotten her up close to creatures like black bears, bald eagles, loons and turtles. They are the essence of why she keeps coming back; the denizens of the forests and waterways she loves to visit.

But Swan doesn’t keep all those things to herself. Over the years she has introduced family and friends to Fish Creek, and even brought her husband Harry to the campground the year they were married.

“We were up here for 14 days, and it rained for 13 of those days,” Harry recalled. “I never thought she’d get me back here again. It was disabling.”

Harry did return, and today he’s happy about that. But, like many others who frequent Fish Creek and Rollins Pond, it’s difficult for him to put the reason he returned into words.

“After that first trip, I really didn’t think he’d be back,” Phyllis said. “I don’t know what there is about it, but it’s in his blood now.”

Contact Shaun Kittle at 891-2600 ext. 25 or