‘Snow Camp’ tradition lives on despite heavy hearts

As the rest of the state alternately laments or celebrates the arrival of some genuine winter weather, the Holyoke clan has headed to the mountains to renew a longstanding tradition we call “Snow Camp.”

It’s a ski trip, of sorts, though calling it that diminishes exactly what this trip has come to mean to us.

Once a year, we all (and by all, I mean brothers and sisters, nephews, nieces, significant others and assorted pals looking to crash on a floor so that they can ski all week) head to Sugarloaf. We (and by “we,” I mean my mom) rent a condo, and then we all proceed to eat too much, ski when we want to, play cutthroat games of “Apples to Apples” and other games, and have a ball.

According to our family historians, the tradition began with my sister-in-law’s family. After a few years of that, about 25 years ago, the Holyokes adopted the yearly trip as their own.

And we’ve been going back every year since.

Some years, we’ve had more than 20 people in camp. This year, that number’s a more manageable 16.

But one is missing. And it hurts.

Some of you know my dad. Many times, during the outdoor expos that we staff throughout the year, I run into you, and you always ask about him. For that, I’m grateful.

My dad, you see, was always a talker. Some say I’ve benefited (or been plagued) by the same trait. Simply getting up to walk out of a restaurant with my dad often turned into a 10-minute affair because he always saw someone he knew, and he had to stop and chat on the way toward the door.

He knew a lot of people. And through his work at the University of Maine, he traveled to nearly every town in Maine, it seemed, and always had a story to tell about the people who lived in Wytopitlock, Van Buren, Masardis or Brooks.

And for the second straight year, Dad isn’t here with us at “Snow Camp.”

And it’s different.

I’m not asking for sympathy. We’re lucky, as a whole. Dad is still alive and kicking at age 81, after all. Many others lose parents far too early, and we’re fortunate to have so many memories to fall back on.

But his memory, tragically, is another story.

My dad has Alzheimer’s disease, you see. And for the past several years, we’ve watched as the disease slowly, inexorably, robbed him of the things that were so dear to him.

Not money, nor fame. Those things never mattered much to him.

Instead, he has lost his stories. And his memories.

Most days, he still remembers us, though he might not use our names. But when we visit, we don’t hear those funny tales about childhood pals with comical names such as “Bughouse.”

We talk about his past races — he was the toughest runner I ever saw, and he qualified for the Boston Marathon twice on an ankle that a surgeon later told him he shouldn’t have been able to walk on — but to him, we’re describing someone else.

And like thousands of families, as he struggles with this nasty disease, we struggle, too.

Dad always lit up a room. He always had the best story, often one he shared despite the fact that most poked fun at the teller himself. He almost drowned in a manure lagoon, or crashed while waterskiing and nearly cracked his head open, or mistakenly called a woman’s portly dog a pig while running a road race in Camden.

Last year, Dad didn’t join us here at Sugarloaf. Mom and he stayed home, and she wished us well on our annual trip. Over the summer, she made the difficult choice that she dreaded more than anyone: Dad needed to stay in a facility where he could be monitored 24 hours a day and remain safe.

We miss him here, but remember that for several years, the relative unfamiliarity of the condo, and being away from home, made this annual trip difficult for him.

Mom is with us this year, bustling around the kitchen, watching over us all with the same firm hand we’ve always expected.

But it’s not easy for her, nor for the rest of us.

I suspect that this column might resonate with many readers. That’s why I chose to share it today, during one of our family’s most treasured traditions.

Already tonight, I’ve shed a few tears while trying to pen this column. I remember those old stories — ones he told dozens of times over the years — and wish he did, too.

So as we prepare to turn the page and greet another new year, I hope you’ll do me a little favor.
Maybe you’ve got a person in your life who likes to talk.

And maybe you think you’re just too busy to hear another tale.

You’re not.



Eventually — maybe some day at your own version of “Snow Camp” — you’ll be glad you did.

John Holyoke

About John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. Today, he's the Outdoors editor for the BDN, a job that allows him to meet up with Maine outdoors enthusiasts in their natural habitat. The stories he gathers provide fodder for his columns, and this blog.