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  • Writer's pictureErika Nichols-Frazer

Find Your Happy Place

Ritterbush Pond will always be a special place for me

We'd only been dating a few weeks when Dylan, my now-husband, and I made plans for later in the week. As soon as I had hung up, he called back and said, "On second thought, do you want to go camping right now? I know a place." I later learned that he mostly asked because he and his two friends who wanted to go camping needed a ride and I had a car. But I can forgive him for that. We counted shooting stars, their reflections glowing in the still water of the pond. We kissed on the rock that sloped down into the pond. As I was starting to fall in love with him, I also fell in love with this place. It's forever connected in my mind to that first summer together, when we were just getting to know each other and avoiding talking about what would happen when I went back to college in another state. "Our" camping spot reminds me of those early days, of having nothing to do and just enjoying ourselves, reveling in something new.

It may sound like I'm making this up, but our place is actually in Eden, Vermont, a literal paradise. It's not Lake Eden, though, where I once spent a week in an RV with my closest friends. It's the much lesser-known Ritterbush Pond in the Babcock Nature Preserve. You get to it through a series of dirt roads through farmland in remote northern Vermont. You have to hike out about a mile-and-a-half from the parking lot to get to the pond, on a dirt path through the woods, a pleasant and mostly-flat journey always made strenuous by the supplies (let's admit it, mostly the beer) we haul out for the night or weekend. The path intersects the Long Trail, so hikers are often coming through to swim. The pond is completely quiet, in a small valley surrounded by trees, no phone lines or buildings or anything but trees.

That first time we came we arrived well after dark, with, as I recall, only one flashlight for the four of us, picking up fallen tree limbs for firewood and stumbling down the path in flip flops. The first several times I went out there were in the dark, so that I had little sense of where I was going or how far it was, I just knew the strain of my muscles while carrying a cooler along with my gear. And the feeling of waking up on the water, the mist rising over its surface, loons and herons flying low and perching in an area made swampy by the beaver dams. This time, we pass large swaths of trees recently chomped on by beavers.

"Nala used to have beaver friends," Dylan jokes as we carry our gear to the lean-to. (Our dogs are the sources of many/most of our jokes.)

"Yeah, what happened to them, Nali?" I ask as Nala darts in and out of the woods, chasing chipmunks. She visits other camp sites, but, this time, she gets back in line when told. Last summer she stole a bologna sandwich from some teenagers camping near us.

We recall a few years ago when we lived in the remote town of Starksboro - much like Eden, the only businesses were gas stations/general stores - there were beavers in the stream alongside our house. Every day, they would dam up the culvert and flood the yard, and every day Dylan would haul a mass of branches and leaves and unclog it. We were renting the house on two acres, which included the swampy river and woods, which were steep and difficult to navigate. We called our landlords about the beaver issue and the damage it was doing to the yard and they sent their adult sons to take care of it. The first time I heard the gunshot I winced. Dylan held me tight as I turned into his chest when they carried away its brown little body. One time, I pulled in and found the men in their truck, rifle aimed on the side mirror, a four-year-old girl in a nightgown bouncing up and down. I asked them how many they'd gotten, thinking it was two, maybe three, and one of them said, "Seven." When the driver pulled the trigger without warning the girl yelled "Git 'im! Git 'im, Daddy!"

This weekend it's just Dylan and me and our two dogs, who absolutely love this place. They start whining as we make the final turn by the barn and eagerly jump out once we reach the parking lot, ready to show us the way. Nala checks out every mud puddle and swampy area she can find. Delphi lumbers along with a slight limp. We see a few groups along the way already starting their fires though it's not yet dusk. After a quick swim, we gather more wood. I had already changed to my flip flops and foolishly chose not to change back to my sneakers to get up and down the steep pitch of woods. On the way down, arms full of branches and twigs, my foot slipped and I fell back, hard, onto my shoulder.

There are four cabins on the preserve, the first open lean-to near the parking lot but not the water, the other three along the edge of the pond. There's no system organizing the cabins; it's a first come, first serve kind of situation. In the summer, you can pretty much guarantee there will be other groups out there and you're best served to get out early and claim your spot. If you don't get one of the cabins, two of which are enclosed and the third open on the sides, there are plenty of places to pitch a tent along the path. While there are benefits to having an enclosed cabin, I prefer the one where we stayed that first time, the big lean-to over the water at the far end of the path, next to the rock with the best swimming spot. There are three compartments to sleep in, though Dylan discovered signs of a bunch of mice under one, so we opted for the floor.

The lean-to is covered with graffiti, mostly names, some wisdom, such as "ENJOY LIFE," "PEACE from the NUDE NURSES," "Skiing is better than Dan, and Dan is better than Ken, so..." and "POOP." People leave things, bug spray or grill grates or toilet paper. When we arrive, there is firewood waiting to be burned.

Nala, tuckered out from exploring the woods

There's a notebook in the lean-to in which people leave messages of appreciation and thanks to all who steward the place. On the first page of the 2019 notebook is a message from the woman whose father built the lean-to in 1959, thanking all who enjoyed it and keep it so clean and well cared-for. I left my own message of appreciation, thanking Babcock and all its patrons for giving us a decade of summer.

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