A gently civilized corner of wilderness will return soon to the quiet of private repose.

This summer is the last chance to call at the Wawbeek, for dinner or a stroll or a sip of relaxation at the edge of cool forest that closes in the Upper Saranac Lake.

The property, its several buildings, including the Lake House Lodge, the Carriage House, the historic Mountain House Lodge and Wawbeek Restaurant, were sold into private hands this spring.

The sandy bit of lake beach, its bobbing docks, blackened stone fire ring and a paddler's view of the sunrise over Ampersand Mountain will disappear from public reach.

Norman and Nancy Howard spent the past 12 years reclaiming the old buildings that once were a turn-of-the-century Great Camp for a New York City banker.

The property has had many incarnations since, becoming a boys' summer camp -- Camp DeBaun -- in the 1950s and later a popular Tupper Lake nightclub.

The somewhat raucous series of transformations was both a source of adventure and challenge to the Howards, who added the Lake House Lodge at the turn of this century.

"We build a lodge here every hundred years," Norm said, opening the door to the Ampersand Great Room, where the ceiling soars above a fieldstone fireplace.

It's the room the Howards built with lodging suites clustered around it and a wide deck facing the lake.

They built it to share and recovered an Adirondack version of wilderness hospitality, one that grew as they restored the site.

A decade of hard work didn't scare the Howards away.

Instead they embraced it, setting a standard for land use that modern developers might envy.

"We didn't understand the extent of the challenge," Norm said, with a slight grin. "We got surprised by the number of requirements it needed at once."

Pipes used to freeze in apparent rotation, power outages were routine events, mice and bats spent generations living in corners.

Some of the Wawbeek infrastructure was way out of code requirement and the entire complex needed a new septic system to the tune of $300,000.

Many updates were needed to retrofit the resort for Adirondack Park Agency regulations put in place less than 20 years before the Howards bought the Wawbeek, but 70 years after it was built.

Norm shrugged off the amount of work and upkeep.

It was a study in sweat equity and financing, at first.

Norman kept his day job as a professor in hospitality at Plattsburgh State University.

"We definitely had our problems, but they could have been worse."

"We used to take turns with disgruntled guests," Nancy added.

The Howards took to the task less for investment and more for reasons of the heart, they said.

Though the Wawbeek has been sold for more than $6 million, the plan was never to "flip" a property, but to experience a renaissance.

The couple moved to Tupper Lake from Connecticut after they blatantly fell in love with the Wawbeek about 20 years ago.

With an extensive background in hospitality, from both education and experience, Norman and Nancy saw the remote location of rare raw beauty as a unique marketing challenge.

"Norm has a passion for detail and side roads. We learned to dig down inside and take time with people. It was like a flower blooming," Nancy said. "A whole world opened up to us."

So they reclaimed the buildings, remodeling the campers' cabins and the historic Great Camp to accommodate a rustic experience for families.

And they laid claim to the hearts of guests who came back over and again.

They've been sending out letters informing longtime guests of the sale one or two at a time to prevent a flood of phone calls.

The Wawbeek became what many old Adirondack Great Camps always were -- a welcome respite from a day of outdoor adventure: climbing mountains, exploring the woods or paddling stretches of river.

The Howards established a hiking loop around the Wawbeek and marked it carefully to show guests from far away what happens in the woods.

They created a restaurant that fills up nearly every night.

"It became a lifestyle, so that when we look ahead," Nancy said, pausing, not finishing the sentence.

"Look at this place," Norman said. "We're lucky a bit here."

The coming change in use isn't one they're uncomfortable with, even if it closes another Wawbeek era.

"I think of it as isn't it nice our property can take a couple nice deep breaths,'" Nancy said.

But a bittersweet mood seems to linger over the place like a late spring mist after the rain.

In the kitchen, breakfast chef David Pelno towered over hot pans of blueberry pancakes, eggs and corned beef hash.

"I have fun doing this," the 12-year employee said. "I love coming to work."

Pelno, born and raised in Tupper Lake, recalled some important breakfasts he's served to the likes of governors and movie stars.

"It's like feeding your friends every morning, only you're feeding people from all over the world. I'm going to miss this."

Pelno's sidekick, Timmy Callahan, bussed the tables as soon as parties drifted out into the 8 o'clock morning mist.

"They hired me when Dave broke his leg," Callahan quipped.

"And he's been here ever since," Pelno answered.

They are just two of about 45 employees who will not arrive at the crack of dawn starting next winter to help orchestrate a Wawbeek day.

"We have good benefits here and are paid well," Pelno said. "Jobs like this aren't easy to come by."

Norm calculated the Wawbeek's annual expenditure for local employment and purchases at over $1 million.

That's a big dent for a small economy.

Neither Pelno nor Callahan are sure what they're going to do when the keys change hands.

"We'll see," Pelno said, as he rolled the window shades up over the porch screen letting in the morning light.

Somewhere in the changing of seasons might rest a rationale for the turn of All Good Things Wawbeek, a place where frightfully tired and needy guests have found fresh spirit.

"How strong a reminder that human nature simply thrives when fed a little mother nature," Nancy said.

And taken in context, an evening at the Wawbeek with loons calling from the moonlit lake while a fire crackles warming a stone hearth is as fleeting as raw beauty ever is.

Every bloom is as rare as the rare pink lady's slipper hidden among the pines, until the next flower comes.

The Howards see it that way.

"Still, it is important to note, we are both looking forward to forging a new lifestyle," Nancy said, "that we will once and for all get our arms around the whole of our experience here and put it into perspective for as good use as possible is already inspiring."

The Howards plan to host a series of unique celebrations this summer to honor "All Good Things Wawbeek."

Shoreline and woodland nature walks with naturalist Ed Kanze are offered three times a week at 10 a.m. through mid-October. Pontoon Boat Tours of Upper Saranac Lake are scheduled for Wednesdays at 4 p.m. in June, and July through mid-October several times a week for 6 to 11 people. Dinner is always open to the public. Walks and tours are offered at $10 per person. For details and reservations, Adirondack visitors can call 1-800-953-2656 or e-mail the Howards at wawbeek@capital.net.

kdedam@pressrepublican.com

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