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Here Be Treasure: Attendance Up at Lake Fairlee Recreation Area

  • Aidan Salisbury, 8, of East Thetford, runs to retrieve his sandals at the end of the day of camp at Treasure Island. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Aidan Salisbury, 8, of East Thetford, runs to retrieve his sandals at the end of the day of camp at Treasure Island. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Kaitlyn Ulman, 12, of Thetford, stretches a tarp to make a roof over a branch-and-twine structure at Treasure Island with the help of Wanda Vaughan, assistant director of the camp. Campers designed and built shelters using materials found in the woods. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Kaitlyn Ulman, 12, of Thetford, stretches a tarp to make a roof over a branch-and-twine structure at Treasure Island with the help of Wanda Vaughan, assistant director of the camp. Campers designed and built shelters using materials found in the woods. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • From left, William Bugg, 12, Jack McCabe, 9, Donovan Cole, 9, and Tucker Gaffney, 9, crowd onto one kayak at the end of the day at Treasure Island while Cody Corcoran, 10, swims out of his overturned kayak. In the <br/>background, adventure camp Director Bonna Wieler supervises. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    From left, William Bugg, 12, Jack McCabe, 9, Donovan Cole, 9, and Tucker Gaffney, 9, crowd onto one kayak at the end of the day at Treasure Island while Cody Corcoran, 10, swims out of his overturned kayak. In the
    background, adventure camp Director Bonna Wieler supervises. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Thetford Elementary School art teacher Beth McGee works on a mural on the side of a water tank at Treasure Island. McGee and students from the adventure camp finished the mural, which depicts animals having a party on the island, later in the week. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Thetford Elementary School art teacher Beth McGee works on a mural on the side of a water tank at Treasure Island. McGee and students from the adventure camp finished the mural, which depicts animals having a party on the island, later in the week. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Maddie Farling, 13, right, roasts a hot dog on a stick over a grill at the picnic pavilion at Treasure Island as her father, Tim, watches. The Farlings and their relatives, who are from Maryland, have a cabin near Lake Fairlee and eat lunch and dinner at the park a few times a week. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Maddie Farling, 13, right, roasts a hot dog on a stick over a grill at the picnic pavilion at Treasure Island as her father, Tim, watches. The Farlings and their relatives, who are from Maryland, have a cabin near Lake Fairlee and eat lunch and dinner at the park a few times a week. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Brothers Caleb Salisbury, 10, and Aidan Salisbury, 8, fish off a dock during adventure camp at Treasure Island in West Fairlee earlier this month. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Brothers Caleb Salisbury, 10, and Aidan Salisbury, 8, fish off a dock during adventure camp at Treasure Island in West Fairlee earlier this month. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Treasure Island lifeguards Jordan Levin, left, and Ella Chapman teach young swimmers how to execute a mermaid kick during an early morning class on Lake Fairlee. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Treasure Island lifeguards Jordan Levin, left, and Ella Chapman teach young swimmers how to execute a mermaid kick during an early morning class on Lake Fairlee. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Aidan Salisbury, 8, of East Thetford, runs to retrieve his sandals at the end of the day of camp at Treasure Island. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • Kaitlyn Ulman, 12, of Thetford, stretches a tarp to make a roof over a branch-and-twine structure at Treasure Island with the help of Wanda Vaughan, assistant director of the camp. Campers designed and built shelters using materials found in the woods. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • From left, William Bugg, 12, Jack McCabe, 9, Donovan Cole, 9, and Tucker Gaffney, 9, crowd onto one kayak at the end of the day at Treasure Island while Cody Corcoran, 10, swims out of his overturned kayak. In the <br/>background, adventure camp Director Bonna Wieler supervises. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • Thetford Elementary School art teacher Beth McGee works on a mural on the side of a water tank at Treasure Island. McGee and students from the adventure camp finished the mural, which depicts animals having a party on the island, later in the week. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • Maddie Farling, 13, right, roasts a hot dog on a stick over a grill at the picnic pavilion at Treasure Island as her father, Tim, watches. The Farlings and their relatives, who are from Maryland, have a cabin near Lake Fairlee and eat lunch and dinner at the park a few times a week. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • Brothers Caleb Salisbury, 10, and Aidan Salisbury, 8, fish off a dock during adventure camp at Treasure Island in West Fairlee earlier this month. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • Treasure Island lifeguards Jordan Levin, left, and Ella Chapman teach young swimmers how to execute a mermaid kick during an early morning class on Lake Fairlee. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

West Fairlee — Faced with the choice of swimming, making baskets or whittling on a cool afternoon last week, most of the campers at Treasure Island headed straight for Lake Fairlee. But four girls joined Lynn Murphy under a white tent for a basket-making workshop.

After getting them started, Murphy, a teacher and Abenaki basket-maker, stopped to encourage camper Brittney Clifford.

“You’re doing a great job,” Murphy said. “Remember, you want your spaces equal.”

The 11-year-old was laying out the bottom of the basket, her first ever, using reeds they had softened in a bucket of water.

“I’ll probably put some necklaces in it because it’s a small basket,” she said.

Murphy is one of several volunteers who have offered workshops at the outdoor adventure camp sponsored by the Thetford Recreation Department. A few years ago, the town began offering a day camp as part of an effort to boost use of the 10-acre recreation area. It started off with a weeklong session, then expanded to two sessions the following year. Last year, it began offering six weeklong sessions, and attendance has more than doubled, from about 22 campers a week to around 50, said Kathi Meyerson, Thetford’s recreation director.

“This year, we really stepped up the program, going with the theme of outdoor education and adventure,” she said. The department has also added staff, started a counselor-in-training program and added more workshops for campers.

General usage is also up, said Thetford Selectboard member Tig Tillinghast, adding that a recent “reinvigoration of things” at the site may have also helped spread the word about existing programs.

Once a private youth camp, Treasure Island in West Fairlee is owned and run by the town of Thetford. (A small portion of the property is in Fairlee.)

Thetford spends roughly $20,000 a year and makes about $20,000 a year on it, and pays about $20,000 in taxes to neighboring towns, most of which went to the state education fund, Tillinghast said. For a small town, the annual expense was “pretty significant.”

A few years ago, the Selectboard explored different strategies for lowering the taxes, including selling part of the property, an idea the board ultimately rejected. Instead, the board focused on promoting use of the area and held public brainstorming sessions to drum up new ideas.

The meetings were “really, really successful,” resulting in the creation of the summer camp and added services, such as boat rentals — “all sorts of good stuff,” he said. The increased revenue “kind of sinks the cost a little bit.”

While the board wanted to ease the burden on taxpayers, members were ultimately focused on finding a long-term fix, he said. That came about recently, when Vermont law changed.

Under state law, towns have tax-exempt status but generally pay tax on properties that are outside their borders, Tillinghast said.

Thetford had lobbied the state Legislature for years to change the rule, and recently it did. The law, which applies to parcels in other towns that provide public access to public waters, will become effective for the 2014 grand list, according to the Vermont League of Cities and Towns.

It’s not clear yet exactly how the change will affect the town, but “when it all sugars off,” Tillinghast said he expects the tax on the property will be “pretty negligible.”

Although most of the money goes to the state education fund, the taxes paid to West Fairlee are “a very significant amount of money,” Tillinghast said.

Recently, the towns have been working together on a number of common interests, he said, including how to fix the ailing dam on Lake Fairlee. “We’ve been able to create a relationship between the boards, so Thetford’s philosophy was, ‘Let’s figure out what do with the two towns to mitigate the impact on them.’ ”

Possibilities could include charging Fairlee and West Fairlee residents the same, lower admission fee that Thetford residents pay.

In an email, Tillingham said he thought the Selectboard at its next meeting would schedule a time to talk about the law, “I’d hope with representatives of the other towns.”

Delsie Hoyt, chairwoman of the West Fairlee Selectboard, said she wasn’t sure yet how the bill would affect West Fairlee but expects to know more this week. The lakefront property is among the parcels in town with the highest assessed value, she said. “What is the impact on West Fairlee’s grand list? That is my concern.” The change came as a surprise to her and to Thetford officials, Hoyt said. “This is something from the dim past,” she said. “Nobody seems to know where exactly this came from.”

Treasure Island is open daily during the summer, with lifeguards on duty in the afternoons. Swimming lessons are available, and the facility includes a volleyball net, floating docks, grills, sheltered picnic tables and swings.

The rates are set to be affordable: canoe and paddleboat rentals are $2 an hour, and day passes are $2 for kids and $4 for adults. Season passes for Thetford residents are $55 for a family or $30 for an individual, $70 and $40 for nonresidents. A week of camp costs $125 for residents and $135 for nonresidents.

In an effort to add more activities for teenagers and adults, the town is working with Wyatt Ulman, whose Eagle Scout project involves resurfacing a clay tennis court near the island. “The weather has hindered (the work), but we’re almost there,” Meyerson said. The court can be used for all sorts of activities, including basketball, tennis and four square.

The town has also improved drainage at the playground and plans to build a pavilion that can be rented for events such as weddings and reunions, Meyerson said.

On a recent afternoon, campers shared the beach with several families. Some played in the water, others sat at a picnic table making luminaries from plastic two-liter bottles.

The camp is designed to build children’s self-esteem, self-knowledge and the understanding that “they can do things,” said Director Bonna Wieler. It focuses on arts, environmental education and a variety of outdoors skills, such as cooking, fire-building and kayaking.

In addition to giving kids necessary skills, such as knowledge of the natural world, the camp aims to go beyond information, Wieler said. “People have a deeper connection with the natural world when they have an understanding, but the understanding needs to be felt at a gut level.”

Along with the Recreation Department program, Treasure Island draws groups from day care centers, schools, other local camps and, of course, families looking for a nice day at the lake.

Angela and Hank Sabouring, a retired couple from Bradford, Vt., relaxed in folding beach chairs with their son, Henry Sabouring III, who was visiting from Boston. Nearby, Henry’s 10-year-old daughter, Emma, worked on a sand castle while her siblings swam.

The Sabourings bought a home in Bradford 27 years ago. “We fell in love with it up here,” Hank Sabouring said. They have lived in Vermont full time for 15 years but only recently heard of Treasure Island from a neighbor. This was their first visit to the beach, but it won’t be their last.

“How did we not know about this?” Angela Sabouring asked.

Aimee Caruso can be reached at acaruso@vnews.com or 603-727-3210.