TAUNTON AND RAYNHAM ACADEMY GRANT, Maine — Do what you will to the rustic camp Earle Hannigan has shared with his brother for the past 44 years — that’s what he tells the next generation.

Make improvements. Get rid of the outhouse. Put in running water, if you feel you must.

Just leave the weathered white door — the one that opens into the camp’s main living area — alone.

Please.

“I told [other family members] that they had to leave the door,” Hannigan said recently. He stepped away from the nearby wood stove, pointed at the door and told me why.

“Right there,” he said, pointing at the faint writing that he etched on the door so many years ago. “Nineteen-seventy. That’s the first one.”

The writing documents the first deer taken by Hannigans hunting out of the camp, not long after they bought the Brassua Lake retreat.

The first, but far from the last.

Over the years, the camp has served as a meeting spot, vacation home and hunting lodge for all kinds of Hannigans, as well as dozens of friends who’ve been welcomed through that weathered door.

And the door itself is more than a piece of camp hardware. Earle Hannigan says after you walk through it, an invited guest of one of the many family members who consider the spot their own, you’re a member of a special club.

And you’re always welcome back. No matter what.

Late last week, another group of invitees gathered at Brassua Lake, as we have for the past half decade or so.

One was my friend, Chris Lander. He’s Earle Hannigan’s son-in-law, so I guess you could say he married his way into the club.

Some of us were linked in a six-degrees-of-Chris Lander fashion. Bill Lander is his brother. Pete Warner and I are his friends. Brian Feulner is the BDN visuals editor, and a buddy of mine.

For years, Earle Hannigan told Chris that he ought to take advantage of the Brassua camp during bird season, and take some pals along.

And for years, we all thought Earle was just being polite.

It turns out he was, and it also turned out his invitation was genuine.

“It’s just sitting there,” he’d tell Chris. “Go use it.”

After our first foray into the woods near Moosehead, we returned with grand stories about birds we hadn’t shot, and massive meals that helped us drown our sorrows.

The next year, as I recall, Earle tagged along. And he’s been tagging along ever since.

This year, a melancholy curtain hung over the festivities. A little more than a week before we were scheduled to leave, Earle lost his brother, Bob — the man he’d bought the camp with back in 1970, the year of the first deer.

Earle, now in his 70s, had been looking for a family member to buy out his share of the camp. He wanted to pass it on to the younger generation.

And for months, he had little luck.

Then, shortly before Bob’s passing, he heard that things had changed. Bob’s grandson, Robert Hannigan, had said he’d like to buy it. The catch: He didn’t have enough money — yet. But Robert expected that he’d be earning a living wage in a few months, when he graduates from Maine Maritime Academy.

Earle was relieved, and the duo worked out a deal.

On Friday night, as the first day of our yearly hunt wound down and Chris tended monstrous steaks as they sizzled on the grill, a car pulled into the grassy front yard.

We had been expecting the visit.

Out of the darkness, Robert Hannigan and his friend, Keith Nelson, also an MMA student, greeted Earle, then met the rest of us.

They had come to hunt, and told us their stories of a day spent in the woods. We reciprocated.

Earle, it turns out, wasn’t sure he wanted to head to camp this year. Bob’s passing was too fresh, and the memories the brothers shared were too vivid. But Earle had wanted to be on hand for the introductions, and to help forge friendships that might just endure, whether he was present in camp or not.

It didn’t take long before all of us were talking about hunts we’d enjoyed, birds we’d missed, and moose we’d seen.

Steaks were served. A beverage or two might have been consumed. It was just another comfortable night in camp. Just like it always is.

Bonds are forged in camps like this, you see. Old-timers initiate new blood. Family members meet the friends of their kin, and welcome them as their own.

Stale old stories are told, for the fifth or tenth or twentieth time. Laughs are shared.

Not long after that steak feed, Earle made sure to reiterate his belief that he really thought anybody who’d previously invited into camp ought to be welcomed back.

He also took time to talk about that weathered white door. It’s not just a door, you see. Earle knows it. And now, the rest of us do, too.

Walk through that door, and you’re walking into a family’s history book. Read the words inscribed on it, and you understand that history a bit better. Share it with others, and your bond grows deeper.

And when you walk out of that same door at the end of another trip, the words are always the same.

You say “Thank you.”

You say “We had a great time.”

You don’t say “Goodbye.”

It’s always “See you next time.”

The door will be waiting when you get there.

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John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. He spent 28 years working for the BDN, including 19 years as the paper's outdoors columnist or outdoors editor. While...