fairfield lake

Camp Merrie-Woode: Following the Gleam

If you’re lucky enough to live above Sapphire Valley’s Fairfield Lake, you’ve heard the mystical sounds that waft from the water’s edge on many summer nights. It could be, of course, the sounds of “Follow the Gleam,” Camp Merrie-Woode’s traditional final pageant. It could be the score from a musical performed by the campers in the drama program or just the voices of tired campers singing around the campfire.  Either way, it’s pure magic.
The campus itself is a jewel in the already-breathtaking Sapphire Valley of North Carolina. Founded in 1919 by Mabel “Dammie” Day, Marjorie Harrison, and Mary Turk, the camp pays homage to Dammie Day’s British roots with designations like King Arthur’s Court for the building that houses the gym and climbing wall. The Castle is home to the Merrie-Woode stage and theater classes, while Merlin’s Alderley Edge houses many of the summer staff. The infirmary, said to be staffed with the nicest nurses ever, is called Cloud 9 and the camp’s directors live in a beautiful home on the property called Tintagel, named for King Arthur’s father’s castle.
The current residents of Tintagel are Jim and Denice Dunn, who took the reins as directors in 2002.  The parents of two grown sons, they are now summer parents to hundreds of daughters and embody the enthusiastic culture which drives Camp Merrie-Woode.  Jim, formerly the headmaster of Summit Charter School in Cashiers, and Denice, a former engineer for General Electric, have been instrumental in Merrie-Woode’s participation in the wider community, by supporting a campership program, which provides funding for children with exemplary qualifications who otherwise would be unable to attend.  In addition, they have encouraged the use of the campgrounds during the off-season, welcoming after-school programs for the Boys and Girls Club of the Plateau as well as team-building activities for the New Century Scholars of Jackson County.
Celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2019, the 435-acre campground has welcomed girls from around the mountain and around the world, holding fast to its original charter to encourage the empowerment of girls and young women through physical, intellectual, and spiritual growth. It is, perhaps, more than coincidence that the camp opened its gates the same year that women won the right to vote.
The campers who are lucky enough to spend their summer days here are designated according to age, as pages, yeomen, squires, and knights. And, in another nod to Merrie-Woode’s British roots, the centerpiece of the entire camp experience is the production of “Follow the Gleam” which reenacts the story of King Arthur’s quest for the holy grail.   
The alumnae are a loyal sorority. Many return to the camp as counselors, board members, or for reunions.  Dorothy Moss Williams, a curator at the National Portrait Gallery who spent more than ten years at Merrie-Woode, convenes with ten camp friends each autumn in the camp’s guest lodge, which is available to rent. Merrie-Woode is also a desirable venue for weddings, although the camp holds to a strict policy requiring that the bride be an alumna. Additionally, only four weddings may be conducted on the property per year and never during camp weeks.  The wedding of a former camper has been booked well in advance for the day after the August closing of this season’s final session.
Mary Leland Davenport Hutchison, who attended Camp Merrie-Woode during the 1970s and 80s, recalls a camp fundraiser she attended many years ago when she lived in Atlanta.  Husbands were invited and one seasoned spouse stood up to tell the gentlemen gathered: “You have married into a cult and the sooner you pull out your checkbook, the better it will be for you.” The camp’s alumnae have been faithful supporters of various fundraising efforts over the years, making possible such things as the 2005 acquisition of land across Lake Fairfield opposite the camp, which was poised for real estate development. To honor the 100th anniversary, a capital campaign has been launched to fund an endowment, as well as attend to several capital improvements. Hutchison, whose daughter Jane has also been a camper, says that raising money for Merrie-Woode is easier than most causes because of the common heart of the alumnae. “The Merrie-Woode connection is neverending. It’s just second family.”
Camp Merrie-Woode’s program today has four major components, each of which the campers may experience throughout their stay.  They are boating, horseback riding, mountaineering, and drama.  In addition, the girls have a chance to choose classes in multiple other sports, as well as traditional art courses such as dance, ceramics, and painting.  Knitting has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in recent years and is now part of the offering.  Depending on a girl’s interest, she can earn recognition in any of these disciplines through extensive study and practice over several summers.  One camper may pursue becoming a Horsemaster, for example, while another seeks to earn a King’s Player designation for drama.
Founded as a Christian camp, Merrie-Woode is nonetheless inclusive. All of the campers participate in daily devotionals, with various cabins taking turns in leading them, and a weekly chapel service is held every Sunday in the outdoor stone amphitheater.
Alumna Madeline Edwards, who today works as a journalist based in Beirut, Lebanon, remembers her experiences in the drama program beginning in 2005.  She recalls being named a King’s Player, the highest designation possible, and receiving the King’s Player necklace from her best friend at the honor ceremony.  Later, as a counselor, she was a ringleader for creative undertakings like decorating the dining hall for Harry Potter night.  Borrowing old wedding dresses from the costume shop and covering their faces with white face paint, she and the other counselors entertained the campers from the rafters. Her passion for drama was honed as she played the role of Anne Frank one summer and, another time, garnered the role of Mozart in a performance of Amadeus.  But despite these exceptional experiences, she concludes that her favorite memories were “just any downtime spent with my best friends.” Her grandmother, Nancy Edwards, adds, most emphatically, that Merrie-Woode made her the young woman she is today.

For others, the outdoor experiences inform their eventual life path. Holly Pierce Ambler, who lives in Boone, North Carolina, spent ten summers at  Merrie-Woode, as both a camper and later as a counselor.  She began as a very homesick ten-year-old, sending home several impassioned letters the first week, begging her parents to come get her.  But somewhere into the second week, the counselor who held her in her lap at the nightly campfire and the others who urged her to try outdoor activities turned the tide, and she was hooked.  She admits that prior to her camp experience she had very little outdoor experience, but the summers on Lake Fairfield were so influential that she eventually earned a college degree in outdoor experiential education.  Her first post-college job was as an instructor at the National Outdoor Leadership School. As is often the case, her aunt, sister, and cousins are also alumnae.
Sara Elizabeth Jackson, a sophomore at Auburn University, is returning this summer for the 11th time. It will be her third year as a counselor, an experience she has come to treasure even more than her time as a camper. She loves seeing the young campers return year after year, noting their development, and considers it a privilege to encourage and guide them.  She has become what is called the “Weaving Head” in the arts department and supervises campers as they make pillows and seats for chairs or stools at the camp.  A business administration major, she thinks her passion for this art has developed because it provides such a wonderful opportunity to get outside of her element.
Director Denice Dunn acknowledges that changing times have demanded adaptation.  One such change came a few years ago when the campus became “unplugged,” meaning no cell phones, no iPods, no computers.  The only exception is the iPod in each cabin which contains the music the girls have chosen to enjoy together during “downtime.”  However, earbuds are completely off limits and Denice confirms that as soon as the new rules took effect there was a noticeable increase in conversation and singing on hikes, on bus trips, and around the camp.
But many things have not changed. Uniforms are a tradition, and except for the substitution of shorts for bloomers, not a lot has changed over the past 100 years. It’s all part of a culture that encourages a young woman to throw on a uniform, pull her hair back into a ponytail, and get on with the joy of self-discovery, unencumbered.
Rudi Robbins Pillow, who attended camp for three years beginning in 1964, notes that today’s technical world has created an overly competitive environment for young people and cherishes the fact that Merrie-Woode is one of the few places where a girl has only to compete against herself.  She learned to love hiking and canoeing during her camp years and has memories of three-day hikes in the Smoky Mountains. Her three daughters attended Merrie-Woode, as have three granddaughters.  A resident of Killen, Alabama, she recalls a recent family wedding which was attended by six Merrie-Woode alumnae from all over the country.
This year, Denice confirms a wide geographic diversity will be once again represented, with campers from 38 different states and six countries. Over 140 people will be hired for staff positions, many of them former campers who are returning as counselors. The return rate is enviable and several full-time directors of the camp were at one time campers.
The camp’s centennial is a good excuse to look back at the vision of the three founders who wanted to offer young women a chance to explore their capabilities and challenge themselves in a nurturing environment.  That vision has become laser-focused as the years have passed.  Whether a girl’s dream is to hike Old Bald Mountain, sing her heart out in a musical lead, or earn a Captain’s Hat for accomplishment in the water, it will all be hers for the taking beginning this June, as a new century of campers follow the gleam. Girl power is clearly alive on the beautiful banks of Fairfield Lake.

Lake Life

It’s early morning and my senses are tuned to the quiet of the world around me. As I sit lazily on the dock in my Adirondack chair sipping my morning coffee, I watch the mist slowly rise off of the pristine lake before me, Lake Glenville in Western North Carolina. Hues of green and blue emerge as the soft water becomes dappled in the morning light. You cannot beat the tranquil sound of lapping water as it slowly rolls to shore. My family and most of my neighbors are still asleep with the exception of a few anglers in canoes off in a distant cove. The only significant signs of stirring are the tall trees caressed by a soft breeze and the gossiping birds that fill them. With each breath I take of clean, fresh air, the sun gains altitude and slowly shows itself over the blue mountain range in my view. The warmth of the sun soothes me. My cozy plaid wrap slips off my shoulders as I ease deeper into a meditative state of relaxation. Ah, this is the life—lake life in the early morning.


With each hour of the day, this lake takes on a different personality. In the early morning, it supplies fuel to the soul for early-risers. Shortly thereafter, the paddle boarders and kayakers emerge to take on the glass-like waters. Once the day warms, the powerboats pulling skiers and giddy kids on inner tubes arrive. In the early evening before sunset, you’ll see friends and family lounging in pontoon boats idling along the shoreline exploring the lake one neighbor at a time and waving along the way. As darkness descends, the smell of charcoal wafts through the air as people fire up the grill for a summer supper under the stars. Laughter fills the air as groups gather, and the happy sound ripples across the water.
In the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, second homeowners flock to these parts in the summertime for the cooler temps this altitude affords. It is a tough choice when buying a home here between mountain or lake views, although there are those lucky enough to have both. If you seek a low-stress life with a deep sense of peace, adventure, and community, then lake life might just be for you. 
A lake community is a deeply woven place centered on fishing, water sports, family time, and barbeques. Neighbors come together for cocktails on the dock, impromptu dinners, and toasting marshmallows on an open fire. Life is good on the lake.
Although there are many pristine bodies of water in the Highlands-Cashiers-Sapphire Valley area to consider, there are several lakes that have a great allure to many. A public lake offers lots to do and see all day, while private lakes cater to those looking for a quieter, more peaceful atmosphere with less distraction. Regardless, each area lake is unique with its own vibe, and the trick is finding the one that fits your dream of life on a lake.

The largest public lake in the area and the only one that allows gas-powered boats, Lake Glenville is an emerald gem offering a dynamic lifestyle. With the highest elevation of any lake east of the Mississippi River, a vast size, and tremendous depth, there is much to be found on this public lake aside from water sports. Packed with islands, beaches, fishing holes, and waterfalls, this reservoir calls to those who want to live in the beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains while overlooking an unspoiled body of water. Residents marvel in the richness of flora and fauna, the landscape contrasts of mountains sinking into the water and the glorious sunsets glistening across the surface of the lake. 
Signal Ridge and Lakeshore are two marinas that help supply the fun for the community and visitors with boat and equipment rentals. From jet skiing to wakeboarding, one can find plenty of adventure on the water along with boats of all sizes and speeds. For anglers, Lake Glenville has a bevy of fishing holes teeming with bass, trout, catfish, and perch. Explorers will love the three big waterfalls and a hiking trail that leads to a fourth one (High Falls) with a breathtaking 150-foot drop. 
Golfers who have dreamt of living on a stunning 18-hole championship golf course while enjoying lake and mountain views have found their wish at Trillium. This private residential club is adjacent to part of the lake and offers a multitude of recreational diversions and amenities. 
For all lake homeowners, events of all kinds support the community including a season kick-off cocktail party hosted by Friends of Lake Glenville, barn dances throughout the summer, and the immensely popular Fourth of July fireworks show on the lake. 
It is important to note that as a public lake there is an active recreational park, campground, and beach on the northern end where day-trippers and vacationers enjoy quick lake access.

This historical 55-acre plus lake completed in 1896 was once land Cherokee and Creek Indian Tribes called home up until the early 1800s. Later in the nineteenth century, the land became the country’s primary mining site for gold and sapphires (word has it Tiffany & Co. once mined here). Just after the lake was created, a Victorian-style inn called Fairfield Inn on the National Historic Register was built and had a life on the lake, serving as a vacation resort for families looking for rest and relaxation in the mountains. Despite the diversified history of the land where the lake now lives, the sheer granite rock face of the beloved landmark, Bald Rock, has remained a constant. Standing watch over the lake, this magnificent natural sentry makes living near this lake all the more spectacular. 
As part of the Sapphire Valley Resort, Fairfield Lake is an exclusive attraction only for its lucky members. You can find anglers fishing for bass and bream, kayakers, sailors, and swimmers. A boathouse offers rentals of fishing gear, kayaks, canoes, standup paddleboards, sailboats, and electric motor boats. Residences high above overlook the gentle lake and have magnificent views of Bald Rock, the surrounding national forest, and/or the Blue Ridge Mountains. There are three miles of hiking trails around the lake and one steep trail leading up Bald Rock. Nearby are waterfalls, mountain bogs, Camp Merrie Woode (where the gem and gold mine once stood) and an old Wishing Well that was once considered a “healing spring”. 
Sapphire Valley has other private lakes such as Sapphire Lake and Hogback Lake. The latter, known for its fishing, is 35+ acres of pristine water surrounded by forest and Hogback Mountain. Charming residences and home sites are nearby with direct lake access.

The largest private lake in North Carolina laced with million-dollar homes is Lake Toxaway, a charming Southern hideaway for the country club set. Steeped in a rich history dating back to the late 1800s, prominent families like the Fords and the Vanderbilts summered on the lake for relaxation, fresh air, and golf. 
In the 1960s, the Lake Toxaway Country Club was founded with the same high standards in mind for family and friends to socialize in the mountains while living on an unspoiled lake. Members enjoy the 18-hole championship golf course with dramatic fairways created by Master Architect Kris Spence and a Tom Fazio Learning Center where golfers can perfect their practice. In addition, club amenities include a pro shop, clubhouse, fitness center, tennis courts, croquet, and dining. 
The Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests and mountains such as Hawk, Panthertail, and Mt. Toxaway surround the lake. Its high elevation with long and short-range views creates a beautiful landscape to enjoy outdoor leisure including hiking, swimming, fishing, kayaking, and canoeing. While much of one’s life here is spent outdoors, there is an active social calendar filled with soirees, social clubs, and events throughout the season.