When Ann asked me if she could go on a camping trip with a friend and her friend’s parents I was a little surprised.  The first time I had taken the kids camping was the final night of a summer vacation in 2009.  After that Ann had vowed that she would never go camping again.  I reminded Ann of this and asked about the change of heart.  She informed me that it was a different form of camping—one with a cabin, a mattress and other amenities that I do not usually associate with camping.

Since Ann being away left Liam and me alone for the weekend I asked him what he wanted to do.  Liam suggested that we go on our own camping trip, but “real” camping with only the things we could carry in our backpacks.  That seemed like a fun idea to me, so we started looking around for “rustic” campgrounds nearby.

Around this time I received an email from my aunt saying that if we were passing through Northern Michigan we were welcome to stay with her and my uncle in their place near Frankfort.  The kids and I had talked about was going to the beach this summer, but everyone had been pretty busy with activities to schedule a trip.  Since my aunt and uncle’s house was close to Lake Michigan, (and on a lake connected to it—Lower Herring Lake), I asked Liam if he wanted to go there instead.  He was worried that Ann would miss out, but she said it was OK.  Besides we had one more weekend before school started that we could use to do an overnight in a hotel at a closer beach as a family.

Then I had the idea of combining a beach trip with camping.  We could visit our relatives and spend a night there then set up camp nearby or at a place on the way home.  This seemed like a great plan to Liam and me, so we set out to make it a reality.

The first order of business was to find potential campsites.  We were looking for something with limited facilities, (and bonus points if you had to hike to it), preferably near water and not too crowded.  Unfortunately those sorts of places seemed to be “first come, first served—no reservations”.  There were a few in the area, though, and we chose one.  While it was legal for us to camp within a state park as long as we obeyed certain rules and filled out some paperwork, this proved too difficult for me to figure out in the time we had.  I expect that Liam and I will try that form of camping at some point, though.

Our plan was to leave Friday afternoon and see if we could get a spot at the campground.  If it was full we’d just spend the night with my aunt and uncle then try again in the morning.  If that didn’t work we would try to make a reservation somewhere less ideal or spend another night with our gracious hosts.

Liam and I checked what equipment we had and headed out to fill in the gaps.  Liam was especially interested in having a fire, but starting it without the aid of something like a lighter, so we picked up the modern equivalent of flint and steel.  (I also bought a Zippo just in case.)  Food was interesting as there were several selections of freeze dried options: beef stroganoff, eggs and sausage, chili mac and cheese, and even crème brulee.  I replaced my bulky flashlight with some LED thing that you wore on your head, (Liam already had one).  Finally as a “just in case” measure we borrowed a camp stove from my parents along with a cooking set.  Liam said we should pass on the foam/air mattresses my parents recommended so that we would have a more rustic experience, but he did agree to splurge by taking pillows in lieu of resting our heads on waded up clothes stuffed in a bag.  I also picked up a pocketknife. For a long time I carried a pocketknife as basic equipment.  In fact it became so basic to me that I forgot I had it in my pocket.  This caused problems when I had to fly somewhere for work and showed up at a TSA security checkpoint suddenly realizing that I had a knife in my pocket.  After donating a couple pocketknives to the TSA and one time threatened with being arrested I gave up on keeping a pocketknife.  We will see how long this one stays with me, although I now have a much more regimented procedure when preparing for commercial air travel.

Day One (Friday)

Day one had Liam and me stopping at Target so I could buy a swimsuit as my old one must have shrunk in the waist over time.  Then we headed across the street to a small hamburger place we had always wanted try.  Then back to Target because Liam decided that even though he was not planning to use his iPod he wanted to be able to charge it in the car just in case.  Finally in the early afternoon we punched “Frankfort Michigan” into the GPS and hit the road.

The drive was uneventful as we plowed through freeways congested with SUVs loaded with gear and bikes, pickups pulling boats and other watercraft, and all sorts of other vehicles many of them looking to be aiming for a weekend getaway.  Progress was not too slow until around Flint where things came to a near standstill.  After escaping that it was onto highways where there were periods of time with no traffic followed by clumps of cars waiting for the next passing lane to get around a slow-moving vehicle.  As we pushed on the traffic thinned to basically nothing.  This coupled with the woodland scenery along with the more frequent hills, sharp curves and general ignorance of the area gave us the impression of being out in the middle of nowhere.  It also started to rain.

The campsite we had chosen to try was due to it being called Lake Ann State Forest Campground.  Our idea was that even if Ann was not with us physically on this adventure she’d at least be next to us in name.  The area had 30 “first come, first served” sites, was labeled as “rustic”, was next to a lake and had hiking trails.  While it was definitely populated there were a good handful of open spaces, so Liam and I quickly grabbed one and set up our tents on high ground in the rain.  Thankfully tents these days are much simpler to assemble than what I remember from my youth.  Plus Liam and I had practiced in my bedroom before we left.  So in a quick few minutes our camp was established.

Next we called my aunt.  This turned out to be surprisingly difficult.    After three attempts at having a conversation before one of us was cut off due to bad reception we just put her address in the GPS and headed out.

I believe that the GPS played tricks on us during our stay.  The first time I noticed this is when it took us down one path to my aunt and uncle’s place but after dinner and conversation it guided us along a totally different route back.  Sure, the last few miles to the campsite were always the same, but otherwise it seemed that the way we went somewhere was different than how we returned.  While the scenery was great, the mix of hills and curves and strangely angled intersections mixed with pockets of populated areas made it so I never felt like I had my bearings.  A few structures like the drive-in movie theater, the rock store and the A&W became landmarks, but they would pop up unexpectedly then disappear giving only a brief moment of familiarity. While Liam and I had decided that we could forge for or create our own tinder, kindling and fuel for our campfires, (and we probably could have even with the rain dampening things as there was tree cover and dead wood scattered all about), my aunt and uncle send us off with not only full bellies and a nice evening, but also a collection of various things to use to feed a fire.  That night we did not need to make use of it, but were glad we had it on hand the next day.

Day Two (Saturday)

It rained all night but soon after dawn when Liam and I emerged from our tents the moisture from above slowed.  We made a shelter using string and a tarp from the car just in case the rain picked up again then set out to build a fire for breakfast.  We managed to get it started without using the Zippo and when it was self-sufficient we balanced a small pot of water on the wood to boil.

We soon found out that as wood burned the originally solid structure under the pot would shift and upset the balance causing the pot to tip, the water to spill and the fire be partially extinguished.  We managed to salvage the flames before they totally died using more kindling and our breath.  Being more cautious the second time around we cleared an area in the middle of the fire and placed the pot on the coals.  This was much safer, but I soon grew impatient.  Against Liam’s wishes I wedged the pot between a larger branch that would not burn through for a while and the side of the fire pit.  Things were going well and bubbles started clinging to the bottom and sides of the pot, so I left my watch to prepare the food packets.  As I walked away Liam suddenly yelped and I heard the distinctive sizzling sound of water coming in contact hot coals.

Thankfully all was not lost except for more kindling and breath to get the fire rolling again.  This time Liam insisted that we place the (newly filled) pot of water next to the fire instead of over it and also insisted that I let him handle the pot.  I told Liam the idiom about a watched pot being slow to boil.  He took this somewhat literally and had be stand near our makeshift shelter with my back to the fire.

Finally we had boiling water that we transferred into our pouches of ugly-looking freeze-dried food.  After a little wait and stirring, we retired to our seats and enjoyed what turned out to be a surprisingly tasty breakfast.  Liam’s packet contained eggs with ham and peppers.  I had something called “breakfast skillet” which turned out to be basically the same with the addition of shredded potatoes.

Since we wanted to do some hiking as well as go to the beach, I thought that taking the Dunes Trail to Lake Michigan would be a good pick.  We had tried the trail a few years ago, but it was too strenuous for Liam at the time and climbing sand dunes with him on my back was too strenuous for me.  Unfortunately most of the trails at the park were closed due to a severe storm that had pummeled the area the weekend before our visit so we had to come up with Plan B.

My aunt had mentioned a public beach in Benzonia that she heard was nice.  We did not have an exact address, but punched Benzonia into the GPS and figured that we would find our way from there.  As we got closer to our destination I switched off the GPS and took the roads that the majority of other cars were taking.  This panned out as we soon caught glimpses of beach and water next to us.  Liam wanted to stop at this point, but I followed the concentration of cars a little more and found parking between a beach area and what looked like a small town green.

There were several people on the road that followed the beach, but not too many on the beach itself.  A few blocks down the road was a crowd of people who occasionally erupted in cheers and applause.  We finally found out that we were near the finish line of the Crystal Lake Team Marathon which was wrapping up.

While there were a few people in the water, Liam and I stuck to the shoreline and had some stone skipping contests.  It started with us taking our time to select a rock and then seeing how many time we could get it to skip on the water.  This turned into us spending several minutes searching for a rock, so we added a 30 second time limit to the rock selection process.  However we soon grew impatient with even 30 seconds and decided that we had to just grab the first stone we could.  The final iteration of the game ended with us yelling “random rock”, scooping something up in our hands and tossing it to the other person who had to try and skip it.

While we were playing our stone skipping games all runners in the team marathon seemed to have been accounted for as people started gathering in the green area for an awards ceremony.  We decided that now was a good time to move on as things were getting more crowded.  After a brief pit stop in what Liam called the “worst port-a-potty” he had ever experienced, (I didn’t ask for further details), we headed out to pick up some lunch.  There was an A&W we had kept passing on travels that seemed to be something of a local icon, so we stopped there.  It was quite busy and we decided instead of car-side service we would get our order to go and take it to a beach.

A few years ago we had visited Point Betsie and toured the lighthouse there.  We did not venture onto the beach during that trip except to spend a few minutes watching people on surfboards holding on to large kites which sped them along the water.  The beach had looked intriguing and when I realized how close we were to it we made that our destination.  This time we skipped the lighthouse except at one point we visited the gift shop to use the (much cleaner, non-pot-a-potty) facilities.

Rock hunting seemed to be a popular activity for the area.  Buckets were scattered about as people of all ages sat or walked around picking up rocks, examining them then either tossing them back into the water or on rare occasions adding them to their personal stash.  Liam wanted to find a Petoskey stone and we imagined that this was the goal of many of the others.  However, as most of the buckets lying about seemed to be sparsely populated or empty, these nuggets were not easy to come by.

I told Liam that he should pick up a rock and yell, “I found one!” to me then repeat every minute or two.  This idea came from a fishing trip the kids and I had taken a few years ago.  We had spent probably an hour trying to hook something when a father and his daughter who was probably five years old stopped nearby to fish.  Every couple of minutes the young girl would yell, “I got one!” and pull up a fish.  Her dad then had to drop his pole to help her take the fish off her line, put in a bucket then re-bait her line.  The kids and I finally gave up on catching anything feeling much less adequate for the experience.  As we walked off we heard the dad tell his daughter something along the lines of “let daddy fish for a while please” as he was beckoned over to pull yet another fish off her hook.

Liam seemed to think that the fake “rock finding” joke was a grand idea, but I had visions of angry rock hunters throwing their rejected captures at us and convinced Liam that we should instead walk down the beach some to find a place to eat.

After lunch it was more rock hunting and stone skipping contests.  While we did not find a Petoskey stone, Liam collected a pocketful of rocks he found interesting.  The water was colder than Crystal Lake so we didn’t swim and figured we would try the water at the lake next to our campground.  While we had some firewood from my aunt and uncle it would not have lasted us the night and the next day.  Luckily there was scores of wood and kindling all around.  Even with all the recent rain much of the fuel was amazingly dry.  While most people left the beach carrying buckets of rocks we left clutching an impressive amount of wood and brush.

It was still early when we made it back to camp, so we went to check out the lake.  The water was arguably warm, but the lake seemed to be more geared to those in powered watercraft, so we just waded by a dock watching people in inner tubes pulled by motorboats and others riding jet skis until we decided it was time for dinner.

Back at camp we once again were able to start a fire without resorting to the Zippo and boiled our water without incident.  We also took some time to clean up the garbage and cigarette butts that previous occupants had left behind.  One of those artifacts was a used tin of Jiffy Pop and a handful of unpopped corn.  I told him how popcorn worked and he decided to scatter it in the fire to see what happened.  Throughout the night the crackle of burning wood was augmented by the pop of explosions as hulls burst sending white projectiles in various directions. The freeze dried beef stroganoff was very good, but Liam and I both decided that the crème brulee was not our favorite.  Our plan that night was to play some games we had brought then use an app on my phone to find constellations and planets in the sky.  Unfortunately, being in a state forest, our view of the sky was limited due to the trees all around us, but we did play Trouble and Sorry and a few rounds of Phase 10 before turning in.  At one point in the evening a pickup truck pulled up and someone asked if we needed firewood.  “No,” we replied looking at the pile of wood we had picked up at the beach, “we’re good.”

Day Three (Sunday)

As Liam and I stood looking at the fire pit that morning I suggested that since we had already proven our ability to start and use the campfire that we could use the camp stove we had borrowed from my parents.  Besides we were planning to find a church to attend later that morning and while people probably wouldn’t mind I didn’t want to smell like a campfire.

Breakfast was freeze dried chili mac and cheese.  This, as Liam pointed out, was not a normal breakfast food, but due to some error in planning that was all we had left.  After eating, we decided that chili mac and cheese should be considered a breakfast staple and vowed to buy more when home to share with Ann one morning.

I had told Liam the night before that we would bathe in the lake, but we decided it was too chilly for that.  Instead we boiled some water on the camp stove and added it to a bucket of cooler water to warm it up.  We then used that, a hand towel and some biodegradable soap to take a makeshift bath—at least the upper portion of our bodies.  I used my phone to find a nearby church and we set out dressed in our best campground casual.

After service we returned and sadly broke down our campsite.  It was still early and we had not done any proper swimming, so we changed into our swimsuits and headed back to Crystal Lake.  While there was some stone skipping, most of the time was spent further in the water.  I had brought a bag with us to hold towels and a change of clothes, plus things in our pockets like my car keys.  However, after a while in the water, I realized that I had not emptied all my pockets as I still had my wallet with me.  Liam worried about the money, but I assured him that it would be fine.

The beach had a gentle slope and the end of the designated swimming area was marked with a rope help up by plastic floats.  Liam could make it about halfway to the rope without having to tread water, but he was not satisfied with that and decided that we should swim to the rope.  It was something that I had thought about doing so was not surprised by the idea.

There is something different about swimming in a lake compared to swimming in the deep end of a large pool.  We were wearing goggles so could see how the landscape below us changed from sand and snails to plants and an occasional small fish.  For some reason this made the swim feel like it had more of an element of danger than doing the same thing in a manmade structure.  Liam and I made it to the rope and back, but as our feet touched ground he told me that maybe that was not a great idea.

After washing off in the outdoor showers and changing into dry clothes, we pointed the GPS to home.  I placed my wet bills in rows on the passenger seat telling Liam that I was rolling like a gangster with my money riding shotgun.  The roads were full, but traffic was moving until we reached the requisite traffic snarl around Flint.  This one seems to have been caused by a plastic bin that had landed nicely in the middle of our lane probably lost by a fellow weekend traveler. We stopped in Frankenmuth to get dinner, pick up some fudge for Ann and stretch our legs.  Then it was a smooth yet congested trip back home.

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