Peace In A Tin Can

Peace In A Tin Can

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Family Camping at The Straits

For the past week I have returned to Michigan's Upper Peninsula, but this camping trip has been drastically different, because my family came with me.  I had been excited for this trip ever since my husband, Steve, suggested a family camping trip, but it was also something I had to completely prepare myself for mentally.  Camping alone in the woods in my beloved tin can is what I do; camping with 7 people in the tiny Twinkie is another thing all together!

I have camped with Steve before, so I knew what to expect.  We would spend very little time at the campsite, instead spending our days driving to a crowded tourist destination, then walking like cattle being herded into chutes to catch a brief glimpse of something spectacular, then back in the car to drive somewhere else.  Steve loves tourist attractions!  Don't get me wrong, tourist attractions are crowded for a reason.  They are very interesting and nifty places, they are just chock-full of people, which is not where I like to be.  Crowds make me nervous.  But I made up my mind to really enjoy this trip, it being a special treat to have my kids carve time out of their busy work and sports schedules to join us, a time for reconnecting with my college sophomore Max and his girlfriend Lauren, and my high school senior Keely and her boyfriend Connor, and of course, my 11 year old, Nina.

I arrived at Straits State Campground in St. Ignace, with it's stunning views of the Bridge, on Wednesday.  I set up camp, including two tents and a tin can, and waited impatiently for Steve and Nina to arrive on Thursday.  Once they did, we took off on our bicycles to explore the park.

We came upon this intriguing and lovely path through the woods.  I was rather dismayed to see a sign prohibiting bikes.  What?  No bikes?  Sure, there were jagged boulders jutting out at eye level, and the tree roots created Mother Nature's inspiration for obstacle courses, but I would have been up for the challenge.  Sadly, I am a rule follower, so we abandoned the bikes and set off on foot.  Tripping over roots, breathing hard on the uphill climbs, we wove through trees and around rocks, enjoying the silence and peaceful experience of walking in the woods, when Nina turned around to say something to me and stopped in her tracks, eyes frozen.  I looked behind me, and in a narrow break through the trees, we had a stunning vision of the Mackinac Bridge.  If she hadn't turned around, we never would have seen it!

The Straits is a typical State campground, but as each park has something unique to offer, here it is the breathtaking views of Lake Huron melding with Lake Michigan under a 5-mile long  bridge connecting lower and upper Michigan.  Steve, Nina and I walked the shoreline of the blue water lake, with it's desolate beauty and captivating view of Mackinac Island, the Grand Hotel seen far off as a sentinel watching over the water.  Because of the tannic acid leeching from the trees, rivulets of orange, oily water run from the shore to Lake Huron, giving new meaning to the term "mineral water".

Straits State Park was built in 1924 as a simple day use park, but in the 1940's tent sites were cleared along the shoreline.  The booming travel trailer industry in the 1950's, combined with the construction of the Mackinac Bridge, led the state to expand Straits, adding 130 campsites in the lower campground and developing the upper campground with 145 sites in the 70's.

The history of the Straits is colorful and rich.  In 1634, Jean Nicolet traveled through here seeking a passage to China.  He didn't find it, but found instead a lot of animals with fur!  He began the Fur Trading Industry between the French and American Indians.  1723 marked the construction of Fort Michilimackinac for the French to conduct their fur trading.  For several years after, the British and French fought over the fort and fur, but in 1781, Fort Michilimackinac was moved to Mackinac Island.  It bounced between the French, British, and American soldiers for control, but by the 1860's, the fur trade had died and fishing became the major industry in the Straits.  Tourism was born at this time on Mackinac Island, and in 1887, the Grand Hotel was built on the island in just 4 months, with only 300 construction workers!  The bridge was completed in 1957, and the rest, as they say, is history. Now a major tourist destination, St. Ignace offers ferry service to the island, and boasts a quaint town of shops, restaurants, and motels.  The Straits campground, conveniently located 2 minutes from downtown, is a very popular campground, with a feeling of remoteness but close proximity to tourist attractions.

After exploring the many natural beauties the park has to offer, we spend a restful night at the campsite.  Well, Steve and Nina had a restful night in the tin can.  I was forced to sleep in the tent, and while I normally sleep well outside, the pack of dogs, or possibly coyotes, that fought for whatever they fight for at night kept me wide awake.  That, coupled with my excitement for Friday, kept me from sleeping much, but no worries; I was too pumped up to grab a lifelong dream the next morning to feel tired.

Friday morning found us in the car, driving north, to Tahquamenon State Park.  As a young child, my parents had taken me to the general area, but I never saw the falls, and I have waited since then for the opportunity to return there.  It was worth the wait!  The weather was a little chilly and rainy, so not as many tourists as usual were there, and once the sun broke through the clouds we ended up with a nice day to row a boat over the river to explore the lower falls on foot.  I highly recommend this, since you can only see all 5 lower falls by rowing over to the other side.

I don't know if the falls are always like this, or if the recent drought has dropped the water levels, but we could walk right out onto the rock slabs and actually become one with the falls.  We picked our way over rocks and viewed the lower falls from underneath them; it was inspiring and awesome and surreal.  Who can beat being romantically rowed through the Tahquamenon River by your husband to embark on a journey to see one of God's miracles?  As we continued to walk the path along the river to the next falls, the crowd thinned out (wimps!) and we found ourselves alone for a time, just me, Steve and Nina and the river.  I was overcome with emotion, at finally being here, being a part of it, and for once, I was grateful not to be experiencing it alone.  I turned to Steve with tears streaming down my face.  He knew, I didn't have to say a word.

The upper falls are more spectacular, and it is a simple walk down a paved path to see them.  Again, Nina and I walked right out to the top of the falls and looked over.  But I found myself liking the lower falls better.  The twisting trees in the water, the constant current swirling around rocks and roots, the new surprise around every bend, the walk on a dirt path through the woods were all a part of exploring the way the first people who ever saw the falls explored them.  I felt very native, going back in time and feeling my Native American ancestry and wondering if I love it so much because they, the Indians, loved it so.  

Once we returned to the campsite that evening, I only had a moment to bask in the glory of the falls before a flurry of activity.  We had to hurry up and wait for Max, Lauren, Keely and Connor to get here!  I had their tent all ready, with cots and mattresses, sleeping bags, extra blankets, and a roaring campfire to greet them.  Seven camp chairs were set in a close circle around the fire, with errant embers burning small holes in the seats, so that upon their arrival we could just be together.  The brief fall of rain just prior to their getting here couldn't dampen my fire, and it was perfect.

However, the kids, as Nina calls them, came rolling in at 11:30pm, exhausted from working all day and driving 5 hours, so we did not linger around the fire.  The kids crawled into the tent, Nina and Steve went inside Twinkie, and I retired to my tent cot.  Putting my shoes underneath the cot and zipping myself into my little cocoon, I looked up through the peep hole and saw stars, millions of stars, and fell into a deep sleep.

It had to happen though.  I've been lucky this summer, having spent much time in snake infested habitats all by myself, but not actually seeing one.  Waking at 3:00am, I had to pee.  I stayed put for a while, hoping I could just fall back to sleep, but by 3:30 I knew I had to get up.  Unzipping the tent, I reached underneath for my shoes when my hand felt something thick and slimy.  Of course, I screamed and zipped up the tent.  Forcing myself, out of bladder necessity, to peek out the opening with a flashlight, I saw a round sleek body curled over the top of my shoe, with its head inside.  In one jump, I made it into the tin can, where I used the bathroom and then pushed Nina over in her bed to join her.

It doesn't matter that, in retrospect, I realized it wasn't a snake, it was a slug.  But give me some credit, the slugs up here are really, really big.  I was awake the rest of the night, trying to remind myself to breathe.

Saturday dawned, and this was the day Steve and Max had so been looking forward to.  After a quick breakfast and showers, we loaded up and drove to Hessel, Michigan for the Les Cheneaux Historical Society Antique Wooden Boat Show.  What an amazing day it turned out to be.  First, though, it must be said:  the crowd was huge.  We shuffled through roped off docks one by one, hemmed in on all sides by others spectators, looking down at the lower docks where the boats were moored.  While it made me long for wide open spaces, and at times I heard myself screaming in my head to get out of there, I was at least momentarily distracted from the humanity by the boats themselves.  They were gorgeous, and the time, effort, blood, sweat and tears it must have taken for their owners to restore them was impressive.  A few were even for sale, and as soon as I win the lottery I am going to buy one for Steve.

My husband was in seventh heaven.  We lost him in the crowd as he lingered over each boat, asking the owners all about their history and restoration process.  Once the kids and I had enough, we left him behind and entered the very long line to buy fresh made kettle corn, which turned out to be quite possibly the best kettle corn ever made.  My second favorite part of the day was seeing the boats that had that extra little touch, a bit of decorating.  This made me ponder; if adding a bit of glamour to a campsite is called "glamping", then is adding glamour to your boat called "gloating"?  Hmmmm…

The kids took off before Steve and I, to stop at Castle Rock.  After climbing countless steps, they were rewarded by standing atop a huge rock to see for miles and miles.  

As Steve and I drove back to the campground, he was lost in thought, dreaming, I suppose, of building a pole barn and equipping it with boat restoration tools.  At the campsite, he asked me to pull up the internet on my computer.  I wandered around the campsite with my cell phone, trying to find that one spot where I could get a signal, then propped the phone on a tree branch and activated my mobile hot spot.  Steve happily searched for antique wooden boats for sale on the internet while Max made us dinner.  All in all, a great day, despite the crowds, ending with a rainbow on the beach that evening.

I didn't even try to sleep in the tent cot Saturday night.  Connor took possession of it, and I once again crammed myself in a bed in the tin can that is meant for one, which I shared with Nina.  Nina, the talks-in-her-sleep, elbow-jabbing, feet-kicking, restless sleeper.  No rest for the weary, eh?

Sunday morning was again rushed as we prepared breakfast and headed to Mackinac Island on the ferry to go to Mass.  Steve insisted on renting bikes for all of us (really, Steve?  I haven't slept for days and you want me to ride a bike 7 miles around the island?)  then took us up to the Grand Hotel for lunch.  The idea of being at the Grand Hotel was a little intimidating to me, but it seemed really important to Steve that we eat there.  Boy, did we eat!  The lunch buffet that is open to the public is outstanding, with table after table of food.  It was positively decadent.  Also not very smart to eat that much food before we biked around the island.  I spent the entire ride staring longingly at the beach, where I am quite sure I could have napped.  

Even though there were signs posted along the ride warning tourists not to climb the stone outcroppings, the boys and Nina did it anyway.  Steve and I fretted, took pictures, fretted some more, and were relieved when their feet safely touched the ground below.  I wasn't mad though.  What child (or child at heart) could resist?

We bought fudge, ate ice cream, then took the ferry back to St. Ignace.  I was sad to see the kids leave, but they all have jobs they had to get home to, so as they drove off at 7:00pm after lots of hugs and reluctant waves, it was time for Steve, Nina, and me to take down the tents, perform some housekeeping duties with Twinkie, and settle in for another night of Steve and Nina sleeping, and me falling off the edge of the bed in an attempt to escape Nina's kicks.

Steve and Nina packed up their stuff Monday morning, ate a leisurely breakfast by the fire, then took off for home.  I spent the next two delightful hours putting the tin can back to the way she should be, after having 7 people in and out of her all weekend.  But once I had everything "just so", the way I like it, I found myself lonely, wishing Steve and the kids were still here.  Whoa, where did that come from? I assumed that once everyone left, I would be relieved to return to some solitary camping in the woods for a couple of days.  Not so.  I had such a wonderful time with them here, enjoying the kids laughter and all the private jokes we inspired, seeing my husband relaxed and fun, full of love and generosity towards us all, that I wasn't quite ready for it to be over.  Our family needed this vacation together.  With two older teenagers who have separate, busy lives, and Steve stressing over work, and me missing my job, Nina caught somewhere in the middle of it, we were able to put everything aside and just enjoy being together.  It was nice.

I am wrapping up my time here at Straits State Park.  Today I wandered the campground where buying wood is left to the honor system (does my kids' generation even know what that is?) and paths are not for bikes.  I walked to the end of the road in the lower campground, curious about what might be behind the fence marking state property.  I snuck through to find myself standing in a cemetary, and decided that when I die, I want to be buried here.  What an eternal view!

It has been a great trip, the end to a great summer spent exploring Michigan's State Parks.  I suppose the time has come for me to return home, to the real world, with a renewed sense of self to help me tackle life's every day problems with confidence and clarity.  Tonight I will sleep alone in the tin can, missing Nina's warm breath on my face, but at least I will be sleeping and dreaming of waterfalls and my family's smiles.