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Getting Out of My Comfort Zone (& into the Woods)

My earliest travel memory was at about age three, when my family went camping at Leelanau State Park in Northport. According to my mother, it rained, the tent leaked, the “potty pot” tipped over inside the tent and we ended up sleeping inside our woody station wagon. I wish I could remember more of the details—like the Grand Traverse Lighthouse which sits within the park.

When I was in high school, I went tent camping at a private park with a friend from high school. If memory serves, it rained then too. I have a vague memory of the campfire and smores, but that’s about it.

FootwearIt would be more than 30 years before my next camping experience, when a magazine assignment sent me out to the remote North Manitou Island for a two-night rustic stay. I’ve made the day trip to South Manitou Island a couple times (and also spent two nights in the Coast Guard Station building in July 2004, while researching the lighthouse for ghosts). However, this was my first trip to the northern island, which requires overnighting—and with no public buildings, camping is the only option.

Now, I don’t even own a sleeping bag, tent, backpack or descent hiking boots (as was evident about an hour into our first hike). Thankfully, my well-prepared and ever-patient traveling companion Greg has enough gear to outfit a small army—although we brought a limited amount with us as you have to haul everything about a mile from the dock to the campsite under the heat of the summer sun.

I did pack a few essentials like a box of wine (equivalent to four bottles), smoked salmon, salami, prosciutto, a baguette, cream cheese and a few other “gourmet” food items so I wouldn’t have to rely on the traditional dehydrated meals that Greg assured me were tasty. Oh, and several portable chargers so I could keep my phone powered (for photos of course).

Coast Guard QuartersOutside of the poor choice in footwear, day one was enjoyable. Once we set up camp, we walked through “the village” to Cottage Row, where a handful of historic homes were in various stages of restoration. The point of the trip was to check out the Monte Carlo, which was built for George and Carrie Blossom in 1892 by the then virtually-unknown but later famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright (who was just 26 years old at the time).

From there, we followed the path past the Katie Shepherd Cottage (which is being renovated and hopes to open in the coming years as an island inn) into the woods toward the southeast end of the island to the cemetery. Just a couple dozen graves remain, most worn by the years with the names and dates barely visible.

We made our way back through the woods, famished and ready to prepare dinner. Given its location within the National Park, fires at individual campsite on North Manitou are not allowed. There are two common areas with fire pits available, but we decided to rely on a portable gas “stove” of sorts to cook our meals. With a titanium cup of red wine in hand, we fixed t-bone steaks, mushrooms (swimming in wine) and garlic toast. Yes, I realize that is a pretty high-class menu for a rustic camping trip—but, have we met?

With bellies full of steak, bread and wine, we ended the night with a cigar (and more wine) before turning in for the night. The next day, another hike was in order.

Somehow the next morning, I woke up starving…must be all that fresh air? We fired the “stove” back up to heat water for Aeropress coffee (and yes, we did bring creamer). While I sipped on a cuppa-joe, my faithful companion began preparing his breakfast: bacon (pre-cooked and reheated), scrambled eggs and dehydrated hash brown potatoes. For myself, I pulled out part of that baguette, slathered it in chive cream cheese and folded over pieces of cured salmon for a camping version of a bagels and lox sandwich. Life was good…at least up until that point.

After doing the morning dishes, we geared up for our second hike to the west side of the island toward to the historic Svenson’s Barn, near the ghost town of Crescent (about 8-9 miles roundtrip). We stopped in town to fill up our water bottles and use the main restroom facilities before we began our trek.

Following part of our route from the day before, we found relief from the increasing heat in the shade of the woodland trees. We watched chipmunks scurry past us, an occasional garter snake, a couple deer and a crazy number of centipedes. We listened to birds in the trees, some calls not familiar to me.

About an hour or so into the hike, we came to a fork in the road where another group was congregated taking a break. Having not been to the island before, I trusted my personal guide to lead the way. Unfortunately, we somehow got our paths crossed (back where we were distracted by the other hikers) and ended up back in the village—hot, sweaty and me in growing pain due to several blisters that had formed on my feet because of my poor choice in footwear.

Resting on a picnic bench, I slowly pulled off my boots and hiking socks to find that the most painful blister on the heel of my right foot was actually a blister on top of a blister on top of another blister. Another four were scattered around the bottom of that foot. Clearly, my hiking was over for the trip although I encouraged the others to head back out without me.

Given the higher temperatures, lack of breeze and ongoing attacks by black flies, we decided to head back to camp to change our clothes and spend the afternoon along the Lake Michigan shoreline cooling off in the water.

That idea was good in theory, but the black flies followed us there and after about an hour of slapping at them we made our way back to the common area to start a fire, hoping the smoke would force the flies to vacate. Again, another good theory that didn’t play out as we would have hoped. Our campsite was even worse. The flies had taken up residency in full force, so we stayed near the fire the rest of the day and into the evening as we prepared dinner (not as elegant as the first night). For dessert, we polished off the box of wine and enjoyed cigars again.

To escape the heat and flies, we called it an early night. We were anxious for morning, so we could head back to the mainland on the Fourth of July and proceed with the rest of our Independence Day festivities. I had survived my first rustic camping trip, a little dirtier, blistered and wiser for the wear. Will I return, well…like many other “adventures” in my life, I’m glad I did it, but I find no need to repeat the experience! Oh, and as a footnote…those pesky “hiking” boots were left behind hanging from a tree in our site—never to be worn by me (or hopefully anyone) again!

LighthouseFast forward about a month to our next tent camping trip, this time—just one night in a campground where we could actually drive and keep our supplies in the truck for easy access. We packed up and made our way north over the Mackinac Bridge to Bay View Campground near Brimley, along the Lake Superior shoreline. This trip was also work related as I was researching for my upcoming book “Michigan’s Haunted Lighthouses” by visiting Point Iroquois, the Mission Hill Cemetery, Sand Point and Whitefish Point Light Station.

Arriving in early afternoon, we were lucky to find the last site available (#10) and set up the tent (making note that next time we visit this campground, we want an odd numbered site, which have easier access to the lake). Before long, we were headed back out just a few miles down the road to Point Iroquois. There, we met a volunteer keeper who committed to a year-long stay with his wife to run the tours and maintain the complex. I asked him if he had had any ghostly encounters while he was there, and he said no, although he had been told stories by past keepers and some visitors. Those stories were the same I was familiar with and which will appear in the pages of my book.

CementeryFrom there, we made our way to Mission Hill Cemetery, where eight men who died in a 1919 shipwreck in the area were laid to rest. I’d researched this accident quite a bit, pulling old newspaper records from online resources and reading more about it the lighthouse. We learned on a plaque at the site that these men had been found frozen in the ice near Salt Point (between Whitefish Point and Point Iroquois), so we added this to our list of places to visit and moved on.

We drove along backroads, often two-tracks overgrown with trees and brush that were once used as fire roads in what is now the Hiawatha National Forest. Our longest trek was down FR-3154 south of M28, to an area designated as “Camp Raco” (originally known as “Lone Pine Camp”)—the first Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the Upper Peninsula.

The CCC was a public work relief program that operated for unemployed, unmarried men from 1933 to 1942. This UP camp was organized in April 1933 with 200 enrollees from the Detroit area who were instrumental in tree planting, telephone construction, stream improvement, campground construction, fish planting and fire suppression.

After the camp closed in 1942, the facilities were used as a German prisoner of war camp during WWII. Today, without the small wooden marker near the main road, you’d never know anything ever existed here. Just north of M28, we also found the Raco Work Center, known in the 1930s as the Norway Ranger Station (the district headquarters for the CCC). Today, this building serves as a field office for the Forest Service work crews.

Raco’s is tied to another ghost story at Point Iroquois, about a young girl killed by a bear in the late 1940s at nearby Mission Hill. Her father was a ranger at the Raco Fire Tower at the time of her tragic death. Her spirit is said to be unsettled along the grounds of the lighthouse.

We made our way back north, with a quick stop at Salt Point to grab a couple pictures of the beachy shoreline before heading to Paradise and Whitefish Point. We arrived less than an hour before closing, and finally convinced the cashier in the gift shop that it was okay to sell us two full passes even though we were sure we wouldn’t be able to get through all their buildings in the 40 minutes we had left.

We quickly walked through the former keeper’s residence where I recognized pictures of Robert Carlson who served at the light, living there with his wife, Anna Maria, and his daughter and twin sons (this family had come from Michigan Island and would go on to serve and retire from service at Marquette Harbor Lighthouse, also on the haunted list).

From there, we walked out toward the shore, snapped a few pictures of the skeletal tower, and toured the boat house building and even made our way through the gift shop.

CoastGuardStationBuildingSadly, the one building I wanted to visit was off limits. The Coast Guard Crews Quarters now serve as a bed-and-breakfast. This is where the ghost resides, often thought to be that of former keeper Albert Gross (who died elsewhere in 1987 and is buried in Sault Ste. Marie). Our visit coincided with the Michigan Lighthouse Festival, which means all five guest rooms were already booked and it was impossible for me to get inside to search for the ghost or to look for pictures of the former keeper which I’m told are on display inside. The treasure hunting for this graphic element for my book continues.

As has become a customary end to our adventuring, we stopped for an adult beverage and a cigar before grabbing dinner at The Inn in Paradise (where I started the age-old debate about what goes best on a pasty…gravy (yes) or ketchup (no)). Then, it was back to the campground for a quick walk to the lakeshore (where the Northern Lights once again eluded us) before calling it a night.

Not long after falling asleep, I was awoken with flashbacks of that first camping trip when I heard the first few drip-drops of rain…followed quickly by a downpour and then lightning and thunder. This time, however, the tent held up and the natural sounds provided the much-needed white noise I require to sleep. A leisurely Sunday morning followed, with coffee, mimosas and breakfast before we packed up and finished our trip with a visit to Tahquamenon Falls (both the Upper and Lower falls).

Full of new information, a few photos and tons of inspiration to finish my chapters, I’m now camped out back at home (on the couch), writing this blog and procrastinating on the real work at hand. And, with just a few weeks until the deadline to submit my manuscript, my tent camping has come to a close for the season. Maybe next year, I’ll add a few new campgrounds to my list when I’m out on my book tour promoting “Michigan’s Haunted Lighthouses.”