For the past 30 years our family meets up north one weekend a year for the family camp/canoe trip. We first started going on these canoe trips as part of a company outing, originally hosted by my brother’s employer. Richard, who was also a good family friend, organized these weekend trips. Camping somewhere in Grayling, and then Saturday morning canoe down the Au Sable River. We were single then and went sporadically, but my brother hasn’t missed a year in 30 years.
Soon as we started having our own families, our family decided to break from the original group, because we like acting like grown-ups and wanted to be respectful of our camping hosts. Our group was big enough on its own and we wanted to make it a family affair instead of the wild corporate party that soon had them ban from every campsite in the area.
The best memories started when as parents of pre-
schoolers scholars, we began our children’s indoctrination to the camping and canoeing experience. Soon the grandparents started coming too. At least fifteen to twenty family members went year after year.
Imagine five little boys and two girls ages 3-6 looking up at us in astonishment. You mean the dirt is our living room floor, and our kitchen floor and our playground? Wow, you mean we can play in the dirt? Yeah, let’s get down to business. Soon we had dirt highways for their matchbox cars and tonka trucks around the tents. Whole armies of ninja turtles set up in foxholes fighting off Barbie dolls. We couldn’t keep the kids clean and after a while we stopped trying, changing them three times a day. Or the following year, when one of the dads pulled out a bag of marbles, showing the boys the art of shooting marbles. Gradually the little boys were replaced by grown men, kneeling in the dirt, aiming with one eye showing off their shooting accuracy.
There was a small patch of trees and brush next to our campsites. Really it was just a couple of pathways from one camp area to the camp store or pool. The kids kept going into the four by six patch of “woods” chasing each other around and pretending to be lost. To this day they insist that the “woods” were immense. Then at dusk we would walk through the “woods” with our children wearing their pj’s to the showing of a Yogi Bear cartoon and eat popcorn.
I found I love meandering down a river in a canoe. If I could, I would do it every week. I remember my three-year-old niece proclaiming, “I don’t like this. I want to go home” over and over again all the way down the river. Seven years later, I hear my three-year-old niece, Ms. A proclaim the same thing over and over. Aha, the tradition continues! I remember the lunches we had at the halfway point. After lunch the kids are in the water searching for guppies and tadpoles with their dads. The water cannons and squirt guns in later years and their riotous play in the water.
Two years in a row, we found a spot in the river around a bend, where the current was moderately fast and a perfect size for young children. We parked our canoes along a sandy bank and one by one each child rode the current. The life jackets made them buoyant enough to let one go at one end and ride the current to a waiting parent on the other. It was a blast. But the river changes year after year and we never could recognize where the bend with the fast water was ever again.
We relished whenever my brother brought a new girlfriend or a new couple decided to join our group. “Umm, never been in a canoe before, really?” The scene was repeated year after year. The arguing, the bickering and the blaming begin immediately. The couple is in full adrenalin mode as they crash over and over again in a zig zag pattern up the river, only moving a few feet forward at a time, and fighting all the way. Then the inevitable happens. No matter how hard they try, they will eventually flip that canoe and land in the river soaked from head to toe. For a couple to navigate a canoe down a river is a true test of any relationship and damn entertaining. See how I italicized it and underlined it. It’s just that entertaining.
These were really good years. The kids were young enough to put to bed by eight or nine and the grown ups made a fire, had cocktails, and talked. Some times the guys did skits and we would roar with laughter and the contests of man versus woman on who could start a fire. The ladies usually won because we were patient enough to gather or cut kindling wood. The men would throw a huge log in the fire pit and throw fluid all over it and grunt, “Ugh, fire.” While the kids slept, we took turns taking romantic walks under the stars. We brought our lounge chairs and look up at the magnitude of stars and felt the awe and wonder of the universe. We were recharging our souls.
So many memories, the year that Beloved skidded in the sand while riding his bike and fracturing his collarbone. The year some of the kids came down with the measles. The years of cars breaking down and the guys going to the rescue of some family member. Some unbearably hot weekends, especially the year that every campsite in sight had fans blowing outside of their tents. What a strange sight. People everywhere rushing to Wal-Mart to buy a fan, any fan and sitting together under the trees. We were the first to put four or five of them in a row hoping the blowing air from the fans would cool us off. All envied us. The year of the big rains when camping was just miserable but always remembered as adventure. The year hail as big as baseballs came down and dented all of our cars while the twenty of us huddled in the one tent that was erected in the nick of time. “Was that a tornado warning in the distance? Anybody else hear that?” The year my brother lost his keys in the river. It took us an hour but we found them. The year my niece found she loved bugs and taught all the other kids to love bugs. Think, bugs in pockets. Hearing the maneuvers and artillery fire coming from the nearby army reserve base in Grayling. The women staying in camp while the men took the kids to Hartwick Pines or Gaylord Alpen Fest. We played skip bo (card game) in the camp’s laundry room while having cocktails. Ah good times.
When the kids got older, we found another campsite, less commercial but with a lovely private beach, a few small cabins, a boat launch, and fishing poles for rent. This secluded campground was our destination for the next decade. New traditions were born, swimming in the lake, the volleyball tournaments, the nighttime search for crawdads and frogs, Saturday night popcorn and Sunday morning pancakes provided by our hosts, the evening gathering at Middle Sister’s cabin to play cards.
Now the kids were older and could stay up and roast marshmallows. They would spend hours looking for the right size fire stick. This cut down adult “party” time considerably since we couldn’t send them to bed early anymore. They were mesmerized and loved the fire, the little pyromaniacs. Listening to their youthful exuberance and conversation was enlightening and entertaining. Now the whole family could sit around telling stories. One year the kids grabbed the video camera and made an impromptu film on their hunt and quest for the big crawdads called, “The Crawdad Hunter.” (I'll have to post that later.)
I thought when the kids became fourteen or fifteen that the camping trip would lose its appeal. After all they were teenagers now and surely wouldn’t want to go anywhere with their parents. But they all informed us that it was the highlight of their year that they would never get tired of this trip. They loved it and would always love it. One year my sister and husband decided to skip the family camping trip. My eleven-year-old nephew was so angry that he made picket signs and walked up and down in front of his house in protest. He got his way.
The little boys and girls that were 3-5 at one time are now 19-22 years old. I hear them talk about coming up north on their own and camping together “without the parents” or how they will continue the tradition with their own kids. It gladdens my heart. I’m looking forward to the time when they are the ones setting up camp and cooking all the meals and driving us around.
A full circle is coming. As we (the parents) are getting older, it’s harder and harder for my sisters and brother and their spouses to enjoy the tenting experience. We can’t take the heat. We can’t stand the dampness on wet weekends. The whole setting up camp and then taking it down again has become a big chore. Taking that long walk to the bathroom three times a night is not fun at all, especially when it’s raining. There is not enough excitement for the young adults especially since there are “no babes or hunks” in our secluded campground hideaway. We’re all ready to go someplace new. Plus we have new little ones in the family, new children to introduce to the camping and canoeing experience. They have yet to get really attached to our present camping site so moving to a new one is sounding good to everyone.
Since I don’t “party hardy” anymore, (Did I mention we are getting old?) I’m never
inebriated tired enough to stay asleep all night. For the last few years, my irritation with nature has grown. The birds start chattering loudly in the wee hours of the morning that I have to keep myself from screaming, “Shut up, you stupid birds!” Or pull out a shotgun and plug ‘em full of lead. Just a fantasy I’ve had the last few years. Finally when they settle down, chipmunks, squirrels, or crows start their bickering and run around our tent and up the trees making sleep impossible. If it rains, the drops against the tent sound like timpani. So I have been wearing earplugs and taking Ambien on our last few camping trips.
Queenmaker announced no more tenting for him and I wholeheartedly agree. We’re just not sure if this is a new tradition we want to start, leaving the campsite and missing out on all those late night activities and stories around the campfire. It’s bittersweet. But we are planning to go this year, rent a cabin or motel room and see how it all works out. If it’s not too expensive maybe we’ll rent a camper.
Summer memories are best when they are part of a tradition. I would like to keep it going. I want to be part of this ever growing family’s trips up north. Every year we are together at the same place, same time, and same river, with the same beloved family. Every year we share new bonds, new experiences, and new traditions adding to our ever-growing treasure trove of beloved memories that family summers bring. Priceless.
Remember to go to Sprite's Keeper for more memories.