Northern Michigan Camping on Black River

Northern Michigan Camping: I stayed out in the dark till the embers gently puffed out, then I came to bed and fell asleep to far-away elk bugling under frosty stars.

I’m wakened by a kingbird’s sputtering sunrise song. My small green tent is filled with soft light. Last night’s book still on my chest. Sleep must have come easily. I shuck my sleeping bag, then, with a kink, slowly move end-for-end. I lift and tie back the tent flaps, then look out from this hilltop camp on a beloved scene: a pungent willow and tag alder marsh, studded with glimpses of the river, now dimpled like rain from feeding brook trout. Distant coddling ridges are flush with white and Norway pines. Every paper birch I see has golden leaves. Somewhere … just a gurgle far upstream … another beaver dam.

Close in, not 10 feet from my door, is last night’s small fire ring. I built the ring from small field boulders I found by flashlight nearby, made the circle about 16 inches across, and laid up a small fire—a few sticks of maple to cheer the night. Within an hour I had a little boat of shimmering red embers. I stayed out in the dark till the embers gently puffed out, then I came to bed and fell asleep to far-away elk bugling under frosty stars.

Centuries of outdoor itinerants have done the same. Like nomadic tribesmen, today’s campers, fishermen and hunters use the same campsites over and over on the Black River, nodding in approval on those strangers who so long ago chose these places in this piece of Montmorency County as the best to pitch tents, draw water, fish for brookies, and lay campfires. My first time here was 40 years ago when my father introduced my brothers and me to this state forest area on a deer-hunting trip.

Dad and his friends took us youngsters to a promontory on the river where two ancient red pines towered—twin pines. The men told us that from now on, wherever we traveled in this place, all we had to do when we thought we were lost was to find some high ground, then look for the twin pines. I’ve utilized those trees now and again in 40 years’ worth of camping trips, continuing on with my brothers, and on into the years with our families. This time I am alone, those towering twin red pines only a half-mile from where I recline.

I put my book in the tent’s small cubby, get dressed, and pull on my boots—a knit cap for the chill. I crawl out of my tent and stretch, stiff as a dry sapling. Three deer cross a spot on the river, sipping as they go—already in their cozy autumn brown. I squat to my small fire ring and stir the silky ashes with a piece of birch. I feel a fair breeze. The first order is coffee, so I make a small fire.

When the fire is ready, I set the coffee pot to boil. The fire’s a dry crackle, its smoke straight and clear. I remove my hat. The breeze suddenly refreshes, riffling through my campsite. The fire leaps. I peer into its hot, charged center and am suddenly buoyed beyond all reason. This cheery campfire! A little thing, like most morning fires made for small start-of-day duties: to boil water, drive off some wet weather, dry a pair of socks, or simply warm our hands. For some campers, the perfect spot to sit and ponder before daylight stretches its full influence and the world’s in full stroke. A blue jay calls. The enveloping sun feels good. Frost is steaming off the marsh where waxwings pulse over the river. I hear the light wind in the pines behind my camp. There’s a waft of pine duff, a whiff of strong coffee … this morning will do!

Sitting on a good billet of white pine, crimped around a hot tin of coffee, I think I’ll take a long hike today. I imagine all the two-tracks I’ve never been down, or striking out cross-country, compass tucked in my flannel: cresting hardwood ridges, walking through yellow groves of aspens, skirting the chilly cedar swamps, but stepping through the hushed cloisters of red pines, the nesting stands of stunted jack pines. I have never seen a Kirtland’s warbler. Maybe I’ll see some elk though, coyotes, a bear! Whatever I choose for today I’ll start out just as my small fire here started its life, slowly and carefully. In both a literal and metaphorical way, there’s plenty of tinder and kindling out in the woods to spark my thoughts, and real stock to feed my better notions. Every day, nature presents us with cordwood enough.

For right now, this fire and coffee are all I need. I am happy when I think of the trout in the river, of the animals in the woods, of the friendly fire rings that dot this country. When I pack up, I’ll leave no record of my final stay. I’ll scatter my fire pit’s stones, turn the cold ash under, and, over the scar, replace the sod I carefully cut. I’ll douse the spot with river water. Even my small tent’s imprint will succumb in a couple of days to the teenage resilience of the long grasses.

At home, whiling away in my head the rest of autumn, winter, and earliest spring, I’ll think of the sun daily going round the twin pines, like a sundial whirring through the months—me dreamily fingering a new calendar, and saying little prayers that I’ll be back in the woods when they green again, making my camp.

This article was originally featured in the September 2012 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan's Magazine. Click here to order your copy!

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