Northern Michigan Camping, in Theory: An Essay on Camping with Kids

Making lemonade from life-gifted-lemons is easy in theory; how that analogy applies to a glitch-ridden family vacation in Northern Michigan’s outdoors is another story.  MyNorth contributor Kate Bassett had to live in the moment to enjoy what turned into a less-than-ideal Northern Michigan camping adventure with her husband and three kids.  The following essay was first featured in the May 2014 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.


I’m a writer. I create stories—news stories, fictional stories, essays—every day. Which is why, as my husband points out, I tend to romanticize things. And when I envisioned family camping trips, I pictured bonfire light and shadows flickering across the faces of my children; an early morning of grown-up conversation, sipping French-press coffee on the beach. I imagined the very sound of memories we had yet to create. Kids tripping over one another’s laughter, camp songs and animated recaps of the day. I heard a lullaby of crickets, the hushed sway of hardwood leaves. Family camping. We’d have a blast every moment.

My husband, however, was not so sure.

“We’ve never camped as a family of five for a reason,” he said. We sat on our back deck, both barefoot and sipping good red wine. “We haven’t even camped just the two of us in how long? Maybe eight years?”

It was true. The desire to cuddle close in our tiny two-person tent all but disappeared with the birth of our second child. Sleep became too precious a commodity, and vacations meant king-size beds (with turndown service). But still. An unseasonably warm May strengthened my conviction. Plus, the kids were growing so fast—we’d measured them against the closet door the night before, and I counted pencil marks moving up, up, up.

I rattled off reasons to go. We must build traditions! Instill a love of nature and back-to-basics fun! Collaborate and cultivate family bonds!

“We already do that,” my husband said. “But we can go camping. Just … don’t overdo the expectations.” He kissed the top of my head and called our friends who own the Outfitter in Harbor Springs. “Can you order us a family-sized tent? And have it here this weekend?” I don’t know what was said on the other end of the line, but I have a feeling it had something to do with “theory” versus “reality.”

This is why (and how) my marriage works. Justin jokes every white hair in his beard is connected to one of my brilliant plans. Yet he only shakes his head a little when I get on a roll, reminding me ever so gently real life can’t play out like the pages of a novel. Reminding me the best stuff—the true heart of it all—slides in without fanfare. Tiny slivers surrounded by messy moments.

Shortly after crossing the Mackinac Bridge that Friday, we discovered a sandy campsite sandwiched between Lake Michigan and Highway 2, near the southern tip of Hiawatha National Forest. A slight trudge up a dune proved we could almost leave the rumble of semis behind, and as Justin pitched the tent, the kids disappeared to explore, play, be together. It was perfect, all so according to my plan.

Which lasted all of five minutes.

Because somebody fell down the dune and somebody else wanted to go potty (but not unless it was with a flushing toilet) and black clouds of hatching midges swarmed the shore, and couldn’t we just make s’mores and go home?

I’ll admit I marched back to the truck and cried. Family bonding started looking more like fodder for therapists 20 years down the road.

Justin knocked on my window, holding up two Short’s microbrews and pointing to a couple of beach chairs perched under a tall hemlock. I begrudgingly followed, slumped down and wiped my eyes.

“This isn’t how I pictured it,” I said.

“It never is,” he answered. “And that’s okay.”

Right. And natural bug spray never quite keeps the mosquitoes from feasting. The campfire songs died out on verse one. Snapping twigs, combined with a sleeping 4-year-old still covered in sticky marshmallow goo, caused a running loop of images involving a bear bursting in for a snack. By morning I felt old and achy.

“We used to love this,” I said.

“Look around you. We still can,” Justin answered.

He suggested we brave the bug-laden beach. And braving the beach turned into a teasing dare to brave the lake, though it wasn’t even June. Justin went first. The three kids soon followed with splashes and hoots and high fives.

I thought about running back for my camera to ensure there was proof we’d had fun. Honestly, I even got lost dreaming up a summer filled with camping trips, picturing us happily hiking the Porcupine Mountains or canoe-tripping down the Jordan River. Then I remembered what Justin said about slivers of life. Tiny moments adding up to big reasons why we’re raising our family Up North.

So I took a deep breath and ran—fully clothed—right into the lake. I dove under. I dove deep enough to let go.


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