Whether you’re on a Northern Michigan vacation or a local, August brings the last bit of warm summer days and an opportunity to pack in as many activities as possible. From Traverse City to Harbor Springs, soak up the rest of the Northern Michigan summer with some family fun activity ideas from Molly Ames Baker. Find the original article in the August 2015 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.

Cool fact: pigeons bob their heads. Cooler fact: this head-bobbing behavior is actually an illusion. It’s really all about the neck—a pigeon sticks its neck out, and then pauses to let its body catch up before sticking its neck out again. With each neck pause, the pigeon uses its side-mounted eyes to take a snapshot of its surroundings. In this way, the pigeon captures and holds an image of the landscape, again and again and again. Without this optokinetic response, the pigeon’s world would go by in a blur.

Come mid-August, I wish I were a pigeon. I want to hit pause and capture the moment—these last lazy days of summer—before it slips by yet again. Instead, I panic: Where did the summer go?! Mom-guilt floods over me, and I stare—no, glare—at the summer list on the fridge. The did-nots start adding up. 1) We didn’t camp. 2) We didn’t fish. 3) We didn’t wake up to see a sunrise. 4) We didn’t, on and on.

Feeling like the worst mom ever, I call my friend who gives me a reality check: “Stop! You did something these past 10 weeks, right?” Well, yes, we biked some. We ate ice cream some (no, a lot!). We swam some. But all these somethings are adding up to a whole lot of nothing. As far as I can tell, we’re stuck in a rut. Channel the pigeon—we need to capture our summer and see it in a different light.

Ok. Come to think of it, we swam more than some. Actually, we’ve swum quite a lot. Our youngest of three finally learned to tread water, praise be, so then we swam some more. And these past few weeks were so bloody hot, we done did swim all over the place. Now all these “nothing” swims are adding up4 
to something in my mind’s eye—a map with red dots spread all over between Little Traverse Bay and Sturgeon Bay. Holy cow! We’re having a banner summer after all—16 swims in 16 spots, and all in Lake Michigan.

Now we’re on a mission for 17. I rack my brain for public access to another beach. Bingo!—the bridge, as in The Bridge. I call my mom, who has a propensity for harebrained adventures (Apple, meet the tree!) and she’s all in. So we head up to the Mackinac Bridge for our 17th swim, never mind it’s 62 degrees, threatening rain, and we have to change in the car. This time a quick dunk counts. In less than seven minutes, we’re in and out, making the last red mark on our map. It’s official—we have our “Summer of Seventeen Swims” from the bay to the bridge.

Back to the pigeon. Coolest fact: In 1978, a Canadian scientist, intrigued by the head-bobbing behavior of pigeons, conducted an experiment to see what would happen if their surroundings didn’t change. So, he put pigeons on a pigeon-sized treadmill (seriously, it’s true) to see what they would do. Sure enough, when the pigeons realized the landscape wasn’t changing, they stopped sticking their necks out. Makes sense to me. So I’m getting off the treadmill. Going somewhere. Doing something. I’ve got to stick my neck out and capture the landscape—this day, this lake, this water—before summer goes by in a blur.

Rock the Rock Dove Way 

The common pigeon (aka rock dove) sticks its neck out, again and again and again, each time taking a snapshot of its surroundings. Otherwise, the pigeon’s world passes by in a confusing blur. Our Northern Michigan seasons can pass us by too, even when we have the best of intentions. So stick your neck out, break up the routine and get out there to capture the moment—this land, this lake, this place.

Unbox the Seasons

It’s easy to box up our outdoor experiences by the season: summer’s for the beach and winter’s for the slopes. Try doing something (or going somewhere) that you usually slate for winter this summer, or better yet in all four seasons. 

Try It: Every summer we hike the designated trail up Sno Pro at Nub’s Nob ski area with my mom for a grandma 
adventure. The kicker: we carry ice cream in a cooler to 
celebrate at the summit.

Anything X 10

We all like a challenge (especially with a reward!) and putting a number with it amps up the fun factor. Kids love the numbers game on any scale—from “Can you skip 100 rocks into the lake? Betcha’ can’t …” to “Let’s go explore five different nature preserves this summer.” Afterward make a map or journal or memory book of the adventures. 

Try It: My kids love playgrounds, so my mom made it her mission to do “10 Playgrounds in a Day” with a silly game, activity or prize at each—blowing bubbles, monkey bar contest, treasure hunt, drawing, rock sculptures, etc. Now that the kids are older, my mom is determined to do it again this summer and I know it will work (even for our middle schooler).

Claim a Ritual

Small things that are seemingly insignificant can have a major impact when we do them on a regular basis (once a day, week or month). Pick something small and easy that you can carry through the season to help you feel more connected to the landscape—every morning with your cup of coffee, open the door or look out the same window at the same tree, rock, view and capture the moment. 

Try It: After the first and last day of school we always get ice cream and go to the city beach, no matter the weather. It bookends the summer and creates a ritual connected to the lake. My kids talk about it days before and would come undone if we missed it.

Create a Tradition

Pick one thing that you do no matter what—whatever the weather, hectic schedules, or chores—at some point during the summer. It doesn’t have to be an epic adventure or scrapbook-worthy, but it needs to be tied to your place in some way—hike your favorite trail, wake up to see the sunrise at your favorite beach, swim to a buoy/rock, visit a special spot. 

Try It: Summer isn’t summer for our family until we paddle on a little known inland lake north of us to check out the beaver dam. Every year we think “Ugh. This is too much work,” but we’ve never, ever regretted it once we’re there. Making it a tradition means this shared experience has become a benchmark for change, in the land and our kids.


More Northern Michigan Kids

Tips For Rock Hunting In Northern Michigan

Video: Sleeping Bear Dunes Heritage Trail

Q&A with Tricia Phelps of Taste the Local Difference of Traverse City

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