Thursday, July 13, 2017

Summer vs. winter at Island Lake State Rec Area: so different, I nearly got lost

A trail head in Island Lake State Recreation Area. Those pile of sticks were my reminder of which way to leave the park.
The trail intersection above is one I've traveled so many times. Close to 20, I'd guess.

But seeing it Sunday at Island Lake State Recreation Area through me for a loop. I didn't recognize it. I took that photo to make sure I could remember which direction my wife and I would head in case we got turned around in the park, located in the southeast part of Livingston County.

The biggest reason I was misdirected had to do with all the leaves on the trees: for the first time, I
Island Lake from a fishing dock Sunday afternoon.
spent an afternoon hiking at Island Lake in the summertime.

I was introduced to "roughing it" camping at Island Lake when I was 9. I took my first trip with the group I still volunteer with out of St. David's Episcopal Church in Southfield one cold January weekend. It's normal to spend our Saturday at the park cross-country skiing if there's enough snow, hiking if there's not.

This turtle greeted us as we walked
down the trail.
My wife and I decided to get out of the house and head out for the afternoon Sunday. Starting at the Green Oak Village Place shopping center, we took the trail into the park, enjoying the sights as we hiked. In addition to wildlife and flowers, there were plenty of bikers and trail runners spending the day doing exactly what we were doing: getting out a little close to home.

It still had that calming sense I'm used to in the winter, just with a lot more leaves. Once I got onto
the paths I knew, I'd stumble across landmarks I would always recognize in the winter and find they were unrecognizable.

If you've never spent time at Island Lake in any season, I'd recommend it. It's incredible how much land is still protected by the state in this part of Michigan, especially as development continues to creep outward from Detroit westward.

Just bring a map and don't get turned around like I did.

This daylily was one of many flowers spotted along the hike to Island Lake.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

There are plenty of dunes to be found in southwest Michigan, like at Warren Dunes State Park

The view after climbing to the top of a dune on a trail at Warren Dunes State Park.
Sand dunes are typically associated with the northwest Lower Peninsula of Michigan. Most notably is Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, which is a wonderful stretch of beach.

Signs mark part of the six miles of trail at
Warren Dunes State Park.
But the southwest portion of the state has its share of sandy beach. One such location is Warren Dunes State Park, located near Sawyer in Berrien County, about 15 miles north of the Michigan/Indiana border.

It's a park that doesn't get the attention it frankly deserves. We spent the weekend before Memorial Day camping in both the modern campground and the group sites. We decided to take this trip as one with backpacking incorporated into it, though after walking the trails and figuring out the group sites, I found backpacking in a little redundant, since there was a parking lot just 100 yards from the group sites.

After battling plenty of rain in the afternoon, it was time to head to the water. The group site is about a mile from the water, and takes a short hike through the woods and up. After climbing up the dunes, a truly spectacular sight was our reward: sloping sand dunes covered in vegetation led to the crystal shores of Lake Michigan.

Flowers on the dunes.
I remember going to the dunes more than 15 years ago with the Boy Scouts. I don't remember much about that trip, but I was reminded of one aspect of that trip: the massive, steep dune off of the lake. We happened to see several people trying to climb it, though I imagine it took quite some time to make it up.

After passing the dune and some flowers sprouting along the trail, we reached the beach. A fairly narrow beach, it stretched for several miles. Sloping sand dunes approach the water, making for the perfect place to perch while watching the waves crash along the sand.

It can be a bit tough of a hike, especially coming back uphill in the sand, but the view and the water is well worth it. We saw very few other people at this park that weekend, just some bird watchers and Boy Scouts. It was a little surprising, though I suspect the rain had scared them off from earlier in the day.

Warren Dunes State Park is well worth the visit, even if just for a stop on the way through town. With it being right off Interstate 94, it makes for a great pop-in in an afternoon. Just climbing to the top of the hill to overlook Lake Michigan is all one needs to feel at peace.

A broken sign approaching the lakeshore.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Nothing wrong with hitting the Holland State Park beach in March

The lighthouse on the shores of Lake Michigan near Lake Macatawa at Holland State Park.
The last time I was at Holland State Park, the beach was full, the water was full and the sky was lit up with patriotic fireworks.

It was a far cry from that Saturday afternoon. While visiting my wife on the west side of Michigan for the weekend (she's there for two weeks on work), we decided to head to Holland for the afternoon. After stopping by the Holland Museum downtown, we made the drive to Holland State Park, where we were met with a vastly different scene this time around.

Ice covers rocks on the jetty.
There were plenty of people coming to check out the sun as it glowed in the horizon, more than I expected. It goes to show the Great Lakes can draw people pretty much anytime of year, not just during the warm summer months and on Independence Day, which is the last time I paid a visit to this park back in 2010 while working in Grand Rapids.

While the nearby lighthouse was not covered in ice as I had hoped to see, there were still plenty of signs of winter: several rocks along the jetty were covered in white ice, with icicles dangling off of some of them. It wasn't what I was hoping for, but it was a sight I hadn't seen.

The wind whipping off of Lake Michigan proved to be the winner, as we didn't stay long on the waterfront. But just making the short drive to the beach on an early March afternoon can be invigorating.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Still no snow at Island Lake State Rec Area

The Huron River in Island Lake State Rec Area.
It's been several years, but once again, my annual trip to Island Lake State Recreation Area near Brighton saw no snow for the middle of January, just like 2013. What to do, what to do.

It's still an annual retreat I take each year with the same youth group I've been in/led since I was 9. It's a highlight trip to take when otherwise, I'd go several months without a night in the woods. This year was no different.

Piggybacking off of our activities from the outing in September, some of us decided to bust out our GPS devices during a hike on the very-icy trails and locate some geocaches around the area. Several were around, though the most impressive one we found was in a small prescription pill bottle hung about 20 feet in a tree. This didn't prove to be a challenge for one of our group members, who decided to climb the tree and log our group into the vial. Take a look:

It wasn't the only cache found. After returning to the cabin where we've stayed for years, I went onto my geocaching app and discovered another one nearby the cabin, one that had been there for 15 years. After a little looking, a friend and I stumbled across it, hiding underneath some wood. Filled
with small children's toys, we logged our group and added it to the app. Success!

A small cache of toys and stickers.
I was first exposed to the hobby back in September and I haven't done a lot with it, but having no snow to ski or sled with forced us to think outside the box. It's worthy of your time if you're in a wooded area and are looking to add a touch of adventure to that hike you planned out.

What else to do?
No snow requires more than just hikes and geocaching. Outings like these attract a wide range of members, and feeding them is no small feat.
Cooking takes up a good amount of time in the cabin, but these meals aren't anything most of the boys are used to. For example, I led a small band of fearless chefs (read: high schoolers) to create a
Lasagna stew. Couple it with a Kings Hawaiian roll and you've
got quite the meal.
lasagna stew using ingredients such as ricotta cheese, onions, spices and broken lasagna noodles. The dish turned up a little more soupy than expected, but even the pickiest of eaters with our group decided to give it a go. If you've got the time, there are plenty of recipes out there to try

A good cabin outing is nothing without games. I've created a list of them on the app, though I'm not aware of a way to drop an embed code to that list. Some of those great games include:

  • Chess: One of the classics, it's a game I don't really play unless I'm away from home. Using a cobbled-together set along with an old board, it's a great game to concentrate on. I left the weekend 1-1.
  • Euchre: Seriously, I think it's a prerequisite for Michiganders who go to the woods play this game. It's one that doesn't get a lot of attention outside of the Midwest, but here's more info if you're curious.
  • Skittles: A game I've never seen anywhere else. Crafted many years ago by our leader's father, this game involves a wooden top, several wooden pins and a wooden box with slots cut out of it. Points are scored by knocking over pins as the top spins, and more points are scored for knocking down pins in the back rooms of the box. Take a look:

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Happy New Year from Walled Lake. Here are some ice boats.

An ice boat on Walled Lake.
I went for my somewhat weekly walk along Walled Lake this morning, knowing I needed some exercise with the holidays. I was surprised to see what looked like sail boats out on the lake as I approached it.

While walking along East Lake Road in Novi, I watched as sailors (?) drove their vehicles across the frozen lake, around checkpoints and others walking out on the ice. About two dozen of them were out maneuvering on Walled Lake today in a sport I admit I have never seen before. More information on ice boating can be found here at

So I ran back home, grabbed the camera and shot some photos to share on this first day of 2017:

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Geocaching at the tip of Michigan's Thumb is a great way to spend a weekend

I'll never get sick of looking at the Lake Huron coastline, no matter where I am in Michigan.
So much is made in Michigan of what is "up north." Be it the argument that "up north" begins at the Zilwaukee Bridge, or at the Mackinac Bridge or what have you.

So much of the talk encompasses about the trek along I-75 or US-131. But so little is made of Michigan's Thumb region, which consists of several counties surrounding Lake Huron and the Saginaw Bay. For those coming from the Metro Detroit region, making the drive 2.5 hours north on Van Dyke is well worth the outdoors trek.

My most recent weekend was spent at the tip of the Thumb near Port Austin in a cabin off of M-25. That stretch of the state was quiet with the waves crashing near the sandstone rock formations nearby. A sandy beach lined the stretch of water, an area barely touched by development.

Part of our day was spent at Port Crescent State Park geocaching, an activity that consists of searching for hidden items in containers hidden all over. We were on the hunt for six caches in the rain, and were able to find five of them (the sixth appeared to have been missing for some time).

Finding the first geocache near the state park sign.
It was my first geocache experience, and was something I'm planning on keeping on doing in the future. Hiking has always been a pastime, but adding the hunt for a geocache gave it a little more of an adventure. They were located all around the park, with many of them near the trail. Some were well off the trail, requiring some detailed looking for the container. They ranged from a 35mm film canister containing a log to an ammo box with a full notebook and trinkets left by those who had visited it. One was even placed in a small lock box magnetically attached to a metal bench. These geocaches were entitled "Margie's Delight," named for the placer's mother. They're well worth looking for during a day hike at the park. We didn't have any items to leave in the caches, as we forgot to back them, but we did make sure we entered our information in the logbooks as we found them.
Our entry to the log on the geocache
(Stands for "St. David's")

While geocaching, the park itself was a pleasure to walk through. The pathway was a smooth
walkway that eventually led to the Saginaw Bay, complete with boardwalks through the beaches and sand dunes. It's the first time I've been to the park in well over a decade, having gone there a few times and staying at the group site at the state park.

While at the beach, we found it to be quite the communicable experience with others staying along the coastline. Our cabin was near a sandstone formation that had been graffitied by many people over the years. The water remained fairly calm but fairly warm as some of our group decided to swim in the lake.

There are several places to camp in the tip of the Thumb, including Port Crescent and Sleeper State Park near Caseville. It was a great reminder to see what spending time in the Thumb was like again, a place that tends to get overlooked when looking for a Michigan outdoor adventure.

A boardwalk along a trail in Port Crescent State Park near the water. It was
a rainy morning, full of clouds before it broke later Saturday afternoon.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Time to celebrate Michigan's National Park Service locations

The shores of Lake Michigan as seen from the sand dunes on South Manitou Island, part of
Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore. The lakeshore is one of seven sites in Michigan
administered by the National Park Service.
Everyone is celebrating the National Park Service's 100th anniversary today. This date in 1916, Woodrow Wilson created what is now the National Park Service, which oversees America's biggest national treasures.

Here in Michigan, we don't have as many managed NPS sites as some other states. Out of the 59 national parks, only one is located in Michigan. Six other sites overseen by the NPS are located in the state (There are several designations of national park facilities for a reason. Here's a list of why some places are national parks, some are national lakeshores, etc). There are other "national" outdoors areas, such as the Huron National Forest, though those are managed by other entities like the U.S. Forest Service.

During my several decades of exploration as a child and adult, I've been to six of them (well, maybe seven. More at the bottom):

Isle Royale National Park

The sight of Isle Royale in 2005.
Michigan's lone national park is the least-visited one in the Lower 48, seeing only 20,000 visitors a year. It's up there as one of my favorite visited ones in the United States, spending a week there back in 2005. A boat ride of four hours from the Keweenaw Peninsula to the island in the middle of Lake

Superior granted us access to one of the biggest adventures of my life. Waking up next to an inland lake and seeing a moose bathing is a sight you don't soon forget. It's a park I highly recommend visiting if you have time.

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and the North Country National Scenic Trail

Another top-notch location in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, Pictured Rocks is easier to access if you don't want to spend four hours on a boat. Here, there are more than 50 miles of trail, much of it making up the North Country Trail throughout the lakeshore area. I backpacked this stretch in 2006,
going from Grand Marais to Munising. It's a park that has a wide range of sights, including massive sand dunes in the eastern part and beautiful rock formations in the western part.

The North Country Trail, mentioned above, traverses through several states from New York to North Dakota. Running along the western side of the Lower Peninsula before entering the Upper Peninsula, it travels a length of more than 4,600 miles once completed.

Keweenaw National Historical Park
This is a park I know I've visited, but it would have been about 20 years ago on a family vacation as a child, and I honestly don't remember a lot of it. It's one I'd like to go back to and appreciate a bit more as an adult. This area focused more on history of the peninsula on Lake Superior, especially the copper industry that was so important to Michigan for many years.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
Located in the northwest portion of the Lower Peninsula, this is a popular spot for so many Michigan residents. It's garnered national attention in the last five years, being named the most beautiful place in the U.S. by Good Morning America in 2011. The dunes are wonderful, yes, though my favorite part of this lakeshore isn't as easily accessible. South Manitou Island, which can be reached after a 90-minute boat ride through Lake Michigan. This island has its own sand dunes, along with giant cedar trees and shipwrecks along the coast. I've been here multiple times, the most recent being 2010.

The one-room schoolhouse in Westland built by Henry Ford.
Motor Cities National Heritage Area
This is one I've been in my entire life, but never realized its existence until just a few months ago. This isn't a specific area per se, but covers several spots in Southeast Michigan important to the development of the automotive industry. These sites have markers at several locations, including near a one-room schoolhouse built by Henry Ford in Westland (soon to be in Livonia) and areas that attracted Detroiters for recreation near Walled Lake in Novi.

River Raisin National Battlefield Park
This is the lone NPS site in Michigan I've yet to have gone to. Located near Monroe on the shores of Lake Erie, this location commemorates the battles that took place there during the War of 1812, where the area was taken captive by the British. This location joined the NPS recently, being placed under its authority in 2010.

Wild card: Mackinac National Park
While not a national park today, most of Michigan's Mackinac Island was once a national park, the second one in the union after Yellowstone. Mackinac Island became a national park in 1875 and was transferred back to the State of Michigan 20 years later when it became a state park.  That designation remains today. It's an island I've been to a few times, though I'd like to go back.The island is worth a visit, not just for the natural scenery, but for the culture, the history, and, if you're into it, the fudge.

What's your favorite national park site in Michigan?