Out in the woods

May 16, 2001 at 12:00 am

I started camping as a Boy Scout, a uniformed, gartered lad, camping at the places owned by or reserved for such groups. Places with forests, vistas and lots of space. There may have been other campers, but you couldn’t see them from where our tents were pitched.

Even a nearby place such as Island Lake State Recreation Area, was once reserved for groups. And on any given weekend, there was usually only one group there to cavort in its fields, canoe on the Huron River or swim in the forbidden lake created in the backwoods by some long-ago gravel company.

Then I grew up and went camping with college friends. Gasp! Rows of 15-feet-wide plots with cars pulled right up to the tent. You could see, hear, even smell your neighbors. They had a camp store and bundles of firewood you paid for. Kids rode their bikes around the paved roadway.

That’s when I found out you really had to work — or be lucky — to find great camping places. For instance, a few years later I went backpacking in the Gila Mountains in southern New Mexico. We parked, threw our stuff on our backs and walked in for three days. After spending an afternoon in snow up to our thighs on the north face of a mountain, we found a green and verdant valley where we set up camp and cooked our own flat bread on an open fire with rice and peas. Drinkable water was scooped out of the same river we skinny-dipped in. Only on the first day walking in did we even see other people.

Not everybody has the time or energy to drive across the country and backpack into the mountains. Still there are plenty of good places in Michigan to camp that find a happy medium between parking lots and virgin wilderness. Get state parks out of your mind — think state forest, or national forest. I remember once being horrified by a totally asphalt-covered state park campground in the Upper Peninsula with campers squeezed in like sardines. Checking my map, I found a state forest about 20 miles away. There, out of about 12 sites only one other was being used. Each site had its own access to the beach on Lake Michigan, and about 30 feet of brush and trees separated each site. In a word: heaven.

These are the campgrounds found a little farther out of town. Without water hookups and flush toilets, they eliminate most of the people who think camping involves driving your house around. There are generally fewer camp sites, but those are larger with more space between them. Often there is no park office to check in; payment tends to be on the honor system. And some sites are accessible only by hiking or paddling a boat.

Of course, the best way to find great camping is to ask your friends who camp. Places with directions like: Take the turnoff about 12 miles out of town. It’s kind of hard to find. Look out for the old Vernor’s sign sort of hidden behind the weeds. Turn right onto the dirt road and follow it to the end. When you hit the lake, follow the tire tracks in the grass until you see the giant weeping willow …

Lacking such insider information, get some county maps. They have the kind of detail you need. They’ll show the abandoned railway lines you can follow deep into the forest. Rivers that meander endlessly through no man’s land. Gravel pits and game areas.

Just remember rustic campers: When you squat in the woods, don’t wipe with the poison ivy.

Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and former Metro Times editor. Send comments to [email protected]