Now that the 4th of July is over and summer is winding down I have been thinking about summers when I was growing up Fourth of July fireworks, the 4th of July in North Liberty and the year I volunteered to be in the dunk tank where they threw baseballs to dunk whoever was in the tank; all to raise money for charity.
I also remember sleeping outdoors and our big campout at High Banks Lake outside Bitely, Michigan.
Dad worked on the railroad as a fireman, sitting next to the engineer in the cab, making runs between Niles, Michigan, and Chicago. On one of his days off, dad and I drove up to Bitely, some 160 miles north of Niles to scout out tent camping spots. Remember, this was in the 1960s and a lot has changed in the last 50 years.
It seemed like we drove all day on our scouting trip until we found a suitable campsite on High Banks Lake.
For the next few weeks we prepared for the big adventure.
Mom built a plywood box to hold our non-refrigerated food. We ordered an ice chest, camping stove and tent heater from Montgomery Ward and picked it up at the store in NIles. Our tent came from Sears in South Bend.
The tent was fascinating to me as a 9-year old because you put a pole in the center of the metal frame to hold it in place while someone else staked down the canvas walls. Then, the center pole came out and went into the fourth corner. So, the tent stayed up with no center pole. It stayed up very well, even through a storm. More on that in a minute.
Meanwhile, dad tried to design and build a shelter out of aluminum poles and canvas. I had my doubts if it would work but — hey, little kids were to be seen and not heard back then.
Finally the big day came. We started out for High Banks later in the morning than we should and didn’t arrive until after dark. Google Maps estimates the drive time today should be 2 hours and 49 minutes. I’m sure it was at least four hours back in the ‘60s.
The campsite we chose was in an isolated area where primitive camping didn’t begin to describe the conditions. We left electricity at least an hour behind during our trek into the wilderness. The trail to the campground was so narrow and it was so dark, mom thought we would scrape the paint and break the mirrors on both sides of the car.
We got to the campground and managed to set up our tent in the dark. Thankfully, our pump up lantern was very bright and threw lots of light.
For a few days, all went well. We fished, I swam, and we made new friends.
My new friend’s family lived in the Detroit area. There was an old-fashioned pump between our campsites. Their son taught he how to raise the handle and let the water drain down the pipe and then prime the pump using one of his dad’s beer bottles. It was a lot of fun when you didn’t have a TV or any way to power one.
Their family had a small, flat-bottomed boat we paddled around the lake.
One morning, dad and I went fishing before daybreak.
While I was baiting a hook on a second pole, a fish not only took the bait on the line that was in the water but it also pulled the pole out of the boat and under the water. We never saw it again.
That was the new Zebco fishing pole I had received as a birthday present.
My folks should have known I couldn’t be trusted with it. Soon after I received it, I hooked the line on the back of a city truck while practicing casting. I held on to the pole but the truck took out all my line. I often wondered what the driver thought when he realized he had dozens of yards of fishing line trailing behind his truck.
So, dad wasn’t surprised when I lost my pole to what I imagined was a monster fish.
After our new friends went home, the wind picked up one night destroyed dad’s portable camping shelter. Our tent stayed up but everything was a mess. We had to go into Bitely and eat at the local diner that night
We also learned a tornado had passed overhead near our campsite that day.
That trip ended our camping adventures and I thought it was going to end my parents’ marriage but they survived.
Mom used her portable pantry in the basement of our house to hold canned goods. Dad stowed the canvas from his camp shelter on the gravel floor of our garage with a lot of other junk.
A few years later, my grandmother offered to pay my way to go to summer camp.
I thought about it for all of five seconds and then politely refused. Somehow, camping of any sort didn’t sound appealing.