It was the first time in five years that we did not get rained or stormed on, huddled in a tent or hammock! This annual learning-journey tradition continues to churn out memorable moments. Josh and I (Uncle Josh and Aunt Laura) guide our nieces and nephews (ages 7 to 16) through backpacking gear prep, setting up tents, filtering water, fire-building, and of course, proper etiquette for pooping in the woods. Five years in, each of the kids has their own (engraved with initials) collapsible poo-spade.
Each summer, usually in late July, we select a Michigan trail location with hike-in backcountry camping… the kind of camping where you carry gear on your back. This time, we picked White Pine Backcountry Campground in the southernmost part of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Unique to this spot is a quick quarter-mile hike to Platte Bay, a stunning sandy beach marvel along Lake Michigan. Swimming in Lake Michigan was the top activity pick and an excellent substitute for a real shower.
Platte Plains Trails & White Pine Backcountry Campground
At the onset of our adventure, we received a bear safety talk from the ranger at Platte River Campground, where we picked up our backcountry camping permits. The Platte Plains Trailhead is located near the small town of Honor and has public beach access. From the beach parking lot off Peterson Road, It’s about 1.5 miles to hike to White Pine, a woodsy retreat with six designated campsites and a shared metal bear locker. We were instructed to put any food items and anything “smelly” inside this container with a special bear-proof latch. The list included toothpaste, deodorant, sunscreen, and all snacks. Important note: bear lockers work best when you remember to transfer your snack bag from the tent. Silas and Asa also eagerly pointed out that they could fit inside the bear locker and readily climbed inside as proof.
Kids that age have healthy appetites, so for our two days/two nights, the cycle of feeding or snacking is repeated every two hours. The JetBoil got a workout heating water for our MRE packets. The mac-n-cheese was a hit, especially when you add a handful of sausage bites. We needed plenty of fuel for our day-two, five-mile day hike to Otter Lake and the loop back to the beach. Most of our fishermen were unsuccessful except for an exuberant and lucky Silas. He literally caught a Rock Bass with a found piece of tangled line, hook, and a wriggling dug-up worm for bait. Jude, though not a fisherman, spied a turtle surfacing near the dock, leaped in the water, and snatched the turtle with two hands in mid-plunge! He showed off his new friend and quickly released the surprised turtle into the water. When the critter capturing fun died down, the kids transitioned into cannonballing into the lake off the dock. Ever amused by the kid chatter, I sat at a picnic table and slapped together a pile of PBJ on flour tortillas for lunch.
If you ask the kids: Silas, Asa, Jude, Luke, and Olivia what their favorite activities are, the list includes swimming, fishing, building fires, and eating their snack bags. I think the best way to capture the essence of the trip is to let the kids do the talking.
Silas (7), “Thank you for taking me to Otter Lake so I could catch a Rock Bass.”
*It should be noted that he is the youngest and only person on this trip who actually caught a fish.
Asa (10), “I really enjoyed swimming in Lake Michigan.”
Jude (12), “It was another incredible adventure. I had lots of fun, even with my hammock falling down and a new rookie tagging along. I have always loved the snack bags and swimming on every trip. I hope we can do it again.”
Luke (14), “I enjoyed the trip a lot. It was a cooler different experience with the close campsites and pit toilet. I really liked the site and my hammock set-up. I also liked the day hike to the inland lake. It was fun to fish and swim in. Best of all was swimming in Lake Michigan.”
Olivia (16), “My favorite memory was Silas getting inside the bear locker and Uncle Josh jumping on top of it. Also, I liked being able to swim in the lake all the time and napping in my hammock. My not-so-faves were hearing coyotes at night while I had to pee and seeing an old guy walk the beach in a Speedo. Oh, and not catching any fish this time.”
Other highlights: Luke chopped down a large dead tree with a compact hatchet. (Whatever it takes for the all-important evening fire time). Josh and I snuck away for a sunset stunner with bonus views of the Manitou Islands. Also, a first, upon return from the woods, no one contracted a rash or poison ivy! And this edition, Josh was super impressed with the older kids (Olivia, Luke, Jude) and how self-sufficient they’ve become. Each set up hammocks and tarps and volunteered often to fill the water filter reservoir. We smiled in affirmation; they were learning backcountry skills and then passing them on to the younger kids.
The fun meter was high on this trip! We’re confident the tradition will live on because the parents tell us the kids start asking about it incessantly and packing several weeks before departure.