North is usually the answer to whatever ails you. Feeling exhausted by the rat race and cooped up in your office? Go north. Feeling too connected to the digital world and out of touch with your primal self? Go north. Kids more concerned with what’s happening on YouTube than what’s happening out in the woods? Go north.
To be sure, I didn’t always feel this way. There was a time when the annual family trip up north was met with a whiny, “Do I have to?” During my teenage years I was more concerned with missing out on plans with my friends than I was with packing up the van, hooking up the boat, loading up the tackle box and sleeping bags, and driving to the Upper Peninsula. On my last trip north with my family, before I became old enough to stay home on my own, I detested the idea of spending an entire week fishing. When we arrived at our cabins in Canada I announced that I was walking into town to meet some people my own age and would be back when I found something else to do.
And that is exactly what I did. Within 15 minutes I’d found a group of teenagers to hang out with for the next seven days. When I foolishly decided to hop in a truck and go to a party with my new gang one night instead of returning to my cabin by curfew, my understandably frantic parents spent hours knocking on doors in town until they found my whereabouts. This was pre-cell phone era and now, as a parent myself, I want to return to that evening in 1995 and smack my thirteen-year-old self for putting my parents through such a frightening search. But, as a thirteen-year-old, it was a pretty cool night. Hanging out in a sauna at a lake house with new friends who ended every other sentence with ‘eh was one for the books. And my parents doled out a fitting punishment: I was forced to spend the entire next day fishing…in a boat…with them.
Looking back on our annual pilgrimages to the North Woods, my mind is flooded with memories that turned into epic stories to later be re-told over campfires throughout the years, each telling more colorful than the last. Like the time we crossed into St. Ignace at the exact moment a classic car parade was making its way down the main street. And how my Dad, instead of stopping to let it pass by, drove right into the middle of it with our green Dodge Caravan and old fishing boat. Not one to miss an opportunity to embarrass his young daughters (who were now crouched down in the backseat), my Dad rolled down all the windows and waved and honked at the spectators standing on the side of the road. When a man in the crowd yelled out, “Nice rims!”, we couldn’t help but momentarily forget our embarrassment and join our parents in laughter.
When I revisit that simpler time in my mind, I always picture my mom (who during the other 51 weeks of the year wore high heels and dresses to the office) wearing my dad’s camouflage hat and tennis shoes, content to spend an entire day on the lake reeling in massive pike and walleye. I can smell the breakfast of eggs and bacon that she cooked on the stove of our camper or the tin foil dinners she made over an open fire. I can see my little sister, ever the woodswoman, exploring in the forest or joining my dad fishing on the dock as I sat at a picnic table reading the latest Nancy Drew mystery or Sweet Valley High saga. I can feel the warmth of my sleeping bag, as I lay awake in the still of the night, listening to the voices of countless aunts and uncles and cousins retell the highlights of the day around the glowing campfire. I can hear the low cry of the loons on the lake, signifying that we were north indeed.
Despite my teenage resistance of the pull of the north, all of the summers spent there must have imprinted themselves on my DNA. When my husband and I selected a location for our Honeymoon, where do you think we decided to go? You guessed it. Hey, who says the Shipwreck Museum isn’t a romantic location? And now, as parents ourselves, we are bound to subject our own children to this same fate as well. When my son was eighteen months old, he dipped his chunky little feet into the frigid waters of the rushing Tahquamenon falls and cried when we took him out of the water. I should’ve known then that I had myself a Northern boy. Now six, he spent the last week starting his own campfires and baiting his own hook. The image of him at the end of the dock, sitting by himself on top of an overturned five-gallon bucket with his line in the water and the sun setting down over the trees will forever be imprinted on my heart.
I think the northern bug might’ve bitten my daughter this week as well. She didn’t hesitate to strip down to her underwear and jump into the lake within ten minutes of our arrival to the cabin. Seaweed be damned, the girl was going swimming. Her two cousins, Grace and Tinley, joined her on all of her adventures and their collective six hands and feet stayed appropriately dirty all week long. They were watched over by my little brother, a keeper of the fire himself, and his beautiful girlfriend who didn’t hesitate to join the girls in the lake or spend the day in the boat, taking her own fish off the hook. My sweet baby couldn’t resist the lake either. She couldn’t have cared less about the little leech that attached itself to her leg during an hour-long romp on the sandy shores. I think she somehow knows that it’s a badge of honor, an initiation of sorts to the North Woods and a tale that will be told around future campfires.
So for a week, all was right in the world. The Wi-Fi was replaced by a connection to the woods. The race to work was replaced by a stroll to the lake. The queen-size pillow top mattresses were replaced by squeaky camp beds shared with a cousin or a Nana. Rushed dinners between sports practices and work meetings were replaced by an uncle’s famous burgers on the charcoal grill and a family of thirteen around a picnic table. Nightly bubble baths in a carpeted bathroom were replaced by camp showers and an aunt-led assembly line of French braids. NickJr shows were replaced by Papa’s telling of the Legend of Sleeping Bear Dunes.
Chalk it up to the call of the wild or the call of the loon, the north has a way of getting into your bones. You can breathe a little deeper up there. It is a place where little boys take a step closer to becoming men with each fire that they start. It is a place where princesses transform into daring adventurers with dirt under their pink fingernails and leaves in their braids. It is a place where Moms and Dads become trail guides and lumberjacks and tellers of tales. It is altogether magical and intoxicating. It has the dual power to isolate you from the rest of the world and connect you to what really matters. But be warned, once you sit under the hard pines and soft birch, your soul will never again be able to resist the pull of the north.