By Joe Boylan (edited by Gerry Boylan)
It all began as the brainchild of my dad, who decided that the city mainstays of his son Joe (that would be me) might be changed with an outward bound-like expedition with my more outdoorsy-inclined cousin, Liam. However, we made every excuse possible to avoid the actual, very expensive and lengthy Outward Bound camps. So, my Dad concocted Plan B: a camping trip on South Manitou Island, located in Lake Michigan, just off the Leelanau County coast, but still in the Sleeping Bear National Park. I had no desire to spend any time in the wilderness, which this suburban kid defined as anything more rustic than a baseball field. While the initial billing of this trip was "a taste of the outdoors," I knew that the featured reason for the trip was a bit deeper.
"This will be a character building trip," my Dad said.
I don’t know about you, but at 16 years old, my recollection is that beyond girls and sports, not much else entered my brain and character building registered nary a thought.
But the trip was on and the mandate was to prepare, pack backpacks, hike across the island and set up camp, basically being self-sufficient for the agreed-upon three days and three nights. We made our last minute preparations reluctantly and the August day of our departure quickly arrived.I picked up Liam’s at my aunt Maryanne and Uncle Charlie’s home in Bath, Michigan and we headed to Empire, 25 miles west of Traverse City. Along the way we debated who comprised the greatest all-time teams in professional football and basketball and we hatched a brilliant strategy to pull an all-nighter in order to properly wear ourselves out for the camping trip. We figured that sleeping was going to be the highlight of our days on the island.
We awoke the next morning in Empire, exhausted and running late. We arrived minutes before the Leland based ferry was about to leave. Rushing, we parked in front of a local tourist store, praying that our truck wouldn't be towed or ticketed when we returned.
We ran with our gear for the ferry
ticket store and had this exchange with the ticket lady.
"Hello, how may I help you?"
"Yeah, uh, we need some tickets."
"Do you have a park permit?"
"A camping permit?"
"Uhhh, no, we don't have anything."
"(under her breath) jeezus..."It turned out we purchased the last two remaining ferry tickets, relieved that we didn't have to return to the wrath of Uncle Gerry/Dad, having to tell him we missed the boat. That would not have been pretty!
The ferry ride was uneventful, just about the only uneventful part of the trip.
The ferry rolled into the harbor of South Manitou Island an hour and a half later, and we disembarked from the boat, grabbed our backpacks and set off aimlessly.
While the rest of the travelers filed into this building marked "Registration Center," Liam and I took the opportunity to go ahead of the pack and find some choice campsites ahead of the other campers who were being herded into this building. While Liam and I are two completely different people, we share a common genetic trait of fierce competitiveness. And even that sometimes would be an understatement; we really need to win, and getting a head start on our unknowing “sheeple” competition made us smile smugly as we headed out into the island. Our self-satisfied grins did not last long.
About three minutes into the walk,
I looked to Liam, our backpacks weighing heavily on our skinny shoulders and
muttered, "Well, I guess this is what building character feels like."
About a mile down the dirt road, a light seemed to shine on this opening in the woods. We looked down the opening and saw a wide-open, circular camping area. It was the very first we had come across and it seemed like providence. We checked out the clearing and deemed it perfect. We set up our tent, unpacked our bags and broke out a newly purchased stove. Liam and I also lacked a mechanically inclined bone in our bodies and we didn’t read directions. As a result, we spent an hour trying to light the stove before giving up hope. We decided instead to go swimming in Lake Michigan.
We strolled down the mile-long path and found the beach. I should note here that in retrospect, South Manitou is a beautiful island and a more mature duo would surely appreciate the soul-stirring views of the Sleeping Bear dunes and Empire bluffs. For us, it was just a swim in the lake.
After a refreshing swim, we began walking to our temporary home. Liam discovered what looked like a shortcut, and decided it might be faster if we took this trail across the woods. We walked and walked, walked and walked, and walked some more. About an hour later, we stumbled upon the main road and tripped back towards our campsite, tired and starving.
The trip had not begun well, but things looked to be on the upswing when Liam successfully lit the stove. We cooked dinner, a delicious Mexican meal of burritos with the works. Even though it was only 7 p.m., our plan to tire ourselves out had worked and we crawled in our tent and were knocked out in minutes.In the middle of the night, my very deep sleep was jarred by terrifying claps of thunder looming directly overhead. I quickly woke Liam, who was snoring soundly and said, "I think we're gonna want to put on that tarp-thingy over the tent."
"The fly, you mean?" Liam asked.
"Yeah, yeah, that's it."We quickly set up the fly over the tent and crawled into our sleeping bags just as the rain began pouring down in sheets, with heavy winds and deafening thunder. But the noise and the wind were not a match for our fatigue and we both fell back asleep. We awoke the next morning with puddles of water everywhere. We were drenched.
Guess we didn't put the fly-thingy on correctly.
Liam, a spectacular high school runner, did not let our soggy condition prevent him from taking his training run while I looked for places to hang our wet stuff. He returned from his run, and explained that a huge tree had been knocked over 20 feet from our campsite and was blocking the road. It had been a very big storm.
We killed some time, grabbed our
Dr. Bronner’s soap and took a lake bath. Clean and smelling like peppermint, we
headed back to our campsite.
Surprise! The National Park pick-up truck was parked in the driveway of our campsite.
As we approached, we noticed that
our tent was collapsed and that our camp supplies were being picked up and
loaded into the truck by a not very happy looking Park Ranger. I approached the man wearing the traditional
Smoky Bear hat.
"Umm, hello, sir?"
"Yes, son, is this your campsite?"
"Are you aware of the fact that you need a Park Ranger signature in order to camp on the island?"
"Didn't you notice that all of the people who got off the boat went into a station?"
"Uhh, no sir."
"Well...did you read your permit that came with your ferry ticket?"
"Really? Well, if you had, you’d have read Rule Number 1 on the permit which states, “Park Ranger signature for camping and Rule Number 2 which states 'You must only camp in designated area.' And this certainly is not a designated area, son."
"Ooo, whoops. We certainly missed that."
"Finish packing your things and meet me in the Ranger station pronto."
Naturally, we were embarrassed and nervous from our obvious, yet unknowing mistake. Dang directions!
We packed up as quickly as possible and made headway towards the ranger station. We knocked on the Ranger Station door, but no one was to be found. Liam looked over at the dock and said, “Joe, the ferry is getting ready to leave.”
We knew there was only one ferry trip per day and with our gear soaked, permit-less and the dour Ranger nowhere to be found – our eyebrows rose in mutual agreement, we picked up our bags and ran pell-mell toward the ferry, not a word exchanged between us.
As the boat departed, its hull slapping against the incoming Lake Michigan waves, we looked back at South Manitou with a sigh of relief. That was before we saw our Ranger striding toward the dock. And he did not look happy.
We breathed a collective sigh of relief. We were off that godforsaken island at last. And the pit in our stomachs was beginning to wear away as the distance from the island increased.
The ferry docked in Leland and we stepped off the boat onto the mainland, the sun beating down and a cool breeze about us. We didn’t get far as we were greeted by another unsmiling Ranger.
"Uh, 'scuse me, son? What's your name?"
"Joe, Joe Boylan."
"Well, Joe, how was your camping trip?"
"It was okay."
"Where 'bouts were you stayin'?"
"I mean, what campsite?"
"I wasn't exactly in any campsite, in particular..."
"Ah, I got ya'. You have any proof of identification?"
"Let me have that, son."
That’s when my heart went thump. I handed the Ranger my license, and was advised to go get my bags and my "partner" Liam, and meet him back at his SUV. We did as told, and returned to the SUV with our backpacks. The man commenced to grill us for about thirty minutes about our trip on the island and their camping arrangement.
"Well boys, I got you written up for two major citations here. Number one is camping in an illegal site, and number two, violation of your permits. Those fines are going to come to about $125 each, or $250 for both fines together."
Our jaws dropped.
"Now what do you think I should do?"
I knew I was going to have to use
my most diplomatic plea in order to change the outcome of this disaster.
"Well, sir, I understand that we did violate several rules and deserve each of the citations you wrote us up for...but the two of us had never been camping before, and we made honest mistakes all in good intentions. We didn't knowingly break any of the rules, and we apologize for everything."
A pause ensued...until the Ranger nodded slowly and said, "Well, boys, I tend to agree with you. Now this is going to royally tick off the Ranger back on the island, because he was seriously angry at the two of you for skipping out on him. So I'm gonna' let you two off with a warning violations, and you'll be entered into the permanent records here in Leland and the Park, but other than that, it won't affect you one bit. Now where did you say you parked your car?"
"Oh, somewhere over in front of one of those stores."
"Ha! Oh, well I'm sorry to tell you that it definitely got towed, they don't mess around in these parts."
"You might wanna go check, and come back and I'll show you the impound lot."
Liam dropped his bagged and sprinted full out toward town, the truck keys in his hands. Ten minutes passed, and Liam rolled back into the parking lot in our truck, much to the surprise of the Ranger.
"Holy molasses! It wasn't towed! That's amazing; I thought for sure it would be. I guess you two are the luckiest boys on earth."
Lucky was one way to describe our adventure. Although the Ranger didn’t have to explain to my dad why we were only on Manitou for one night!
I guess that's what building character feels like.
It’s Monday…let’s go!
Gerry Boylan is the author of the novel Getting There and the short story collection Gerry Tales. Both are available at Amazon.com and the Yellow Door in Berkley, MI.