Midwestern Summer Nostalgia

I’ve spent 5 out of the last 6 weekends away from the city–on the shore of Lake Michigan, in a small lakeside town in central Wisconsin, and camping along the banks of the Wisconsin River. I return to these same places every summer, spending a good chunk of my July and August floating in freshwater and soaking in midwestern sunsets. Even though I have an impossibly long travel wish list and try to go to new destinations as often as possible, I look forward to my midwestern summertime every year.

This year, I took along a waterproof speaker and attached it the front of my kayak with bungee cords so I could listen to a mix of pop, indie rock, and 70’s AM Gold while paddling. I’d tuck a New Glarus Spotted Cow in a coozie into the drink holder, then leisurely cruise around the lake, sipping my beer and humming along to “Waterloo Sunset”, “Summer Breeze,” and “Night Moves.” As the sun set further into the sky, the surface of the lake turned glassy and still, reflecting the dark silhouettes of tall pine, the sky above a melted popsicle orangey pink. I spend a week with my family on this lake every year. We take rides on the pontoon boat and drop anchor in different parts of the chain, cannonballing into deep water. There’s home movies of me at 5 years old, playing in these same waters, the same orangey sunset in the background, overlaid with the staticky fuzz of VHS.

Every August, a group of our friends do a float trip on the Wisconsin River. For 16 years now, we return to the same campsite along the river bank. In this timeframe, people have come and gone, gotten married and had kids, and moved out of state. But every year, we keep going back, reliving the same carefree day spent floating down the same 6 miles of river, drinking local beers on sandbars and laughing over memories from years ago. We retell our favorite stories while living out new ones that will be told over the same fire pit in future years.

I’m a notorious winter apologist, but there’s nothing like summer days and nights that bring out my love for the Midwest. Give me three months of campfires, golden afternoons spent kayaking to the lakeside bar,  hiding out from hot days while sipping Bloodys and Old Fashioneds in a dive with flannel curtains on the windows, and dipping my bare feet into silky blue water as it runs along the sides of a canoe. I fantasize about leaving the city for longer stretches of time to live on the water, somewhere quiet and wooded, where fog lingers in the mornings and burns off as the sun rises, and the surface turns to glass as night falls.

Waupaca, Wisconsin

I arrive at the lakehouse on a Sunday, where the rest of my family has already checked in and spent a night. The rental house sits on the easternmost part of a chain of lakes, with calm blue water. Each inlet is lined with lakeside cottages nestled amongst tall, lush trees. I look forward to this week all through the harsh Chicago winter, waiting for these blissful mornings on the back deck overlooking the lake with a fresh mug of coffee in hand, listening to birdsong and the soft breeze rustling the treetops.

woman kayak on a lake during sunset

On Sunday afternoon, my sister and I kayak across the lake to the local bar where people tie up their pontoon boats along the dock and a server brings drinks and fish baskets straight to your boat. We order a few New Glarus Moon Mans (Moon Men?) and watch a cover band perform from a boat while people dance in knee-deep water, living that #lakelife.

My sister brought along her 7-week old baby on the trip, and we take countless photos of him–wearing tiny baby sun hats, smiling in front of the lake, sleeping peacefully in his mother’s arms in front of a Wisconsin sunset. Through him, I see the beginnings of another childhood of summers spent in canoes, catching frogs, learning to fish off a pier, and splashing in midwestern lakes.

I brought my laptop to the lakehouse to work remotely, logging on right after my alarm clock wakes me at 7 a.m. so I can finish my days early and jump directly into the water the second I shut my Macbook Air.  The dining room table serves as my makeshift desk for the week, giving me a view of the water and a wooded island just above my monitor crammed with spreadsheets and emails. I could easily live this life forever, beginning my day with sun salutations on the back deck looking out on lake still thick with morning fog, then changing into a swimsuit the moment I finish my final afternoon conference call. One morning, the local camp holds a canoeing relay race past our house, and we hear the sound of kids’ voices bouncing off the water as they chase each other. In the evenings, live music from the bar across the lake drifts to our back lawn where we crack open bottles of Spotted Cow by the fire pit.

We take the pontoon boat out into various lakes, waving hello to the various kayakers, speedboats, water skiers, and stand up paddle boarders that we pass. In true Midwestern Nice form, one girl even waves to us while tubing. Once we find a quiet spot, we throw in the anchors and do cannonballs into the blue water. The lakes are pleasantly cool, their depths warmed from a summer’s worth of sunshine. I have a high tolerance for cold water and no one trusts my opinion as the first one jumping in. But after a few minutes of watching me swim and float, one or two of my siblings usually end up joining me in the water. When the sun is out, it feels like pure heaven to view the sky and the treetops from the water’s surface.

woman floating on pizza-shaped floatie on a lake

One day mid-week, it rains, so my siblings and I go to the local bowling alley. It’s still happy hour and it’s $3 per game. When we walk inside, the TVs are blaring Fox News so we load up the jukebox with Childish Gambino, Lady Gaga, and RuPaul, and dance around our score counsel. There’s a few other local stops in town that have become tradition over the years–plates of biscuits and gravy from Little Fat Gretchen’s Restaurant, beers and pull tabs at Paca Pub, family dinners at the Wheelhouse, late night stumbles to and from the Harbor Bar.

Near the end of the week, Kurt drives up and brings our dog River. We spend a day on the water with her, getting her to brave the kayak and learn how to balance on the stand up paddle board. From the shore, we can hear squeals of delight as people spot a cute little dog on the board. Kurt plays fetch with her off the dock, and when she catches the ball, a passing boat gives a celebratory honk and the passengers cheer for her.

man petting a dog while they both stand on a paddleboard

At the end of the week, I take a full day off of work. Before coffee, I sit on the edge of the dock to meditate. I wish I could somehow capture and save these sounds and take them home with me, to begin every day listening to the lake breeze ripple through the trees, the geese calling to each other, the water lapping against the rocks. And once again feel the sun warming my skin, the fresh air in my lungs, the scent of water and pine.

end of a dock facing a lake and a wooded island

Spring Green, Wisconsin

img_9219October is my favorite month, and every year I love to revel in it as much as I can. Shockingly, we haven’t done fall camping in Wisconsin before, so we recently righted this wrong and visited the Spring Green area for a beautiful weekend outdoors with friends.


We arrived at Friday night at our favorite campground, which is nestled against the Wisconsin River. After setting up our tents, we stopped by the local bar for some Spotted Cows and burgers, then spent the rest of the night enjoying the crisp coolness and crackling campfire. The temperature hovered in the 50’s,  and a mist lingered on the surface of the water, like ghosts rising from graves.

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On Saturday, Kurt and I had booked a double-header of local, spooky exploration. First, we went on a tour of Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and studio in Spring Green. The home was originally completed in 1911, and was designed and built for Wright’s mistress, Mamah Borthwick. Horrifically, she was murdered in the home along with her children and several workers; the killer was a disgruntled servant who set the house on fire and attacked the victims with an axe as they tried to flee for their lives. Before booking the tour, I had no idea about the home’s tragic history. This added cast another dimension to the tour, as we imagined Wright’s grief and the weight of his loss as we walked the halls and looked out the windows that framed landscapes of the hills and valleys.

img_9212After the tour, we joined up with our friends for the next destination: the House on the Rock. The original house was built by Alex Jordan, an architect who had a tense rivalry with Frank Lloyd Wright. The Japanese-inspired design was a direct nod to Wright’s personal aesthetic. As Jordan grew older, he turned into an eccentric recluse. He had his friends who traveled the world bring back trinkets and oddities to add to his growing collections. The tour includes the original house plus the grounds that hold (among other items): a dollhouse collection, a warehouse-sized replica of a squid fighting a whale, rows of suits of armor, music machines that take up entire rooms, and the world’s largest carousel. More of a museum than a house, the attraction is dimly lit and random music played by mechanical violins and horns drifts down the halls. Some of the older machines aren’t quite in tune, making everything seem even more surreal and slightly askew.  A friend once perfectly described the house as “like being inside somebody else’s nightmare.”

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And yet, this wasn’t even the main event of our trip; that came a few hours later. We went back to the campsite to make dinner over the fire, have a few beers, and rest after spending the day on our feet. Once the sun set, a few of us who sought more thrills drove back to the House on the Rock for The Dark Side experience. In the few hours between closing the main attraction and reopening, parts of the grounds were turned into a haunted house. We started down an outdoor path lit solely by torches, turning into a human knot as we clung to each other, seeking protection. None of us had been to the Dark Side version of the house before, and we had no idea what to expect. To add to the horror, we seemed to be the onlyimg_9261people there… until a clown leapt out of the shadows and spooked the shit out of us. We dissolved into the nervous laughter that immediately follows a jump scare. The clown silently gestured us toward a path back into the house. Inside, the lights were now completely turned off, and occasional strobe lights burst through the space like lightning. We walked into the carousel room, which was (even more) eerily lit, making the wooden animals appear nightmarish and leering. For the next 40 minutes, we wound our way back past dollhouses, empty suits of armor, and through the Organ Room. Along the way, other ghouls and zombies leapt out at us from the shadows, startling us into more screams.

We drove back to camp on an unlit country road, through the darkness of the trees. A cheery campfire greeted us, and we joined our friends for beers and boxed wine under a harvest moon.

 

 

Winter Adventurers

“You know what’s happening this weekend, right? You’ve seen the weather forecast?” the park ranger asked the first of our friends to arrive at the campgrounds early on Friday afternoon.

“We know,” they replied.

“Are you here for the start of hunting season?”

“No, just here to camp.”

The ranger shook his head in disbelief. A winter storm was rolling into the area, expected to drop up to 10 inches on much of the Midwest. And we were driving up north, headed the opposite direction of the geese flying south for the winter overhead, to spend the weekend outdoors.
IMG_6684Winter camping is one of my favorites. Though the days are short and our beer freezes overnight, there’s something about the quiet stillness that makes the forest otherworldly. The world hibernates around us, but in our small circle around the campfire, we stay warm and pass the whiskey. Overhead, stark branches criss-cross against the silver sky. The snow falls steadily, piling up on our tents, our boxes of beer (no need for a cooler), our fur-trimmed hoods pulled up over our heads. Beyond the circle, whiteness obliterates the landscape; we could be in Wisconsin or Westeros. Coyotes yip in the night. Or direwolves.

We’ve camped in snow before. We’ve camped in 1-degree temperatures before. But this was our first time camping in a legitimate winter storm, one big enough to get a name: Bella. We were undaunted by this news; we are not the type to be scared off, especially by a storm named after a damn Twilight character. We may be crazy, but we’re tough, and this wasn’t our first rodeo. There’s a Norwegian saying that goes “There’s no bad weather, only bad clothes.” We were prepared with insulated sleeping pads, bags rated for 15 degrees, waterproof layers, a coat and Musher’s Secret for our dog.

IMG_6714We arrived, car by car, at our large group site. As Friday slipped into Saturday, the snow fell. It melted onto our coats, warmed by the fire. It piled onto our tents, causing rainflies to droop under its wintry weight. It buried bottles left out on picnic tables, turning them into ambiguous white blobs. It blanketed us from the rest of the world, silencing the sounds of civilization, leaving only our laughter, our breath as we blew into our mittens, the crackle of the fire.

On Saturday morning, the snow still fell. We stayed in our warm sleeping bags, our tents transformed into igloos. Finally lured out by the promises of coffee, campfire, and Bloody Marys, we emerged from our brief hibernation. Before we could eat or drink, we had to shovel inches of snow off the tables. The dogs frolicked in the fresh powder, losing tennis balls and frisbees. We posted photos to social media with Winter Storm Bella hashtags, declaring ourselves Team Jacob. Our friends back home called us crazy.

The snow eventually stopped; blue sky peeked out through the bare tree branches. We began to cook our Thanksgiving meal. Potatoes boiled over the campfire. Vegetarian curry stewed on a camp stove. A turducken dripped savory juices in the smoker. Just before sunset, we set up our spread over the picnic table, salivating before our feast.

“I wish the ranger would come by and see this,” my friend said. We ate our meal together, friends bonded by our breaking of bread under the most snowy extreme circumstances. Call us crazy; we don’t mind. We’re adventurers.

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2013 Cold Camping Trip

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This year marked our fourth annual Birthgiving cold camping trip at Kettle Moraine State Forest in Wisconsin (celebrating Thomas’s birthday as well as Thanksgiving). After a few years of mild weather in the 50’s, our luck finally ran out and we had our coldest trip yet. Daytime highs were in the low 20’s, and overnight on Saturday we reached an all-time camping low of 1 degree. On Sunday morning as we packed up, the car’s thermostat registered at 8 degrees. This year’s group could definitely be considered the Polar Bear Club of camping.

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As you can imagine, less drinking was done this year than on past trips (though the weather was a little less brutal on Friday night, enabling us to put a good dent in the apple cinnamon moonshine). After setting down a beer for just a few minutes, it would be slushy with ice crystals by the time you took your next sip. We were at our usual walk-up site atop a hill overlooking the lake, and by midday on Saturday the frigid wind (averaging 30 mph for most of the day) convinced us to move to a site with more tree coverage. One by one, we carried our tents down the path over to the new site. Kurt even carried the fire for us.

 

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While most people thought we were crazy for going through with the trip (and they were probably right), all 8 of us made it through and still had a pretty good. As long as the fire was roaring, we stayed nice and warm (though coats and pants were melted in the process). The Thanksgiving-themed meal on Saturday night was delicious as always. At night, we piled up our sleeping pads, sleeping bags, extra blankets, and layers, and slept pretty soundly. The trip remains one of my favorites, though I wouldn’t mind slightly warmer weather next year. After those few days, a day in the 30’s feels like a sauna in comparison.

 

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Labor Day Kayak/Canoe Trip 2013

tents

sandbar camping

This year marked the fifth Labor Day Kayak/Canoe Trip that we’ve taken (I’ve been on the last 4, since the first outing was guys only). As usual, it was a relaxing, beautiful weekend on the Wisconsin River. We started near Arena at Trader’s Bar & Grill campgrounds, and paddled about 42 miles over 4 days to Boscabel. We lucked out with sunny skies, warm to hot weather, and no rain.

cow island

cow island

Some of the highlights this year included the very-up-close spotting of a hawk eating a fish on a sandbar, a vortex of wind and river water that created a mini-tornado, a sandbar full of cows, and our annual fried chicken and beer run. With temperatures in the high 90’s, we did plenty of swimming.

canoe

 

Springtime Camping

camping dogs

camping dogs

I decided that for my birthday this year, I wanted to go camping. Late April can definitely be iffy in terms of weather when you are planning an event in advance (the year I turned 30 involved tailgating at a White Sox game and the weather went from 70 and sunny to miserable and rainy within an hour). Just in case the weather turned on us again, I decided to try out a state park closer to home, and one we’ve never camped at before, Bong Recreation Area (yes, that’s really what it’s called).

We drove the hour and a half trip shortly after work on Friday, and stayed through Sunday morning. The weather ended up being perfect–high 60’s and sunny–and some of us even got our first sunburns of the year. We brought along my favorite camping treats (Bloody Marys in the morning and s’mores around the fire), a birthday cake, and a piñata. It was a perfect birthday weekend.