Leaving Michigan but not Lake Superior. A week in Wisconsin’s Ashland-Washburn region

After a full month in Michigan (tied with Maine for the longest we have stayed in any state since leaving Florida in April) we have finally moved on to Wisconsin.  We didn’t get far from the UP though, less than half an hour over the border to Ashland, on the western end of Lake Superior.  We had picked the area largely because we did not want to travel much more than four hours but still wanted to be in a new state.  Kinda of a craps shoot, but it worked out nicely.

We selected the specific park based on our general preference for city and county campgrounds, and a relative paucity of choices in the region beyond such municipal sites. Forget about Passport-America or private parks at all; it’s all city, county, state, or national forest options in this area.  Our first choice based on reviews and location turns out to have been wiped out in a storm earlier this year, so it came down to the two municipal places a little deeper into Wisconsin, either Kreher Marina Park or the recently opened Prentice Park.  We selected the latter since it only had six RV sites, our theory being that the tiny size might mean that the wifi would not be clobbered.

Performing Reiki on the picnic table.

Unfortunately, Ashland is still struggling with this whole RV park management thing, relying heavily on the barely compensated camp host to keep things afloat.  Upon arrival we noted a cost discrepancy between what was posted and what we had read online, there was no posted code to get into the bathrooms or the shower house, and the wifi password likewise unavailable.  The camp host was not present, did not have a contact phone number listed, and would not be back until after dark.

That is not a raccoon in that tree, but rather an escaped siamese cat.

Eventually we called the city’s parks and rec department, and they were able to provide the correct daily rate (lower than what was posted) as well as one of the codes to the bathroom.  They were not able to get us internet access; apparently it has been down for months with sporadic efforts to fix it.  After investigating the other Ashland municipal park (Kreher Marina) I found a working wifi but with the transmission power turned down so low that you had to be directly under the antenna to connect.  Having been without useful wifi for our entire time on the Michigan UP, it was of high priority, so we only stayed one night in Ashland, pulling chocks the next morning to cross over to the nearby town of Washburn.

Buying food in bags at the Ashland Food Coop.

What a lucky decision!  Thompson’s West End Park is right on the Lake Superior shore, but protected from much of the high winds, resulting in a calm and beautiful bay.  The $25 a night rate was the same as the two Ashland parks, but here we had robust and fully working wifi capable of supporting video streaming and anything else.  We secured two nights and used that excellent wifi to research local farmer’s markets, finding one right in town that had no vendor fee or special local resident requirement.

Our huge site at Thompson’s West End Park

So we extended another night to attend.  It was a tiny market held in the parking lot of North Coast Coffee.   By the time things were in full swing there were at most seven vendors, all but us selling food of some sort.  It was not exactly a great success; we sold a third of what we had in even the least profitable of the events we attended in Grand Marais, but it was free, only lasted two hours, allowed us to interact with locals and pick there brains about the region, and buy some fresh produce, all of which was more than paid for by the limited sales we made.

Unusually, every single item we sold was from the paper bead jewelry that has heretofore been a minor part of the gigs.  In any case, we walked away from the market with black trumpet mushrooms and a few stalks of curly dock greens gathered by a local forager, a huge garlic bulb, and a great recommendation on where to get local Wisconsin cheese.

We really liked this park and the two nearby towns.  Ashland, bigger and feeling a bit more cosmopolitan with an aggressive attempt at creating a wholesome but hip city identity, had thrift stores and an awesome food coop, while the smaller Washburn had an older town feel, but with nice neighborhoods and boutique shops.  So we extended another night, and then it looked like rain and who wants to travel in that, so we added one more, and Rosemarie started feeling under the weather so we chilled for one more day and before we new it we were on our sixth evening there, only to have the camp host knock on our door to remind us that if we stayed a week the seventh night was free.  Who can argue with that?

Scoring a shorty wetsuit for $7 at the thrift store.

During our stay we made great soup from some pork bones Rosemarie had saved in the freezer with local potatoes, vegetables, the curly dock and some of the black trumpet mushrooms.  Fantastic.  We bought more than six pounds of cheese and cheese curds, most of it from Benoit Cheese, a few miles outside of Ashland, but to be honest some of it from the liquor store, so here’s hoping cheese curds are cheese curds no matter where you get them.

Having loved the smoked fish dip from Grand Marais, we thought it appropriate to try it in a more pure form, and so purchased a pound of fresh caught Lake Superior white fish, splitting it between one pan seared meal and another lightly breaded and fried.  Ever since we slowed the pace and started working the farmers markets and food coops, we feel like we have eaten like royalty.

So eight days in the region, seven of them in Thompson’s West End campground in Washburn, and it really was time to move on.  We can feel the weather changing, and it will be time to turn south soon.  The only question is where to next?  Can we still fit in Isle Royal or Voyageurs National Parks?  Or should we just start heading towards Minneapolis and further points downward?  Next post!

Three Murderous days on The Big Bay for another Farmers Market. Did I mention MURDER, and the Anatomy of it?

You know what we have not had much of on this travel blog?  Dead bodies outlined in chalk.  Let’s fix that, shall we?

It’s 1952 in the little town of Big Bay, on the shore of Lake Superior in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. (To be clear the UP is, or at least was, what we from the south might call redneckville, i.e., the Appalachia, the Lower Alabama, the “BFE” of the upper northwest.) Anyway, then and there a local and respected bar owner is gunned down in his own tavern. Army Lt Coleman Peterson, bivouacked in the area for extended support and training, apparently enraged by his wife’s claims that the barkeep had taken advantage of her loneliness and inebriation to assault her, emptied his service revolver into the body of former state trooper and current proprietor of the Lumberjack Bar, Mike Chenowith.

Not related to the murder story, but an interesting stout Rosemarie enjoyed.

Another day in America, right?  Except that mildly disaffected attorney John D Voelker, who would by most accounts rather be fishing, takes the case, constructs an imaginative insanity defense based on the unused in more than 60 years concept of “irresistible impulse” and… wins.  Despite a complete confession, Lt Coleman walks free. All this is true and verifiable, but not really enough to warrant more than a raised eyebrow in our nation’s convoluted legal history, right?  Except that half a decade later this John D Voelker, defense attorney extraordinaire and eventual Michigan Supreme Court Judge, adapts the true events of the Chenowith murder into a barely fictionalized novel, Anatomy of a Murder.  And a year after that, Hollywood descends on the Upper Peninsula to film a transgressive, boundary pushing film staring Jimmy Stewart, Lee Remick, and George C Scott that would be nominated for seven academy awards.  Anyway, The Lumberjack Bar: that’s where we ate chicken wings during our three day stay in the region.

After our 19 day stay in Grand Marais, we pushed west towards Maquette, and unable to book a spot at the Tourist Campground there, we selected the county operated Perkins Park, half an hour from Marquette, rather than settle for the private parks closer to town. That’s how we ended up in Big Bay, staying on a nice piece of land on Lake Independence just a mile or two by waterway from Lake Superior.  The property has spacious, foliage covered sites with options ranging from tent only through electric and up to full hook ups, with price adjusted by service.

We selected an electric only site for our stay, saving a few bucks a night and allowing us to position our rig with a near unobstructed view of the lake.  At $21 a day, this was a pretty solid deal for such a nice location.  The morning of our second day we headed out towards Marquette, with near constant drizzle suggesting that this might not be the best day for a farmers market.  Having already committed to it, we persevered, set up at table inside the crowded commons building, and hoped for the best.

Look, it wan’t good.  We could tell from the first 30 minutes that the weather had eliminated the vast majority of potential attendees, and those that did show up seemed intent on grabbing some produce and bolting for their cars.  I estimate half of the attendees never even came inisde the common building, limiting their quick rounds to the farmers’s stands outside under tents.  We made the best of it, enjoying conversation with our vendor neighbors and occasionally making our own trips around the market during breaks in the rain and drizzle.

We ended up selling less than a third of what we had during our first Marquette event the week prior.  But we covered our table fee, gas, and all of the purchases we made to restock our refrigerator and cupboard with local, fresh food.  This time it was more bratwurst, heirloom tomatoes, and garlic cloves.  We were also introduced to a fantastic sort of Indian savory pancake, called a Puda, from a local chef that wasn’t selling any items, just her cooking classes.  This lead to a side trip to the local food coop to get the special grain that serves as a base before making our way back to Big Bay.  Our local food purchases make for some fantastic meals.

We spent our last day exploring the region, including a nearby lighthouse and a trip to the not so easy to find Squaw Beach, there meeting a pair of food foragers collecting wild beach pees and another couple picking up some driftwood for his hand carved walking canes.  The partially protected bay is great for finding interesting rocks, but apparently not so much for the agate that we have so fair failed to find even one piece of during our UP stay.

The day only had one down side: an unfortunate run in with an enraged local.  While looking for the beach we went down the wrong road, turned around, and spotted what looked like an RV hook up post in an empty lot.  Thinking it might be a rental spot, we pulled in to look.  A minute later a heavy set man came out of the next door house, screaming and ranting, repeatedly dropping f-bombs, demanding to know why we where there, not waiting for an answer before screaming additional orders and questions at us. We immediately backed out of the lot, which seemed to enrage him further.  Though the lot was empty of anything but trees, dirt, and the lonely electrical post, I am guessing that this excitable fellow actually owned it in addition to his perfectly manicured and developed adjacent lot.  Apologies, buddy.  Last we saw of him he was still screaming f words while his wife added to the ruckus with futile but loud requests for him to calm down.

So yeah, there are wankers everywhere; the UP is no exception.  We finished off the day with a beer and the aforementioned chicken wings at the Lumberjack Bar.  The locals we met were a lot friendlier, showing us the outline of where Mike Chenowith had been killed, letting us look through the scrap book about the event, the trial, and the movie.  Ah well, the rest of the people we met here were great, and we look forward to coming back to Michigan.

Eight more days in Grand Marais and three more farmers markets

We spent the last eleven days of August in Grand Marais, having signed on for a second full week, with discount, at Woodland Park Campground.  We deviated from our normal 3-5 day stop for several reasons:  First, we were growing a bit weary of the pace of our travels. We had told ourselves we would slow that down here in our second year of RVing, but with the exception of our extended stay in Maine we have not really done so.  We also loved Grand Marais and the Upper Peninsula area, so why not stay a bit longer?  Third, we had such an unexpectedly successful farmers market experience the first Thursday, that we committed to at least one more.  Lastly, Labor Day weekend was approaching, we did not have any reservations for it, and getting them in a nice place would be tough, so we might as well stick it out here where we had an assured spot, at least through the holiday.  With that much settled, we prepped for our second Grand Marais Thursday evening market.

Pad Kee Meow will miss Grand Marais’ sunsets. Or at least the abundant chipmunks.

Every farmers market or craft show is different, by which I mean the price range and types of things people want vary significantly.  During our first event on the Key West Naval Air Station we figured out that the attendees wanted very low priced items with an ocean theme.  There Rosemarie pulled out all of her excess jewelry and beading supplies that she had no interest in using and divided them into 50 cent and $1 packages for the heavy concentration of crafters to look through, revised the prices of her already made jewelry to concentrate on $5 items, and replaced most of the spiritual oriented earrings with nautical themed options.  This resulted in significantly better sales during the remaining three events we attended there.

Here in Grand Marais the 50 cent and $1 bins went completely untouched, the sea themed items were, surprisingly, not very popular, the spiritual stuff sold reasonably well, anything with a semiprecious stone in it flew off the racks, and the price range that the attendees were willing to pay was noticeably higher.  And though the paper bead stuff had not sold well at the first event, we sensed there was enough interest if we provided the correct design, particularly stuff from local brochures and maps.  We prepared for the second show accordingly and sold more things, including one of the $20 pieces and six paper bead items.  The first day of September having started the month off so well we rewarded ourselves with a fresh backed wild blueberry pie from our vendor neighbor, along with some heirloom tomatoes, spicy home made mustard, and some cookies as well.

Backing up a bit: Following the success of our first event in August, we had begun researching to see if there were any others we could attend on the U.P.  We called the market managers in four towns, two of which turned us down flat because we were not locals and their charter was specifically set up to support local products.  Fair enough.  But the other two were willing to let us sell.  Since those events were on the same day we chose the one in Marquette as it was closer to our planned westward route.  Once we had decided to extend for at least a second week in Grand Marais, however, we faced the choice of skipping the Marquette event or making a day trip of it in Loki, and hope that our profits would cover the gas and $10 sellers fee.  Giddy from the success of our two Grand Marais events, we chose the latter.

So Saturday morning had us up at the ungodly hour of 5 am and shortly thereafter on the road for the two hour drive.  The manager, Myra, had gone out of her way to make room for us at the event, but needed us there an hour before the start to go over the procedures.  It was actually a nice drive despite, or perhaps because of the hour.  The roads were nearly deserted, and in our first 15 minutes on the road we spotted two fox kits playing beside the road. The picture we caught of them came out very blurry and dark, so you have to take our word for it.

It is pretty rare for us to catch a sunrise.  Dawn over Lake Michigan as we head towards Marquette.

Upon arrival Myra assigned us our spot, directed us to the tent and table storage rooms, and went over the requirement that we had to accept “market money” for those that wanted to use it.  This is essentially a work around to allow buyers that only brought credit cards to purchase from sellers, like us, that are not set up to accept them.  The buyer finds what they want, then goes to the central kiosk where they receive the market dollars in exchange for an electronic purchase from the manager’s merchant credit card machine.  The sellers turn in the market money  they receive to the manager at the end of the event, and once a month she sends them a check in that amount.  Though not thrilled with having to wait for a check to catch up with us, we were happy to participate and willing to jump through this hoop in order to do so.

We had gone all out during the week leading up to the event, prepping additional items and constructing two more drift wood and wire mesh frames to display them. Not knowing the nature of this market, we brought the full range of items with us, with bags of extra stuff to replace what sold or offer options if we sensed a trend.  It was a beautiful day on a holiday weekend with extra people in town for citywide activities such as the Marquette Marathon.  All of this combined to make for a fantastic market, and our success vastly exceeded our expectations; we sold three times what we had at either Grand Marais event, and done so with sales all the way from the 50 cent bin to the $20 rack.  We again rewarded ourselves by putting some of the profit into the pockets of other vendors, particularly the butcher (brats and thick cut bacon) and two of the organic farmers (basil and a medley of hot peppers) along with some delicious asparagus salsa.

We had a local craft beer at the Ore Dock Brewing Company, and took advantage of being in the big city to resupply groceries at Walmart and a few critical jewelry making supplies from Michaels.  Giddy but tired, we made the two hour drive back to Grand Marais, contemplating our next step after the success of these first three days of September.

We had committed to staying in GM until after Labor Day, with a tentative departure on Tuesday, September 6th, and our next destination TBD.  After three great market experiences, though, we thought why not make the Marquette area our next stop and participate in their market the next Saturday?  And if we were going to do that, there was no reason to leave Grand Marais until after their next market Thursday evening.

So we stayed, pushing our first stop in the Upper Peninsula out to 19 days, the longest we have stayed in any spot since leaving Key West.  There was no pressure on us at all to be anywhere; we really only had two more states (Wisconsin and Minnesota) on our must see list before heading back towards Florida.  Nor did we have any pressure to sell well at this last Grand Marais market since we had already done nicely.  Nonetheless, we did start to feel a bit of antsy, ready to get back on the road, and mildly concerned about how few people were left in the campground after labor day, which was probably a pretty good indicator of how many tourists and seasonal residents were still here to potentially show up at the Thursday market.

We need not have worried about the latter.  Sure, it started a little slow and severely tapered off in the middle hour, but just like the last event at the end of the winter season in Key West, there seemed to be a bit of urgency for those departing Grand Marais at the end of this summer to get a keepsake or presents for friends and relatives.  We had a surge of sales in the last half hour, and ended up doing just as well the previous Thursday.

We bought some homemade pickles and celebrated our last night in this great little town with a pizza at the recently opened Grand Marais Tavern.  Apparently started by avid snow mobilers, but novice restauranteers, that found the lack of dining options in their preferred winter playground frustrating.  They solved it by opening their own place that first week of September, pushing the number of options in town to two restaurants, one diner, and one food truck.  They had a reasonably wide selection of craft beer on tap, and the pizza was unusual but excellent.  Even Rosemarie, who is very particular and usually likes only properly prepared New York style slices enjoyed and praised this significantly thicker than NY style pie.

We packed up that evening for a late morning departure, having loved Grand Marais but ready to be back on our adventure.  The U.P. has been great to us so far, and we hoped it would give us one more great weekend during our next stop.

PKM is thrilled to be back on the road.

20 Months Fulltiming: August 2016 Report

The Distance: 1,173 miles.  The first ten days of the month finished off our time with Kalynn while traveling from New York to Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio before making a westward sprint through Indiana to Michigan.  We spent the rest of August working out way up the shore of Lake Michigan and across the Upper Peninsula.  Our 2016 total is 5,826 miles.

The Places:  We enjoyed eight campgrounds in August as we worked our way around the Great Lakes, starting with Whispering Winds Resort positioned within the Allegheny National Forest of Pennsylvania.  From there we headed west, deviating south to visit Tomlinson Run State Park in the “spike” of West Virginia before continuing west to Country Acres Campground in Ohio near the Cuyahoga Valley National Park.  From there we crossed through Indiana (with a one night stopover at Grandview Bend Campground) before reaching the first of three stays along Lake Michigan.

We started with the excellent though somewhat half-hazardly arranged Weko Beach County Park, then the overpriced and overcrowded State Park in Grand Haven, finishing lower Michigan with three nights at Platte Campground in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Forest.  We crossed the Mackinac Bridge into the Upper Peninsula for our final stop of the month at Woodland Park Campground in Grand Marais on the southern shore of Lake Superior.

We did not spend a single night drycamping, enjoying at least partial hook ups the entire month: full for 3, electric and water for 19, electric only for 9.  Broken down differently, we stayed in private campgrounds for 8 days and public places for 23 (national 3, state 6, county 14.)

The Budget:   1.4% under budget.  Yes, cutting it a bit close, but we had significant additional costs hosting our niece, three gas fill ups for Serenity’s 75 gallon tank (“normal” months we count on two) and nearly $60 in tolls going through Ohio and Indiana.  In fact, were only able to stay under budget because of a well timed farmers market vending experience at the end of the month combined with our careful selection of quite affordable campgrounds with substantial discounts.  That helped counteract the egregious cost of our one Michigan state park.  We received our 50% Passport-America discount all eight nights of our private park stays, and a 14.3% weekly rate discount for the last eleven days of August at Woodland Park Campground in Grand Marais.

The Drama:  We had yet another flat tire, this time on Loki.  We grabbed up a nail while out running errands, but because it was a slow leak didn’t discover it until the next morning.  I put on the spare and eventually got it plugged in Grand Marais.  Other than that, nothing significant.

The Improvements:  Big things are afoot with The Big Kahuna (yes we still own it) but I will keep that under wraps until next month.

All of our monthly reports, as well as our first full year report, 2015 in Review, are linked below.

2016 Reports:

2015 in Review

Our first eleven days on the Upper Peninsula

Hard to believe we are spending so much time in a state about which we knew so little and had so few expectations, but Michigan has been fantastic for us.  After three stops along Lake Michigan, we made the lengthy drive NE to the Mackinac bridge, which connects lower Michigan to the UP.  After our usual All Stays and RV Park Reviews research, supplemented by recommendations from a couple of Michigan folks, we were bound for Woodland Park Campground, a county park in the very small town of Grand Marais on the shore of Lake Superior.

The five hour drive is significantly longer than we prefer, but we had dallied enough and couldn’t justify an interim stop along the way.  Given the popularity of this park during the summer tourist season, we did pull over just after crossing the bridge to call and confirm that this first come first serve campground had openings, and given the green light we pressed on for the remaining two hours.

As soon as we arrived we knew we made the right choice.  A nicely arranged campground with reasonable sized sites, elevated and directly overlooking Lake Superior, all at a very affordable price, which is dependent on specific position within the park (waterfront or not) and services.  We took a spin around the perimeter, and selected one of the non-waterfront spots (site #19) that still had an amazing view of the lake.  Seeing the view we would have every day there, we made the on the spot decision to remain for a full week, which gave us a 14.3% discount, or seven nights for the price of six, basically.  So for $23 a day we got 50 amp power, water, a clean shower house, and this from our front yard:

The stairs down to the shoreline were 50 feet from our door, and we spent part of nearly every day on the fantastic beach, littered with driftwood and covered in beautiful stones. We had more than one dinner and a few glasses of wine in the sand, and even Pad Kee Meow seemed to enjoy the beach, so long as we did not get to close to the crashing waves.

Though we did not find any of the prized agate’s that this section of Lake Superior is known for, Rosemarie collected plenty of attractive alternatives to display or transform into jewelry.

We made a day trip to Sable Falls in the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, making the short but stair filled hike down to the river side, following it all the way out to Lake Superior.  There we could observe the huge sand dunes under continuous assault form the elements, an the huge piles of lake stones continually washed ashore.

Back in the campground we took note of the prominently displayed sign advertising a weekly Thursday evening farmers market, and upon casual inquiry learned that it is an extremely casual affair with no table fees or even an official organizing entity, just people that want to sell stuff setting up in the city park for two hours once a week until the weather precludes it.  So for the first time since leaving Key West, we planned to sell Rosemarie’s wares at market.  We had no expectations, really, and looked at the entire affair as a dry run for our return to the Keys.  Rosemarie pulled out everything she had in the way of completed jewelry and supplies, and motivated by the impending potential sales constructed a lot more items.

Meanwhile I gathered driftwood and purchased wire mesh from the small local hardware store, and per Rosemarie’s specifications constructed a couple of jewelry display stands.  These are intended to look rustic.  I think “crude” might be a better descriptor, but they are pretty sturdy with a very basic single tongue and groove at most corners, supplemented by a screw and wood glue.  I cut the wire mesh to size and attached it to the back of the frame using tiny nails that we bent into makeshift “u-nails” with needle nose pliers, and then attached the frame to a large piece of driftwood at a slight backward leaning angle.  Whatcha think?

Anyway, we showed up half an hour early on Thursday evening, only to find not a soul there.  Ah well, at least Rosemarie increased her inventory, reorganized the supplies, and has some stands to her liking.  We killed a bit more time on errands before returning maybe 10 minutes before the official start time and found five or six people setting up tables.  Great, not a dead event after all!  We picked a spot between a pie/baked goods lady and a dude selling difficult to describe compilations of animal hide and found objects, at least one of which was a small set of drums.  Directly at 5 PM a smattering of people showed up, and a light stream continued all the way until the end of the event.  We made more than $70, easily exceeding our expectations, particularly since we got to sit in a nice park overlooking the bay in beautiful weather and meet both locals and tourists.

Aside from having padded our budge a bit, which allowed us to purchase a few fresh food products from the other vendors without guilt, the experience made us wonder why we had not been doing this in other towns; surely some of the many places we had been offered similar markets?  We were determined to fix that for our future stays, and much research ensued.

But the immediate issue was where to go next and when to do it?  Approaching the end of our paid week in Grand Marais, we faced the prospect of moving west, without reservations, right as Labor Day weekend hit.  So we extended another week in Grand Marias, happy with the location, the town, the campground, and the prospect of another farmers market.  More on that after our 20 Months Fulltiming Report next post.

Last stop in Lower Michigan: Platte River Campground, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Forest

Despite our mixed experience at Grand Haven State Park, we were enjoying Michigan far more than we expected, particularly since we had not even reached the Upper Peninsula yet.  Since our first intended UP stop was a significantly longer drive from Grand Haven than I preferred, we snuck in one final stop near the shore of Lake Michigan:  Platte River Campground in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Forest. (Warning, sunset heavy post ahead.)

Our research on both RV Park Reviews and Trip Advisor strongly supported a stop there, and we lucked into a single reservable electric hook up site available for our planned weekend stay.  Thursday late morning we made the 2 1/2 hour drive north, checked in at the ranger station and disconnected Loki before cruising through the large campground to our site.

It was huge.  Most sites were quite spacious, and nearly all under a tree canopy, but our spot was enormous.  You could have fit two additional RVs in our “yard” without crowding. Granted, it was electric only, but we new that coming in, had topped off our water at the Grand Haven fill station upon departure, and were only here for three days.  Our winter in Key West had taught us our tank limits under various conditions:  Living large with short showers in our rig every day we could easily go four days or more, while self imposed water austerity with the use of a campground shower house we could push it to perhaps eleven.   Three is a piece of cake.

We had been spoiled by our first two Lake Michigan stops, both of which were so close to the shoreline as to allow viewing of the fantastic sunsets with but a short walk.  Platter River would require a two mile drive down to the day park where the river meets the lake.  And in that is the supreme advantage of this campground over the previous two:  A clear running river meandering out to Lake Michigan, with excellent, protected swimming spots at the mouth.

I can’t speak to the conditions year round, but during out stay the river was noticeably warmer than the lake, and certainly calmer for easy swimming.  One could take a quick and bracing dip in Lake Michigan, then hop across the 30 foot sandbar to the river, and the contrast made the Platte feel like a heated swimming pool in a natural setting.  One would think this would make it a forever crowded place, but each evening we came there were at most a dozen other swimmers and perhaps twice that number on shore for the sunset.  It was so sparsely used that we had no difficulty taking photos without any other bodies cluttering up the picture.

We didn’t explore the nearby towns at all, but did take our advantage of the numerous seasonal dirt roads meandering through the forest.  Access, snowmobile, and hunting roads I suspect.  Regardless, our rugged off road four wheel drive vehicle allowed us the option, so we took it, at one point finding an alternative overlook to the river and lake junction.

Alas, it was but three days, and though we could have enjoyed several more, we really needed to get moving in order to enjoy the Upper Peninsula and Lake Superior before summer’s end.  So Sunday morning we departed for what would surprisingly turn out to be our longest stop since leaving Key West.

The Michigan State Park double “Gotcha!” Grand Haven: a great location with an overpriced & overcrowded campground

Are you tired of reading how much we loved every campground at which we have stayed? As if we are easily satisfied and not particularly discerning reviewers?  Let me fix that for you.

Early in our full time adventures we got caught by an unexpected fee while visiting Galveston Island State Park in Texas.  Unlike most state park systems, the campground fee did not include the park entrance fee.  In that case we were presented with the option of paying an additional $5 per person per day entry fee, or buying an annual pass covering up to four people in our party for $70, which also granted two %50 off coupons for campground nights.  This basically resulted in us paying on average a bit over $28 a night for the five days we spent between two different Texas state parks that year.  Not terrible, and the robust annual pass combined with the discount coupons provide a significant incentive to visit more parks in their system.

Michigan, however, seems determined to irritate out of state campers, particularly those in motorhomes.  For our three day stay at Grand Haven we paid $33 per night plus an $8 reservation fee, which is a bit pricey but not unusually bad.  Upon arrival, however, we found we would also need to purchase an access “passport” for the park at either $9 per day or $32 for the year.  Oh, and we would need to purchase it for each vehicle.  Each vehicle; as in one for the motorhome and one for the tow vehicle.  Out of state visitors in trailers or fifth wheels only have to pay for one passport.  This pushed our nightly rate to nearly $54!  Of course, we had the option of purchasing the annual pass and spreading out the cost by biasing our remaining Michigan stops towards additional state parks, but our next stop was going to be a national forest campground, and we had no idea which types of campgrounds we would prefer once reaching the Upper Peninsula.  So I did the opposite, choosing the daily passes and vowing not to stay at any other Michigan state parks.

And what did we get for that $54 per night?  An electric only site in a parking lot filled to capacity, barely a tree in existence, and with the physical arrangement so tight that extending slides and canopy would put you within a foot of your neighbors’ slides and canopies.  You do not get a water connection, wifi, cable TV, or shade.

Now granted, the actual town and associated beach are fantastic.  This truly is a situation where you are paying for the location and just have to live with the campground limitations.  Whereas Weko Beach had a small town a few miles outside of the park, Grand Haven is just a nice walk away from this one.  And while Weko Beach is a relatively small and quite beach, Grand Haven is very large and active, with dozens of beach volley ball nets, a lengthy pier, and plenty of activity options.

Situated on the east coast of Lake Michigan, every night was a fantastic sunset almost perpendicular to the beach.  Like dozens of others each night we took advantage of the pier and walked to the end, with a cocktail of course, to enjoy it.  Much of the rest of our stay was spent enjoying the quite tolerable water and excellent weather.

In terms of exploring the town, we used the excellent public library wifi, stopped in for flight of beer at Grand Armory Brewing Company, and a run through a fairly large local thrift store.  Rosemarie scored some crafting supplies and I found a nice pair of outdoorsey pants that do not even require hemming.

We capped off that afternoon with dinner in the much hyped local iconic pizzaria, Fricano’s.  This is one of those beloved establishments that local line up each night before they open precisely at 5 PM.  Your food options consist of pizza, and only pizza, served in one size, one crust option (very thin) with but five topping options.  Don’t ask for a menu, everything they offer is on the place mat in front of you.  For roughly $24 plus tip we each had a 12″ pizza and a glass of house red wine.  We spoke to a couple of other patrons, and they are truly loyal to this place, coming at least once a week even if its a long drive.  I suspect it is either an acquired taste or just something you have to have grown up with; we didn’t think all that highly of the pizza, particularly what was left over for the next day.  We are glad we came to this Michigan icon, but will probably pass should we be in the region again, which is sort of how we feel about Grand Haven in general.

So, our second stop in Michigan was not so fantastic, though we really appreciated the town and the beach.  We have overwhelmingly positive experiences at our campgrounds, largely because we research our potential stays and make our picks based upon careful readings of the reviews along with trusted recommendations.  Alas, not every place is fantastic, so we were happy to move on after our three day stay to continue our northward trek towards the Upper Peninsula, with one more stop in lower Michigan.

Through Indiana and into Michigan: Weko Beach Country Park

After our four days in Ohio we faced a long drive to our next destination: Lower Michigan on the east shore of Lake Michigan.  We didn’t really know how to “do” Michigan. Sporadic recommendations from friends were all pointing us toward nice locations in the lower portion of the state, but our research suggested the Upper Peninsula would be more to our liking.  We decided to give the state at least twelve days so that we could meander our way from south to north and then west across the peninsula into Wisconsin.  This is a much longer drive than we had considered before actually mapping it out.

And the length of drive is important.  Gone are the days when I am willing to drive ten, twelve, even all night to get to a destination.  That is a foolish young person’s game.  Add to that the significantly more difficult and stressful aspect of driving a 14 ton, 35 foot motorhome with a car in tow, and we arrive at a preferred three hour drive between locations, though we will push it to five or six when necessary.  Finally, there is Pad Kee Meow’s occasional motion sickness.  Though she is nearly ideal for the RV lifestyle in every other way, rarely bolting out the door, leash trained, dog and child tolerant, she does tend to get sick when subjected to long drives, especially on the back roads where Serenity wallows from side to side.

We have discovered four levels of cat sick warning signs, or DEFCAT levels, if you will. At DEFCAT 4, PKM is happily sitting on the wide dash watching our travels through the huge front windshield.  At level 3 we see our first low grade warning signs as she shifts to Rosemarie’s lap and insists upon petting and attention.  Our best road trips see her there for the majority of the trip.  At DEFCAT 2 she moves to the the floor, either under Rosemarie’s seat or near her water bowl, sort of napping, but a bit restless.  Finally, a true warning of imminent sickness, she shifts to the lowest step next to the exit door, plaintively staring from the door to us, as if begging someone to let her out.  When we get to this DEFCAT 1, we look for signs of nausea, particularly excess salivation, and have on a two occasions just pulled over to let her recover for a bit before finishing the trip.  Usually though once we get to the salivation stage its too late and we have to do a clean up in aisle one.

Steady on at DEFCAT 4: Very low threat condition.

We have moved to DEFCAT 3: no reason to panic, but be alert.

With all that in mind, the eastern shore of Lake Michigan was a solid six hour drive from our Ohio departure point.  Cross referencing All Stays with reviews on Trip Advisor and RV Park Reviews, we selected Weko Beach as our first stop.  It looked like our cup of tea, and positioned as it was at the southern end of the state and the lake, it worked well for our developing plan. We spoke with a woman in the front office at this popular first come, first serve campground, who recommended that we wait to show up until Monday rather than late on Sunday to maximize a chance at an open hook up site.

This worked out fairly well for us because the six hour drive was unappetizing; now all we needed was a suitable stopping point along the route.  Checking our options on Passport America led us to Grand View Bend in Howe, Indiana.  Yes, this would technically give us one night RVing in a new state, but this is the one time we skirted a border without trying to collect another state.  Besides, we spent five days in Indiana earlier this year, and intend to pass through again when we turn back to Florida.  Grand View Bend truly was directly on our route at about the right distance we wanted to travel, honored the astounding PA rate of $12.50 for a 30 amp and water hook up site, and had decent amenities.  Perfect for a one night stay.

The place offered us a spacious site, lush grass beneath our feet, a lovely field of cultivated farmland out to our backs, and a generally pleasant stopover experience.  The only downsides we discovered during out 20 hours there was the somewhat half hazard check in process and the poor alignment of the spaces with the electrical connections.  The short term area of the park is distinct from the full and seasonal residents, and laid out in a long line on one side of the lengthy entrance road.  Apparently the original spacing was altered in the last few years to make each site more spacious.  Unfortunately they did not move the electrical connections to match the new alignment, resulting in about 1/3 of the spots requiring an extremely long shore power cable to reach.  Fortunately they had three our four spots to pick from, and we selected one with properly positioned connections and a big shade tree to mitigate one of the hottest days we had experienced in a while.

We closed all our blinds and rolled out the awning to assist the one AC we could run on the 30 amp circuit in its struggle to get get the interior temp down while Rosie and I took a dip in the nice sized, in ground pool.  With a stiff breeze blowing it was actually nicer outside than in, so we spent a good portion of the late afternoon and early evening relaxing outdoors watching the cat obsess over the ground squirrel holes and observing the sun lower over the adjacent farm.  About the only other thing to report about the park is that the free wifi was completely unusable, but at $12.50 a night, all in, it was still a fantastic deal, perhaps the cheapest decent park at which we have ever stayed.

The next morning we made the 90 minute drive to Weko Beach, a bit anxious since we really didn’t know if a site would be available.  As we pulled up to the front office we spotted the large “No Campsites Available” sign, but hoped that was just because the morning departures had not yet been counted.  Sure enough, as we waited the staff checked the two sites with scheduled departures, and finding them empty gave us the green light to select one and park.

We passed on what I considered the nicer of the two because our would be neighbors there had three large, loud and unleashed dogs on their site.  Instead we selected the more awkwardly arranged, though dog free spot.  Pad Kee Meow is mostly unconcerned with dogs, often staring down and willingly approaching even the yippiest of them in some sort of test of wills, but these three looked to be under minimal owner control, and raised a ruckus whenever anyone walked by.  No thanks.

Instead, our selected site was mostly dirt with a triangular shape and a barely reachable water and electrical connection.  If you are getting the picture that Weko Beach is a bit half hazardly arranged and managed, then your perception matches ours.  Oddly laid out sites, lax enforcement of the rules, and basic accommodations, and yet it was fantastic; yet another example of why we lean towards country rather than state parks if all other things are seemingly equal.  Because for $30 a day ($35 on weekends) we were a couple of hundred yards away from an excellent Lake Michigan beach with a first come first serve policy that worked well for those of us whose RV pattern doesn’t often allow long term planning.

Intellectually I understood that the great lakes really are like oceans, with storms and big vessels and ship wrecks and the like, but seeing them in person really drives this home. Water as far as you can see, wave action crashing on the shore, sandy beaches, the works. Set down without knowledge of your location, it would be very easy to assume you were on an Atlantic or Pacific beach.  The water temperature was quite tolerable, the uncountable rocks all over the beach beautiful, the beach itself uncrowded, and after a dip in the lake one exits clean and without the need to rinse an uncomfortable layer of salt from your body.  Oh, and no sharks.  I had never thought much about the allure of the Great Lakes, but I am definitely a convert to their coolness now.

As a collector of things from the sea, Rosemarie had another reason for wanting to stop at Lake Michigan: beach glass.  As best I could determine from online research, the southern portion of Lake Michigan is best for it, so we spent a few hours leisurely walking the beach from Weko into the adjacent state park.  We didn’t have great luck, only finding two pieces, but one was thick and large, allowing Rosemarie to turn it into a great piece of found object jewelry.

We only stayed for our traditional thee days, but we made the most of it, spending at least part of every day at the beach, especially for the three wonderful sunsets over the water.  The nearby town was large enough to support basic needs, though we did not explore it for anything beyond resupply.  We have since moved on, still in Michigan but much further north, and having had the benefit of a few other campgrounds in the state, we would be hard pressed to pick our favorite, but Weko Beach would definitely be in contention.  The loosey-goosey aspects of the park are not for everyone, but we found it perfectly suited to our RV style.

We are now only two locations and zero states behind in this blog, though admittedly that is because of our soon to be reported extended stay in the Upper Peninsula.  Next up, continuing up the Lake Michigan shore.