Saturday, June 30, 2007

Lists are for the Birds!

Here's some of the birds I saw and heard at camp:

Cedar Waxwings
Cranes (calling and flying over)
Mourning Doves
Quail (possibly)
Sparrows (variety)
Tufted Titmice
Whipporwhil (I believe I heard one)
Woodpeckers (saw one, heard various)

Friday, June 29, 2007

Tenting Tonight on the Old Campground

It was Friday afternoon and I headed down the road loaded for bare. I was kind to the motor, not pushing it, giving myself plenty of time to accelerate and decelerate, taking the turns slow. My son was busily drawing and playing in his seat, my arm was being sunburned through the open window, and Raaf was whining and panting from under the last open space in the car, under the refuge of the back seat. The day was sunny and clear, the traffic not too bad. I listened to the radio, seeking new stations as I drove out of range. Catching info about the weather and the Fourth of July festivities in the neighboring towns. We had our water bottles, I had my cell phone. I dumped a full package of M-n-M's into the bottom of my purse by accident, but it didn't matter. What mattered was we were headed up to camp.

I made really good time - I didn't stop once because I didn't have to. We arrived in the town of Onaway at twenty minutes to six, pulling into the parking lot of Tom's IGA to grab some groceries. Tom's has anything and everything you might have forgot before you left home. We bought some hamburger buns and bread, some fresh fruit, a can of spaghetti rings, and, the most important, a twelve pack of beer. Then it was on the road again, all the while my son whining, "I want to go to Camp Ocqueoc!" He is too young to remember what it's like to camp there!

When we got out to camp, my mom, daughter, and sister were there and happy to see us. "Did you bring the meat?" were the first words out of my sister's mouth. Not really, but because she lives in Canada, she couldn't bring any meat across the border and everyone was hungry. As she fried up hamburgers in the camper and the kids run amok, I popped open a well-deserved beer and surveyed the scene.

The long field grasses were swaying in the breeze and nestled among them, here and there, were dots of color. A variety of wildflowers grow on the property - wild orchids and Indian paintbrush were the two I could name off-hand. Facing west, where the sun was making its downward descent, was Indian Creek. I could hear the sounds the children made from where they were playing on the old wooden footbridge and the babbling and gurgling of the water as it flowed over and around the rocks. From the trees, I heard all types of birds calling - meadowlarks and cedar waxwings - and saw them flitting from branch to branch to catch their evening supper of bugs. The sights and sounds of nature calmed and soothed me.

We ate hamburgers for supper and nothing more. Simple is best. My sister and niece helped me pitch the tents and unload the van. My other niece arrived with her children just as the early dusk was setting in and we helped her get her tent up too. We ran an extension cord to the outhouse and plugged in a light. We hauled water up from the creek for washing. We had everything ready just in time as darkness had settled on the camp. We were all too tired to have a campfire on the first night, so we retired to our tents and to our dreams, eagerly waiting to wake up the next morning for our first day at Camp Ocqueoc.

Camp Yuc-Yuc: The Backstory

Many years ago, my siblings and I bought a 20-acre piece of property from our Grandpa after our Grandma had died. This parcel had originally been part of the land owned by her parents, then owned by her brother, and, sometime in the seventies after his death, she acquired it. She and Grandpa had parked a house trailer there and had electric run to it, and it had been their summer get-away for many years.

Way back in 1929, my great grandpa Chalk had bought an 80-acre farm, sight-unseen, up in Presque Isle County. He moved great grandma Belle and their four youngest children there from Flint in the fall of the year and he returned to Flint to work in a factory and send them money. Great grandma was stuck by herself out in the sticks and, according to family lore, hated every minute of it. Somehow, she toughed it out (they never got a divorce!) with no electricity and having to carry water to the house from Indian Creek every day. Great grandpa gave the back 20 to his son, Great Uncle Ted, and that's where he farmed and lived in a creek side berm. When my grandparents were first married, they lived there for a time, and it was in this berm where my mother was born. Naturally, one can see the sentimental value and significance this property has had for my mother and me and my brothers and sisters. It's been in the family for almost 80 years!

After Grandma died, Grandpa wanted one of us kids to have the property. He offered it to one of my brothers first, and instead of having it just for himself, my brother had another idea - for us siblings to buy it together. When this proposal came up, I don't recall hesitating. I became a property owner with them.

The first tradition we created was camping on the Fourth of July, and for quite a few years, we all tried to make it up for the holiday. And every time, small improvements were made - a new outhouse was built, the old berm was eventually burned down, and other general maintenance - nothing spectacular, but something was something. My dad, brothers, and brothers-in-law really worked their tails off.

We started out by calling the place "Our Property" or "Our Property Up North." Because the property is located very close to Ocqueoc Falls, some started saying, "Our Property near the Ocqueoc Falls." Pretty soon that morphed into "Camp Ocqueoc."

One Fourth of July, we had a particularly tough camping experience. The mosquitoes and black flies were atrocious! The days were hot and steamy! Everyone was being bitten and burned to death! Despite all the other mishaps, we managed to have a good time anyway, thanks to lots of bug juice and beer and campfire smoke, laughing it off, saying we should have t-shirts made that said, "I Survived Camp Ocqueoc." One of my brothers, always the pessimistic clown, declared that we should write "I Survived Camp Yuck-Yuck" instead because the whole experience had been rotten! His suggestion was a good one and we have lovingly/humorously called the place Camp Yuck-Yuck ever since.

Being the Creative Writer and English Minor, I pondered this name. Because the word "Ocqueoc" is pronounced "ah-kee-ock" I decided that the most accurate spelling of our camp name should be "Yuc-Yuc" instead. Three years ago, after my daughter asked me what "Ocqueoc" meant, I looked it up on the internet and, much to my surprise, found that the word is from the Odawa language and means "sacred." That was a quandary! There is nothing sacred about something that is considered "rotten," but, since the name had already stuck, I wasn't about to change it, so Camp Yuc-Yuc it is!

As the years have passed, almost twenty now, we've gotten together to celebrate the Fourth of July less and less. We have jobs, responsibilities, and families to care for. Every so often though, we do camp there. We all have dreams of what to do with the place, and these dreams usually include building some type of rustic cabin, but nothing has happened yet. For now, all that stands on the property is a falling-down shed, an outhouse, the old trailer, and my mother's camper, but, let me tell you, that's not what's important. What's important is how much fun it is to camp there when we do go and for all the special memories that have been created. Here's to more!

Getting Ready for Camp

All year I have been waiting to go camping on my property up north and, for the past two months, have been thinking about it and talking about it - I just couldn't wait to get there. As the weeks slipped away I made a mental list of everything I would need - tent, sleeping bags, food, drinking water, flashlights - I was making my list and checking it twice.

It just so happened this year my mom, my sister and her girls, and my niece and her children were able to come too and this was great, the more the merrier! Originally I had planned to leave for camp on a Saturday, but because of the turn of events with the arrival of more campers, I decided to leave on a Friday morning. My intentions were fine and dandy. My daughter was away at Vacation Bible School for the week, my hubby was away at a conference, and it was just me and my son. I would have plenty of time to pack and head out bright and early in the morning to begin my nine day camping adventure.

So what happened? I came down with an intestinal bug the day before.

All day Thursday I was weak and dizzy and running to the bathroom every half hour. I was vigilant though. Thankfully, my sister LDS was here to save me. She came over and sat with my son so I could go and buy new tires for the van and go to the store. When I came home, she helped me gather up camping gear and pack it in the car. I don't know what I would have done without her help! The remainder of Thursday night I packed and packed and packed, accumulating everything in the kitchen so I could be ready to go in the morning, and did all the last minute things one does prior to going on any vacation, including laundry, yard work, and re-siding the house (just in case).

Needless to say, Friday morning I was more pooped than perky. I tried to drink my customary cup-o-joe, but couldn't stomach it. I had to switch to a Coke. I shuffled around for a while, feebly hunting and gathering, talked on the phone with everyone and, as the morning hours burned away, finally arranged for my daughter to ride with Grandma. To say, "I was running late" was an understatement. It took me six hours to make breakfast, dress, and pack the car, sliding the last box inside at a quarter to two. Dare I say that the car was loaded to the hilt? I have a seven passenger mini-van and, when I had finished, there was just enough room for my son to sit in one seat and for me to sit at the driver's seat, oh, and a small space on the floor for Raaf the dog. My son had impatiently climbed into the car at twelve thirty (and who can say I could blame him) and was in his seat drawing a picture and hollering out every five minutes, "Mom! Can we go now?"

My reply? "Just a minute, honey, mommy still needs to pack a few more things." As I threw in the last of the gear I remembered one thing, horrified I exclaimed, "I forgot the kitchen sink!" And I would have brought that too, but because I couldn't find the wrench to unbolt it from the wall, I relented, surveyed the house one last time with a jaundiced eye, locked the door, and climbed into the car.

We were finally off to Camp Yuc-Yuc, and not one moment too soon.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Living the Dream

Today my son started his second week of art classes at Kendall College's summer classes for kids. He's a wonderful artist already, he's always had a knack for it, and I want to keep on encouraging him to pursue the things he's good at. It was no question of whether or not I wanted to sign him up - three weeks of drawing monsters, one of his favorite subjects after regular cartooning and dinosaurs - I didn't need to ask.

For every class, I have to drive him downtown. I love being downtown. There's a special magic about it that thrills me. Of course, I haven't been downtown in too many big cities, just Denver, Washington D.C., Chicago, and Lima, and I'm not saying that Grand Rapids can compare, but our downtown has similar charm. Parallel parking is a challenge, but once we're out of the car and our feet hit the sidewalk I'm totally into the scene. There's always something going on, there's always interesting people to observe, thinking of Whitman's "blab of the pave."

My son just holds my hand and lets me lead the way. I'm not sure how much he's taking in, but when we arrive at the school entrance, he's captivated by the student art on exhibit in the front lobby and wants to see each painting and sculpture all over again. He asks me questions about how the artist made each work, what the titles are, and what they're supposed to mean. Any of you out there who are art aficionados know that looking at art is one thing and understanding the deeper meaning is another. But I try my best to explain what I think it means. I, too, am thrilled to be there. Taking it all in. I had never been inside Kendall before, until my son took this class.

The whole trip is exciting, right up to when I help him sit at his drawing board and unpack his supplies. He's totally into it. I spoke to his instructor for a few moments, somehow the conversation turning to me sharing that I'd always wanted to attend Kendall but never had. He looked surprised, then asked, "Why didn't you do it?" I didn't have an answer on the tip of my tongue. Where could I begin? He commented that a career in fine arts can be intimidating. I mentioned that I hadn't given it up, but had taken a detour - graduating with my degree in creative writing instead. I told him how I still had it all, my drawings and paintings, and all my art supplies, everything down to the easel. That I had planned to come back to it someday, when my kids were older, when I have more time. We talked a little longer and ended the conversation pleasantly. I said goodbye to my son. As I exited through Kendall's lobby, thinking about my old dream - the career in art I never pursued - those old feelings of bittersweet regret flooded through me, just as fresh and new as they had felt when I was twenty. Would I ever be able to do what I had told the instructor, "I'm going to back to it again when the kids are older"? I had to wonder. Would I ever practice fine art again? Then I couldn't help but remember what Langston Hughes said, and I think he said it best:

"Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow."

Sunday, June 24, 2007

To Filet A Fish

Having recovered sufficintly from my fishing expedition and having slept in until ten in the morning, I knew that my adventure wasn't about to end - I had utilize what I'd learned during Stan's final lesson and filet my fish! I put on an apron, grabbed a cutting board, newspapers, a bowl, some knives, retreived the fish from the fridge, and headed outside.

I dragged an old table into the shade of my backyard tree and set up all my stuff so I could get to work. I extracted the first fish from the plastic bag, and, instead of the fantastic creature from the lake of the day before, what greeted me was a picky and slimey dead creature from the lake one day later. But, mom can't be squeamish, you know, so she got to work, chopping off the heads and gutting the fish.

As I chopped I sang a little ditty: "Fish heads, fish heads, lovely, lovely fish heads!" to the first head whose cloudy eye stared skyward from the edge of the newspaper. The flies loved me! It wasn't so bad, I supposed. I figured out how to take off the head and a set of fins with one chop, all the while thinking about the fishmonger's wife, whomever she is. Next I figured out how to make two cuts along the stomach to remove the fins there so I could scoop out the guts. If you've never done this before, you haven't yet lived.

Now, as Stan told me not to try to filet without a filet knife because I would end up wasting the flesh and chopping my fingers off, I opted to descale them. It's not too bad, but the scales fly all over the place. In my hair, down my shirt, and onto my bare toes. I made the best of it, hosing myself, the cleaned fish, and the table down when I was all finished.

I wondered if I would have the stomach to eat the fish once I had cleaned them. I decided the best thing to do was not to think about how gross it had been, but to concentrate on the best way to cook these fish. I had always seen my mother pan fry them. I salted and peppered the fish and melted a stick of butter in a non-stick pan. Bluegill fry up quickly, about five minutes per side, I turned them only once and after the skins were golden brown. Of course, the kids wouldn't touch the fish, I'm not sure if any kid likes fish except for the ones who come in the unrecognizable forms of stick or patty, but I did. It's a little trouble eating them, watching out for the bones, but they were so fresh and so tasty! And despite the work of cleaning them, nothing beats the flavor of the fish you catch yourself.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Fishing 101

I hadn't been fishing for a coon's age (as they say in these here parts) and was fortunate to have the opportunity to do so when some friends of mine invited me and the kids up to their place. They recently bought a house on a small lake out in the country and invited us for an afternoon cookout followed by a fishing expedition on their boat.

I had all the necessary gear - poles and tackle box - which I threw into the van, along with the bug spray, hats, and life jackets, and, on the way up north, I stopped to buy a new fishing license and pick up my free fishing guides, courtesy of the DNR.

We drove through the "country" (still populated, but not like the city), taking in the view, driving past horses and cows and a Christmas Tree farm until we reached my friends' new place. They have a beautiful home, the perfect combination of modern convenience mixed with country living. They have a semi-wooded lot, which has lake frontage. Can't beat that! There's loads of deer, rabbits, all types of wild birds, and, much to my kids' delight, lots of frogs and toads hopping about.

We dug for worms utilizing my son's science experiment - worms can be charmed out of the ground by sprinkling water on the ground. I have to say, I think it might work. The kids had a good time with this, but wouldn't pick up the worms. (Imagine that.) It's a good thing mom's not too squeemish, so I did it for them. Then we spied a toad hopping through the fallen leaves, and, yes, mom was the one who scooped it up to show the kids. The toad peed on my hand - they always do, it's a defense mechanism - and I thanked my kids for letting me get the warts instead of them. (Hey, the perpetuation of old wives' tales never hurt anyone.)

After that excitement, I had to fix up the fishing poles. Thankfully my friend's step-dad was there. Stan's up in his eighties and an old fishing pro. He helped me to detangle the lines, tie on the hooks, and put on new bobbers and sinkers. All in all, he gave me a refresher course on Fishing 101, and there's no better way than hands-on.

We had a great cook-out. The whole time the kids were wound-up, dying to go fishing and we managed to finish dessert and coffee and walk over to the lake before they did.

I went out on a small boat, powered by an electric motor, with my Stan at the stern and my son at the bow. (Let me say right now that if you've never gone fishing with a seven-year-old, you should try it. It ranks right up there with a visit to the dentist, necessary, but uncomfortable. Either way, you're going to get poked.) But, seriously, it was fun. My son got a bit discouraged because he didn't have the patience to wait and catch a fish. He expected instant results. Now, my Stan did have instant results, and was the first to land a fish (even a small bass, which he released). I didn't get discouraged though, and pretty soon, I landed one too. A beautiful bluegill and good sized.

The lake is stocked with bass, bluegill, crappies, and sunfish, and because we were out fishing in the early evening hours, they were biting! We caught about twenty or so, tossing them in a bucket in the bottom of the boat. When the bucket was full and the fish were ready to flip out, we came in. It was a fun time, even though my son was upset that he hadn't gotten a fish, but I did let him help me by dropping the fish into his toy net that I had thrown into the car as an afterthought and, of course, I promised him that we would go fishing again soon.

We divided up the fish - some for me, for Stan, and some for my friends, and to conclude Fishing 101, Stan gave us all a refresher course on how to filet, too. Darkness was settling upon us and, fish in hand, we headed home. Food, friends, and fishing, three things that add up to create a pleasant summer afternoon.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Ah, The Sweet Smell of Summer!

I remember summer! Everything fresh and green. Sun-filled days, stretching into infinity. Lazy, lazy time-on-your-hands summer, when skool seemed miles away from reality and I wondered what to do with each "empty" day. Sleeping-in. Staying up late. Bike-riding, swimming. Cook-outs. Fourth of July Fireworks. Camping. Fireflies. Oh, the possibilities!

When I was a kid, summer seemed like all this, and more. It was a time to take a break from studying and getting up early, with nothing to do but simply exist. Summer vacation meant nearly three whole months of freedom! Why did it have to end!?

Ruminating on all this makes me ask myself, What does Summer mean to you now that you're All Grown Up? I guess, in a way, Summer still means the same things, but now I'm the parent and no longer the carefree child. And despite all the "freedom" that summer implies, I still have to follow routines of cooking, cleaning, supervising, and coordinating my children's days so that they can enjoy their time off just like I did when I was their age.

As I sit here and blog, full sun shining in at the window, hearing a robin singing his little heart out in the neighbor's backyard tree, I think about all the other things I should be doing today: paint the fence, weed, plant some chili peppers, make the beds, organize the silverware drawer, finish the laundry -- but I really don't want to. What I really want to do is find a good book and curl up and read, go to the beach for the whole day, jump into the van and take a road-trip, go swimming, or take a bike ride. Anything and everything that doesn't have to do with being inside or being responsible. Even though I'm a "grown-up" now, I'd still like to relive those hazy days of the summers of my youth, when I didn't have to do anything unless, of course, I was told to and had all the time in the world to do it. Who wouldn't?

Instead, as Raaf snores contentedly from underneath my chair while I try to decide in which direction the content of this post is destined and realize that I have to start conjuring up something to eat for that dreaded six-letter familiy ritual (aka, DINNER), I realize that, alas!, I'm no longer a child and, better than becoming nostalgic on the days of Summers Past, that I had best make the most of the days that I have left -- of Summer Now. Like it or not!

A Slice of Heaven In Alger Heights

If you're looking for a slice of heaven, look no further than Agostino's Little Sicily Pizza restaurant on the corner of Eastern and Burton. They sell some of the best pies in Grand Rapids, using a special recipe that the owner brought over from Sicily.

On Friday night, we were in the mood for pizza for dinner, and since it had been a long time since I'd eaten a good quality pizza, I decided to take the kids over to Agostino's. The restaurant is small, but well decorated and clean, and the staff is friendly, or should I say patient? No matter, in fifteen minutes our order was up and we were out the door.

The pizza's were perfect. The crust to die for, not thick and doughy, but just the right thickness to hold the toppings. The edges a perfect combination of crunchy and chewy - these are pizza crusts you don't want to throw away! The sauce is rich, thick, spread evenly and not globbed on, and mysterious - just what is in there? Enticing flavors of onion, garlic, and spices spread over my tongue, and did I detect parmesan cheese? The best thing about this pizza is that it's not over-loaded with mozzarella. You know what I'm talking about, when there's so much cheese and greese on the top of the pizza that you have to blot it with a paper towel before you eat it, but not this pie. This Deluxe pizza had the right amount of toppings and cheese and sauce to satisfy. Two pieces a person was plenty to fill us up, and the left-overs? Guarded in the fridge for lunch the next day.

Agostino's has a full menu - dinners and subs, appetizers and Stromboli. They also have Philly Steak Sandwiches. Oh, and I forgot to mention, great salads too. If you're looking for some mouth-watering Italian food, look no further than Agostino's. It's a little slice of Sicilian Heaven just waiting to be discovered right here in Grand Rapids!