Wild Childhood

Standing at the top of the hill, looking at the curve at the bottom, I said to my dad for not the first time, “I’m scared. Can I just take off my skis and walk down?” Instead of acquiescing to my request, he talked me through the strategies of approaching the turn. In years that followed, that hill always made me nervous, and there were a few times that I fell, but I also knew that I was capable of doing it. And then one day I noticed that it wasn’t really that big of a hill, and that the turn wasn’t really that sharp. 

My dad, me, and my brother Matt at Hartwick Pines State Park.

Learning how to cross-country ski began early–I don’t even remember how old I was, but we had a golf course in the backyard of our condo, and a few local nature preserves in the Lansing area, and they were our training grounds.

Winter family vacations to Grayling, Stokely Creek in Canada, and other cross-country skiing destinations followed, each presenting more challenges and uncharted territory. There were so many times that I experienced that moment of fear at the top, trying to quell my fears, as my mom or dad talked me through the strategy to use, until I finally could do it myself: look at the challenge and map out my approach. 

Dad and I at Stokely Creek, Ontario when I was a student at Northern Michigan University.

It seems like my parents were always pursuing hobbies that pushed me a little beyond my comfort zone–sailing the Great Lakes, cross-country skiing in the middle of nowhere, snowmobiling in the Upper Peninsula… and while I had more than a few moments of “I can’t do it” angst, I can’t help but be grateful for these experiences. Some of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever witnessed came as a result of these adventures, in addition to a certain approach to life, as well. As an adult, when I heard about “Type 2 Fun,” the kind that is a little unnerving or uncomfortable in the moment, but then you feel great looking back on the adventure, it resonated with many of these memories–not that they were miserable, but they certainly were different from the Disney trips and more traditional vacations that I heard others talk about. Sure, we went to Cedar Point and Michigan’s Adventure sometimes, but mostly, our vacations were of the outdoorsy type.

Me and my brother Matt on the deck of “Menagerie,” my parents’ 30-foot Catalina sailboat, with the Round Island lighthouse near Mackinac Island in the background. We sailed from Charlevoix to Mackinaw on many family vacations, often stopping at Beaver Island, De Tour and Drummond Island, depending on the weather.

When my parents bought a 30-foot sailboat when I was in sixth grade, a whole new world opened up. While we still skied in the winter, our summers transformed into exploration of Lake Michigan. We had previously spent summer weekends at my grandparents’ cottage on Houghton Lake, using their pontoon, or renting a cottage on some small inland lake, taking along my dad’s family’s old ski boat to fish from and water ski behind, but living aboard a sailboat was a new level of adventure. For one thing, my dad was really the only one who knew how to sail. I remember the first time he yelled at someone to “fall off,” meaning to steer the boat downwind, no one knew what he meant. I mean, he didn’t literally want us to fall off the boat, right? I’m sure it was frustrating for him as he tried to train us, especially since he was really the only one who was interested in the intricacies of sailing. Any time I had to set down my book to do something, I was annoyed in the way that teenagers specialize in, and rarely paid attention to the “why” of sail trim. My dad learned that it was easier just to tell me what he wanted, rather than explaining how to look at the shape of the sail and the tell-tales to see if the main sheet or jib sheets needed to be let out or brought in. 

Reading took precedence over sail trim.

In spite of how little I was interested in learning sail trim, I loved the vacations we took on the sailboat, exploring different port towns along Lake Michigan, swimming daily, and indulging in fudge and ice cream at the various tourist traps. I would check out bags of books from the library before a big trip, and spend countless hours reading while laying on the deck of the boat, and by flashlight at night. We explored quaint little towns, and anchored in remote areas, going ashore by dinghy to hike and look for wild blueberries. When the mosquitoes weren’t too bad, I’d sleep out in the cockpit, and watch the stars until I drifted off. Every now and then I’d get to see a meteor shower, or the Northern Lights. The scenery was amazing, and even on rainy days, we would play cards and Trivial Pursuit. My mom got creative cooking with a microwave and electric skillet when we had electricity in port, or with a small gas burner away from shore, and my dad’s grilling kept us well fed, too. Everything tastes better on a boat in the wilderness!

These trips were also made memorable by the uncertainty of the weather. We might have a plan for a week-long trip and what our destination was, but if the wind was blowing against us, Plan B would enter the picture. There were times that we got weathered into a port for days longer than expected (Hello ghost-town of Fayette), and storms sometimes came up out of nowhere and forced us to alter our plans while we were underway. Every now and then something mechanical would go wrong, and while we teased my dad about apparently having a spare Atomic 4 engine squirreled away somewhere on the boat he had so many spare parts, there were times we ended up coming into a marina under sail and staying there until the hardware store opened so that he could get what he needed for unexpected repairs. I learned that while it’s a good idea to research and plan ahead, the plan should include alternate itineraries–not only a Plan B, but a Plan C, D, and maybe even E, as well as anticipation of what might go wrong and the skills and equipment needed to address those challenges.

Menagerie, a 30-foot Catalina, thus named because my parents bought it with their best friends, who had three kids, meaning there were nine of us camped out on the boat during some of our trips! A menagerie, indeed!

Years later, I did eventually become interested in learning sail trim, and my dad recommended finding a boat to race on. Weekly races on a short course where each leg of the race brought a new wind angle would force me to constantly think through and adjust my trim, and the stakes were much higher than a leisurely weekend cruise. I’d be around other sailing nuts, and could learn from their expertise. There were many moments while racing that I felt that same fear that I had at the top of the hill–it’s too fast, the boat’s heeled over too much, what if I screw up? But I also learned to sail–to take the helm, trim the sails, examine our course and plot our best approach, all the while talking it through with the rest of the crew. 

Checking our position using the Gaia navigation app on a multi-day group hike near Traverse City.

Now that backpacking is my main hobby, I realize how well these earlier activities prepared me for addressing my fears, paying attention to the details that might create problems, and adjusting plans based on what’s happening beyond my control–whether that is an unexpected obstacle like a bridge being out, a change in weather, or discovering that my ability (or fellow group member’s) to cover a certain amount of mileage in a day isn’t realistic. I learned how to pack light while keeping essential safety equipment a priority. I learned that the reward for a certain amount of discomfort is the beauty and solitude of hard-to-reach places. While you can easily take a ferry to Mackinac Island and live it up with the tourists, there are so many other beautiful places in the Great Lakes that can feel like your own personal treasure if you’re willing to do the work to get there. 

My parents, picking blueberries in the North Channel. My mom makes some amazing blueberry pancakes in the boat’s galley!
Family time in the North Channel.

I also feel a certain nostalgia, any time I engage in these activities, thinking of my family and our past adventures. Earlier this week, I watched a dad coach his young daughter up from a minor fall out on a local cross country ski trail, and it brought such a flood of memories. I appreciate now the effort it must have taken for my parents to teach me and my brother these skills, to coach us through the overwhelming moments, to take us along on these adventures. I appreciate the patience they had, and their desire to share these experiences in nature with us. I appreciate them teaching us that we could do challenging things, if we took the time to study the situation. Every now and then when my parents express worry about one of my adventures, I have to remind them that they are the ones that taught me to be that way! And half the time, they’re on their way to their own adventure, and it’s me telling them to have fun and be safe. 

Published by lovesmichiganoutdoors

Hiking, backpacking, kayaking, stand-up-paddle boarding, sailing... exploring Michigan is my passion! Instagram: @jenren_hikes

4 thoughts on “Wild Childhood

  1. Great read Jen!! I loved learning about all of your family time and adventures. I knew that you all sailed, but this is a whole other level. What an amazing way to grow up!


    1. Thank you, Amy! As I was sifting through pictures, I found quite a few of your mom and dad on ski adventures with my parents, and some from the sand dunes near Grand Marais–I feel like they are/were adventurous parents, too! Mexico, Alaska… so cool!


  2. We were just with your folks and reminisced about our days with our kids. She told me about this website…and I love your writings. It is a beautiful tribute to your parents….and you are a beautiful person!


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