My childhood memories appear in a place where snow days are chronic, the lakes are Great and November 15 is practically a holiday. I am an authentic Yooper, born and raised in Ishpeming Township and three-quarters Finnish. I am proud to be from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, so much so that my slips back into the native dialect simply remind me that I am a transplant in Chicagoland. I write now, days before a trip home, in anxious anticipation. This Yooper is going camping and I am ready for a reset.
My family always camped with neighborhood friends and all of the kids became tight-knit. We have stood in each other’s weddings, vacationed with one another, and still manage an annual Christmastime date at Congress Pizza, our favorite. We grew up with access to some of the most majestic scenery. On week-long vacations at J.W. Wells State Park we would let the waves topple over us all afternoon and instead of lunch, our bellies would be full of Lake Michigan. It was idyllic, really, life and memories contained in the backdrop of a Great Lake. There were countless late nights at the campfire listening to waves lap up on shore, eyeing the sky for satellites and avoiding encounters with skunks. The people huddled around those campfires are the ones who influenced me most and despite cozy wool blankets, the stories told around the blaze kept us warmest.
Come fall, we would gather for one last hurrah at Baraga State Park. This is the place where we learned to ride bikes and gambled our way through rainy days playing Hearts and Pokeno. More than anything though, Baraga was the place we perfected the art of kick the can. We’d enter claustrophobic change closets as colorful campers and emerge as intense players in black, head to toe. The six of us would make our way toward the darkened playground, settle boundaries, draw straws, and set down the emptied Coke can. We’d play until our parents were no longer circled around flames, but embers. To this day I am convinced that our tactics, hiding spots and creative competition on that playground go unrivaled.
In a few short days I’ll be back in Ishpeming where one can count on a daily rattle from a blast at the Tilden Mine and a fire siren signaling curfew at 10:00 pm. Our neighborhood encompasses much more than just a collection of acquaintances. Amongst friends who are more like family, I feel most like myself and am reminded of the adventures we had growing up in the U.P. It is the place where life resets. As I packed this afternoon I wondered which pieces of black would best camouflage me in a game of kick the can. Nostalgia comes easy and it’s time for a campfire.
Heather Oysti is a Pure Michigander living in Crystal Lake, Illinois where she has the privilege of being the Director of Student Ministries at First UMC. She can be contacted by Twitter @heatherbreather