VanBuren State Park and Points Beyond

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Our latest adventure “Chasing the Wind” took our Happy Clan to the
west coast of Michigan and Van Buren State Park. We booked 3 nights in
the campground and hoped that the winds would materialize for kiting.
We planned on enjoying the beaches of Van Buren State park and
exploring the communities of South Haven and Holland. The area is
known for its freshwater surfing and solid winds.

In the past I have surfed breaks in the area, finding sizeable freshwater waves on occasion with limited crowds. The waves weren’t California quality or
even East Coast peelers, but they helped scratch the itch for a
landlocked surfer. The coastline from New Buffalo north  to Grand
Haven is littered with rock jetties to protect harbors which helps
shape the unruly north wind swells into decently rideable freshwater
waves. During the summer, these same features create flat water riding
areas with decent winds throughout the summer. South Haven, in
particular, is well known for its summer riding conditions. With all
of this information in mind, we booked a spot in the state park
campground for three nights and hoped for the best.

I enjoy taking roads less travelled and this trip north in Freda was
no exception. Driving north on state roads, the scenery transitions
from commercial agriculture into Amish farms and then into blueberry
patches and fruit orchards. As the agriculture transitions, I find
that my mood mellows with each passing mile. There is something about
Monsanto signs in farm fields that annoy me, maybe it’s the residual glyco-phosphates in the air or something…As I drove through the northern reaches of
Indiana and into Michigan I had to chuckle as I passed Amish folks
chatting in the sun. I was dressed oddly similar in basic colors with
a black sock hat and a full, bushy beard. I stopped for gas and found
myself surround by look-a-likes with the only visible difference
between myself and the Amish fellows behind me in line being my Old
Skool Vans and earbuds.

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Arriving in Van Buren State Park, we were pleasantly surprised by the
delightfully wooded campground and our campsite. In the past few
years, all the reservations have been moved into an online
system…taking all of the adventure out of camping. It has also
served to reduce the choices for spots as armchair campers are able to
reserve sites 6 months ahead of time. It makes it hard for people that
decide on parks based on last minute wind forecasts.

After setting up the campsite and cracking a cold beverage, I checked
the wind forecast to find that the forecasted winds had mysteriously
deteriorated into a windless afternoon. I need 10-20 kts of wind to
keep my kites flying and pulling me across the water. The forecast for
the weekend had also deteriorated from decent kiting into non-existent
kiting conditions. Based on the forecast when I left home, I
anticipated a weekend full of premium kiteboarding conditions at all
the locations I hoped to ride. In the course of my drive north, the
forecasted wind had vanished into a windless weekend more suited for
sun bathing than kite boarding.

Our Happy Clan of Adventure seekers is not a family to be easily
dissuaded from a good time, so we threw on swim suits and headed down
to the beach to test the waters and skip some rocks. Arriving at the
beach we were pleasantly surprised by the clear waters and beautiful
scenery, notwithstanding the nuclear power plant cooling towers at the
southern end of the park.

Day two of our trip dawned bright, clear, and unfortunately windless.
Our trips function on a loose set of rules being…If there is swell,
go surf. If there is wind, go kite. If there is neither waves nor
wind, go for a paddle. In following our rules, we carried our paddle boards down to the beach and loaded the kids on and went for a paddle up the coastline. Lake Michigan is known for its immense coastal dunes that formed over time since the end of the last Ice Age caused by the relentless (except for this weekend) west winds.

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As you can see from the picture, our girls are quite comfortable on
the nose of a paddle board. Alba just leans back and enjoys the ride,
while Evie enjoys dragging her feet or surprising me with a quick leap
into the water. The paddle boards are nice for a workout and to escape
the crowds. We paddled up the coast and enjoyed the scenery and
watched rocks glide by under the clear waters. After paddling up the
shoreline a bit, we paddled ashore to give the girls a chance to
stretch their legs and toss rocks into the water. Justine and I
lounged on the beach while the girls amused themselves. Justine and I
are savoring their youth and enjoying the experience of showing them
the broader natural world, while also looking forward to their
increased self-reliance.

After a couple of hours out on the water, we paddled back to our
launch and luckily found the gear we stashed on the beach. We had
paddled out to a nearly empty beach and paddled back to a beach that
was packed cheek to cheek with families from Illinois (the haircuts,
kooky J Crew swimsuits, and Cubs hats gave them away…). Back at the
camper, Justine and the girls took a bit of a siesta and I headed out
to explore the dunes/woods along the shoreline. Van Buren State Park
does not have a system of trails, but looking at a satellite map of
the area, it is obvious that there is a ton of woods and coastal dunes
that beg to be explored.

After hopping over a fence on the north end of the parking lot, I quickly found a little game path that took me into the woods and away from the bustle of a beach parking lot. The forests along the lakeshore are a diverse collection of ferns, evergreens and hardwood tree. A solid array of birds call the area home, along with a ton of squirrels, chipmunks and deer. I came across solid amounts of them during my afternoon scramble. As I worked my way through the woods and towards the lakeshore I had to appreciate how serene the woods were, less the a 20 minute walk from a busy highway all I could hear was the clatter of birds and hum of insects.

As I walked up the backside of a large, wooded sand dune, I caught a glimpse of the distant lakeshore. I decided to walk along the crest of the ridge-line we had admired while paddling that morning. From the top, the view was expansive. From high up, the waters took on a tropical hue. One would have expected to see palm trees instead of pines. I picked my way along the shoreline for the next couple hours, admiring nature and picking up garbage. After a long circuitous route along the shoreline and through the woods, I ended up crashing out of the dunes and onto a busy beach. I washed the bugs, sand, and poison ivy off with a long dip into the cool lake waters.

Our family spent the rest of the day swimming at the lakeshore and floating in the choppy lake swells. Every now and then a little ankle slapper would break across the cobblestone beach. The water was packed with families and the beach was lined with a diverse collection of families. I’ve started to notice that southern Michigan beaches are a rather diverse place with families of all hues having a good time. It’s funny how the news media portrays Americans as a bunch of rude, hateful people but in my experience everyone seems to get along just fine…especially in state parks and wild areas.

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Saturday dawned bright and clear, but windless again, so we made a short drive north to Holland to enjoy their fantastic farmer’s market, our girl’s favorite petting zoo/farm (The Critter Barn), and New Holland brewery. Holland is a beautiful town on Lake Michigan, situated surrounding Lake Macatawa. We’ve been to the town several times and always enjoy ourselves. This time was no different. The local food scene is strong in the region and the peak of summer provided a bounty for the market. We walked away with flats of blueberries and a bushel of peaches.

The girls love visiting The Critter Barn in Zeeland, just outside of Holland. It has all of the classic farm animals in a “farm setting”, but the kids can pet all of the animals and interact with most inside their enclosures. Everything from chicks to goats are fair game for the kids to play with. Evie loves the chick table and has to hang out there until she has caught and released every chick on the table. I’m pretty sure she caught a couple multiple times. Alba seems to enjoy the rabbit pen the most. In the rabbit pen, one can sit down and the rabbits will play and gambol about around you. I personally like the goats the best, they are rowdy and have frequent goat fights on the roofs of the little houses.

New Holland Brewing never ceases to please. Their in house brewed beer list is extensive, along with farm to table food and a nice atmosphere make this one of our favorite breweries. After a great morning in Holland and a solid brunch at the brewery, we drove back to Van Buren State Park for the rest of the day. The ladies decided to nap during the early afternoon and I took advantage of the time and went for another hike through the woods.

A storm blew in during the late afternoon, but we managed to sneak another swim session in before a rain squall blew through the area. We had the beach to ourselves, besides the teenagers taking advantage of the secluded beach for entirely different reasons. The rain didn’t last long and as soon as the rain let up the girls helped me split some wood and build a big campfire. It was our last night and I still hadn’t tapped into our woodbox. I like to burn all the wood before driving home, so needless to say, we had a solid bonfire for our last night camping. As the girls played around the camp fire, Justine and I enjoyed a cold drink and chatted about our trips so far during the summer. Although we have always had fun along the lakeshore, we still hadn’t been “wowed” by Michigan. I had hoped to kite board during our trips, but had pretty much been skunked the whole summer. We have more trips planned, so we’re hoping that the kiting improves.

The next morning dawned clear and hot. We packed up the camper and cleaned the campsite. I took one last hike through the dunes and rinsed off in the lake. The Sunday crowd was already filling in, so I was glad to be on the road. Van Buren State Park is nice, but I probably can cross it off my list of parks to visit. The campground was nice, but the park lacked hiking trails. The beaches were nice, but would need to be fairly empty to allow for decent space to launch a kite board. The expansive dune and forest ecosystem was beautiful and I’m glad that I hopped some fences to get away from the crowds. Overall, I’m getting tired of the summer crowds and looking forward to the fall when cooler air and colder water thin out the crowds, leaving the beaches wide open for kiteboarding and surfing.

Until next time…Keep chasing the wind!

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