Sometimes, it's those spur-of-the-moment getaways that make for the best RVing. So it was this past weekend when we headed to northern Michigan and did some boondocking – camping on our own, in no designated camp space, with no commercial hookups.
It was perhaps the best experience we've had in our RV all year, made even more fun by the sighting of a bunch of UFOs.
The decision to go wasn't made until Saturday noon. By 1 P.M., our Roadtrek RS Adventurous Type B motorhome was packed and we were off, 150 miles north to a stretch of wilderness that adjoins the Rifle River, a fast-moving, cold water trout stream that flows from northeastern Ogemaw County through Arenac County to Lake Huron, 60 miles to the southeast. Our campspite was on private property, owned by my brother-in-law and very familiar to us from more than two decades before. We had often camped therein the mid to late eighties and early nineties with our three kids and their friends, first in a Coleman popup and later a tent. But as our kids grew up, went off to college, and eventually settled down with families of their own in different parts of the country, we stopped going.
This weekend, Jennifer and I decided it was time to revisit the Rifle River.
It would also give us a chance to try boondocking, something we have yet to do in our Roadtrek.
It was the first weekend of autumn and as we headed north on I-75, we noticed that the trees seemed to be turning colors much earlier than usual. Reds and brillant yellow patches grew increasingly common as we crossed the unofficial “up north Michigan” line at Bay City. By the time we pulled off the interstate at exit 202 and headed northeast on M-33, we guessed about 30% of the forest was in brilliant fall foilage.
The weather was brisk and breezy. Heavy rains in downstate Michigan gave way to fluffy white clouds skittering across a brilliant blue sky up north. For a half hour or so. Then a black storm cloud would suddenly materialize. Rain would trickle down for ten minutes. Then it would clear up. It did that on and off untill sunset.
The spot we chose to camp was down a two track dirt trail carved out amongst a thick forest of oaks, maples and birch. No Type A or C RV could have navigated this road and we kept our speed slow, to avoid scratches from low hanging braches. We stopped in a clearing at what my brother-in-law calls “the high banks,” a spot that overlooks a sweeping “S” curve of the river, 100 feet below.
It felt weird to find a level spot and just stop. There was no electrical cord to run out and plug in, no water hose to attach. We had made camp. Just by stopping. I pulled out a couple of folding chairs and we were done. We spent the first half hour gathering dead wood for a campfire and then we took a walk with Tai, our Norwegian Elkhound.
Tai missed out on our big trip west this summer. It was just too hot. And national parks – like in the Badlands, Yellowstone and the Tetons – are pretty dog-unfriendly. Besides, it was very hot for that trip and Tai, with a thick double coat, wilts in the heat.
But on this first fall weekend, the weather was crisp. Cool, actually. Tai thrived. He ran free, following us as we hiked, but pursuing scents and hearing things that made the Rifle River about the closest thing to paradise an Eklhound has ever experienced. He'd run off, plunge off the underbrush, only to emerge further down the trail, burs and briars and seeds tangled in his fur. We swore he kept smiling at us.
As darkness came back at camp, we fired up the generator on the Roadtrek and put a meatball sandwiches we picked up at a Subway on the way north into the microwave. Jen made a simple salad and we ate inside during one of those passing showers.
When the rain stopped for what turned out to be the last time that day, we lit the campfire and watched the light fade from the sky. By 8:15 PM, it was full dark. We watched the fire, lazily talking about the day, remembering those long ago days with our kids up there that seem like yesterday. Our backsides were picking up the night chill. We inched closer to the fire. Life was very good out there in the woods.
Then came the UFOs.
Truth is, we haven't a clue what we saw. We were in the middle of the woods, about a mile off the nearest paved road. About 8:50 P.M., we both started noticing a series of lights, red at first, white as they moved from our left to right, traveling treetop height from north to south. We both had the impression that the red was at the front of whatever we were seeing, the white at the back. The trees would obscure the lights as we tried to follow them, making it first appear as if they were blinking. But we believe they were solid lights, moving slowly. Sometimes one was visible, sometimes a couple, once we counted as many as four. I stood up and walked away from the fire to try for a better view. I tried to take a video with my iPhone but they were not bright enough to show up. We couldn't figure out how far they were from us. They didn't appear to be large and they seemed to be roughly paralleling the paved road we came in on, called Rifle River Trail. They were at slightly different heights and were not moving in straight lines. Never above the treeline in the sold dark sky, never too far below or close to the ground.
It was very strange. I actually thought of calling the Ogemaw County sheriff's office to see if anyone else saw them. I'm just not curious enough to make an official report and sound like one of those weirdos that everyone quotes. Hmmm. Maybe I shouldn't be sharing this with you. Oh well. And, in case you were wondering, we were NOT drinking adult beverages 'round the campfire.
After our UFO preoccupation, we sat around the campfire until we burned up most of the wood, then turned in around 10 PM. At one point, from somewhere to the west across the river, we heard a pack of coyotes carrying on. I found myself sorely tempted to use the fading firelight, the spooky-cool sound of the coyotes, and those mysterious lights, as backdrop to a ghost story. Alas, we are no longer teenagers and Jennifer wouldn't have bought it for a minute.
I turned off the house battery and the Roadtrek's heater for the night. I wasn't sure how much running the heater and the refrigerator on LP while we slept through the night would drain the battery. We make our Roadtrek bed into a king and cocooned in our RV Superbags. As the night cooled, we were snug and warm. All was dark and quiet outside. Because we were totally alone out there, we slept with the curtains and shades up. I lay on my pillow and looked up. The clouds had given way to a perfectly clear night. Above, a gazillion stars dotted the night. I was about to tell Jennifer to look but her breathing told me she was asleep. When I told her in the morning about the stars, she told me I should have woken her up. Right. She doesn't know that she's very dangerous when awoken from a sound sleep. I do.
When I woke up at first light Sunday, a little before 7 A.M., the outside temperature was 31 degrees. Inside the Roadtrek, it was 45 degrees. I dashed to the battery switch on the side panel, turned it on, kicked the thermostat on and crawled back in bed. Twenty minutes later, the inside temp was near 60. I got up, started the generator and made a pot of coffee.
After breakfast, we hiked a mile or so with Tai, returned to the Roadtrek, put the chairs away and set off for home. We were back in the early afternoon.
All told, we were in the woods less than 24 hours. But our first experience with boondocking has convinced us this is a great way way to camp. Maybe we should call it Boontreking. Or Roaddocking. Roadtrek is coming out with a new model, the RS E-Trek, that has solar power, a fuel cell option and has been re-engineered to provide maximum power for remote camping. I'm hoping to et my hands on one to see how it fares out there in the wilds.
At any rate, we're planing to be able to do it again next weekend. I'm betting the color will be at 50 to 60% of peak by then. And who knows, maybe the strange lights may be back.
Use the comment box below to share the weirdest thing you've ever seen while on the road.
Here's some more photos.