As someone who spends a lot of time in the woods, camping in the backcountry has become a second-nature adventure I look forward to nearly every weekend. And when it comes to finding a good campsite, I tend to adopt one of Barney Stinson’s mantras: “New is always better.” There are mainstays, of course, but as a person whose exploratory needs border on an addictive level, I can’t help but opt for the mysterious place I haven’t been time and again. The gamble has led me to some truly amazing bivouacs—canyons on the US-Mexico border, ocean beaches where wild horses roam free, even an Appalachian Trail shelter overlooking New York City.
While insider knowledge does lend help to some truly amazing places, even the most avid explorer finds a dud now and then. And what I’ve come to realize after enduring a handful of them is that the greatest stories usually come in the wake of the unplanned. The most memorable nights are the ones that failed expectation miserably, and there’s something to be said for that. So take off the Instagram-tinted glasses. Here are five campsites that were pretty damn bad:
- Grand River State Game Area—Ionia, MI
Convincing people that winter camping can be fun is never easy, and the Grand River SGA experience did not help this cause. The plan was to camp along the banks of the Grand River and then kayak into Ionia the next day.
But in early December, the weather was cold, clammy, and slushy. The two-track led back into the woods for miles, never within sight of the river. Bryan’s Ford roared through ponds and spun through muck; twice we had to hitch the tow-strap to fallen trees in order to continue.
I was hoping for a clearing and a boat launch at the end of the road, but instead the track petered out into a phragmites-choked bog a mile from the river. Old mattresses and soup cans littered the ground, which gave off an acrid, dank smell. There was a reason nobody came back here anymore. It got down to eight degrees that night.
- Thunder Bay River—Hillman, MI
Certain places are always crowded on Memorial Day, so we decided to move our canoe-camping excursion to a river that nobody ever paddled: the Upper Thunder Bay. The water was murky and the river was choked with fallen trees, requiring strenuous portages each time. With daylight waning and no suitable campsite in view, we hit a snag and flipped Old Red. After the usual frantic swimming after backpacks and coolers, we agreed to beach it right there and spend the night. It was too dark to see that the spiny ground we’d set our tent on was a tick haven of poison ivy and snakegrass, so we paid a heavy price for it a few days later.
- Rat Island—Lake Erie, MI
Camp on an island, he said. It’ll be fun, he said. Unfortunately, this sentiment is muttered coldly in my direction fairly often. And we actually did have a lot of fun on Rat Island. It was just… kind of a dump.
Enduring a steady belch of Detroit River sediments, shallow Lake Erie has been struggling ecologically for decades. Paddling from the mainland was difficult, as our kayaks were constantly getting mired in the black substance that encircled the island—some mixture of swamp gas, goose shit, and dredged material. When we finally found a place to take out, we scouted our five-acre island. Because of its direct intersection with the Detroit River current, the island was laden with a steady stream of Motor City garbage and Ford plant tires. They didn’t call it Rat Island for nothing.
- Forked Lake—Cassopolis, MI
There was a Third Eye Blind concert in Indianapolis a few years back, and some friends and I thought it’d be fun to camp somewhere on the way down. It was getting dark, and Forked Lake looked interesting on the map, with its amoeba-shape and numerous access points. Located in the Crane Pond State Game Area, Forked Lake was even smaller than the public land’s namesake pond, surrounded by swampland and thick underbrush. The best place we could find to set up a tent was a sloped boat launch turnaround. If God had been designing a mosquito factory, He was at the top of His game molding Forked Lake.
- Dick’s Dome—Paris, VA
Yes, I do venture outside my comfort Mitten every now and then. It’s just that when I do, a little more research and less blasé attitude goes into finding sites. That being said, Dick’s Dome was one of the worst—and most memorable—nights I’ve ever had. The whole Appalachian Trail trip had been a climatic nightmare. Locals assured us that March in Virginia was gorgeous hiking weather, but a freak weeklong winter storm had us hiking in snowdrifts the entire seventy miles. But we were among friends, our track record for fire-starting was impeccable, and spirits were generally high.
In the middle of a freezing rain, we reached Dick’s Dome, a geodesic dome built to sleep four persons. There were eighteen people there. After scraping bark off the undersides of logs for the better part of an hour, we decided a fire was futile and resigned ourselves to squatting in a circle for the remainder of the night.
But a dome is an ergonomically terrible design for sleeping. The floor was the size of a large table, but halfway up the wall it bulged out another few feet before coming back to a center that you couldn’t quite stand up in. Not to mention half the wall was missing for a comically large doorway. We all slept sitting up in our sleeping bags in a circle facing each other. I was fortunate to have the back wall; Zac was basically curled up in the entryway before getting nudged out into the elements.
Dinner was a granola bar and a shot of Jack Daniels. Ok, a few shots.