Corn-ucopia: Camping, Mazes and more

We went camping this weekend, just Saturday night.  Pretty much our last hurrah as its really getting too cold to camp without proper equipment like sleeping bags.

Our “plan” was to stick close to home and we picked Ionia State Park, ostensibly because we already have the yearly pass so we just have to pay the site fees. And Chris agreed to stay at a campsite with hot showers (I knew that this “luxury” item would grow on him eventually).  So, we got there about mid-afternoon after driving around the area a little bit and picking up groceries for dinner.  And they were completely booked.  Some Harvest Fest apparently. As it turns out, the yearly pass is on Chris’s windshield so it didn’t much matter where we went now.

Fortunately, we had the very handy Michigan Gazetteer with its listing of private campgrounds to help us out.  We found two within a reasonable distance of the Park and picked the one on a river.

The Double RR Ranch

Located just south of Smyrna (which is just south of Belding which is a little south of Greenville), the Double RR has a 9 hole golf course, driving range, horseback riding, canoe rentals and RV or tent camping and more.

When we arrived, the manager let us go back to the camping area and pick out our site. It wasn’t much of a sales pitch but they had a number of sites along the Flat River and it was pretty quiet back there.  Scattered throughout the park but mostly in a section away from the river are a number of permanent RV dwellers. They had decks and lawn decor and even satellite TV and some pretty junky looking yards in some cases. Many of the empty sites were littered with trash and we even found a pair of okay-looking boots in the firepit at one site.  We picked a flat site with dirt covering, a clean fire ring and a nice view of the river then went back up and paid the fees, got firewood, etc.

After returning to our site, we set up the tent but decided to go look for something to do before making dinner. While still in Ionia, we had seen a sign for a corn maze, something neither of us has done before.  On our way back through the very very small town of Smyrna, we saw a different sign, for “Carlson’s Crypt” which promised both a corn maze and a haunted trail. And it was only 3 miles down the road. SOLD!

We might not have done the Haunted Trail at all but I could tell Chris was excited and they had a deal for that night.  $10 for both and we could do the corn maze twice, once in daylight once after dark, if desired.  It was the first weekend for the Trail so they still had some kinks to work out.  When we arrived, it was still too early for the Haunted Trail so we did the corn maze first.  As it happens, a group arrived just before us. A group of 6-8th grade girls.  Oh joy.  We entered the maze right before them but within 50 feet, they blazed past us in a squealing herd of excitement.  We took our time, I shot some pictures and without really trying, we found our way out within about 20 minutes.

The cryptkeepers have a little store set up with snacks and drinks but as they only had Pepsi or RC Cola, we decided to go back in to Belding and pick up Coca-Cola products and kill some time until it was dark enough for the Haunted Trail.  When we got back, the gaggle of teen girls was getting ready to enter the trail.  Fortunately, there was a nice little bonfire going and we could wait until they finished their trip.

I’m not going to say much about the Haunted Trail. It wasn’t the worst experience of my life but um, I, er, am uh kind of afraid of the dark and not really a big fan of haunted “stuff.” Last weekend, Chris picked up the Fright List or whatever they call the paper with all the haunted houses, trails, etc in the area.  I kept my fingers crossed that we wouldn’t just find ourselves at one of these places some random night.  The Haunted Trail was do-able and I confessed my fears to Chris so I think I both earned props for doing it and got a pass on future events.  I did however constantly think I heard people outside our tent later on.

Okay, so we got back to the site and started our campfire. Which took forever; I don’t think we ate until after 10pm.  While Chris indulged his pyromania, I chopped up a sweet potato, half a red onion and a red bell pepper.  We bought a spice rub at Wal-Mart so I used that on 1/2 a package of boneless chicken thighs.  It was dark out and I was trying not to get too close to the lantern with all the bugs.  So I trimmed a little fat off the thighs but I didn’t look real close.  Chris heated up a cast-iron dutch oven with a bit of vegetable oil inside then I added the veggies and we let those cook a few minutes, just to get some carmelization going.   Then I added the chicken thighs, we put the lid on and let it cook.

Meanwhile, I quartered a couple of Campari tomatoes amd mixed them with some fresh basil, corn and olive oil in a ziploc bag- easy salad!

Considering we had no plan and it was late and very dark, the food turned out well. But the chicken thighs had a lot of fat on them and it kind of annoyed me. I didn’t get to buy my usual, well-trimmed brand.  We shopped at the Ionia Super Wal-Mart and only after found a local farm market a’ la Horrocks.

I brought better sleeping clothes this time but it was still really freaking cold by 3am.  We snuggled closer together but neither of us slept wonderfully.  Our plans to maybe hang around the campsite in the morning were changed when we realized that we’d used all the firewood the night before. It was pretty though.

I think we’d come back to this place. It was a little off-putting to see the permanent residents that were not keeping up their homes but the sites were big and the river view was nice.  Anyhow, we packed up our gear and went looking for breakfast.  Oh, except first we had to follow the airport signs.  This is Chris’s thing- driving around looking at airstrips and airports.  The airport sign I followed led us in to Greenville.  I’ve been to Greenville, back in high school we had a track meet there.  Before Saturday, if you’d asked me where Greenville was, I would have guessed north, up by Saginaw or Midland.  Hey, we slept on the bus back then.

So, airport observed, we went through downtown Greenville on our quest for breakfast food.  It appears that Greenville once had a bustling downtown but there are now lots of empty storefronts.  We noticed a family restaurant in one block then a place called Huckleberry’s in the next.  The sign out front of Huckleberry’s indicated they had a breakfast buffet so that is where we went.

Huckleberry’s is owned by a guy named Huckleberry who happens to be running for State Senator of the area we were in.  I wish Huck well on his political endeavors but if it doesn’t work out, he might want to pay a little closer attention to the restaurant.  Chris opted for the buffet and I decided to have French Toast. The Danish potatoes caught my eye but they use American cheese, not a favorite.  Besides, this was not just any French Toast- Caramel Pecan French Toast.  And a side of bacon.  The first bite of toast, I got a little worried. It was dry, very very dry, even with syrup.  But after that it got better.  I never did find Caramel though.  Chris’s initial experience with the buffet wasn’t much better: He found eggshell in the eggs.

The place proclaims itself smoke-free and has some Clean Air sticker on the front door. Excellent- except only 1/2 is smoke free and its just a partial wall that separates the two sides.  At 11 AM on a Sunday, no one was in the smoking side which definitely felt more bar-like so we couldn’t determine if the wall was really all that effective.

When we left, we both decided we probably wouldn’t go back.    And really, when would we be in Greenville again anyhow?  Upon returning home, I looked the town up.  I was curious to know the story behind this place as they were obviously in a real economic downturn. Like all of Michigan but this seemed more pronounced.  In 2006, Electrolux moved their refrigerator factory from Greenville to Mexico.

Greenville was also the home of the first Meijer store (they have sign for this) and during WWII, they built combat glider planes at the Gibson Refrigerator Plant (later, Electrolux and now for rent).  There is a museum there, the Fighting Falcon Museum, that chronicles the history of this famous aircraft.  Now we might have to go back.  The museum has almost finished restoraton of one of these engine-less planes. Even I think it would be cool to see a glider built large enough to carry a jeep!

After breakfast, we drove back to Lansing via back roads and finally saw some real color change.  No pictures though- I was the driver.

O Canada!

Continuing the story of our vacation, part II:

After leaving Cheboygan behind, we pressed on North. US23 comes in to Mackinaw City from the East, a route I have not taken in years, if ever. Chris has only been here once, during a long ago family trip in the RV. As we approached town, he noticed a sign for a Wild West show and wondered if it was the same one he’d seen as a kid. Not 2 miles down the road, we passed the RV park where they had stayed- same sign after 20 years, he recognized it instantly.

Can’t say the same for the rest of Mackinaw City. Despite being a native to this state and having visited here more times than I can count, even I was shocked by the amount of development in the downtown area. On my last work-related UP trip, I noticed a Bass Pro Shop had opened up so we decided to venture in the land of retail and tourist traps. I needed, desperately, a hat. I wanted a fishing-style hat with a brim and a drawstring for keeping it on my head. Really, I wanted a Tilley hat but they were so pricey I had decided to look from something from Columbia or the like. I had found a lot of “perfect” hats on the websites for sporting goods stores (including Dicks, MC Sports, etc) but not one of these stores had the hats IN the store. I have an embarrassingly large head for someone of my height (no comments please, family members!) so I knew I would have trouble ordering on-line.

We parked and headed towards the place we’d last seen the sign for the pro shop. Our path led in to a large outdoor mall filled with knick-knack shops, Mackinaw/Michigan branded clothing boutiques, fudge stores and even a small amphitheatre for live music performances. Eventually, we figured out that the pro shop was all the way to the back. There we found a salesperson who said they don’t really carry fishing hats anymore since everyone seems to favor the ball cap style. She did suggest we try Top Hats, another store in the mall. So we did. And they had Tilley hats and I bowed to the inevitable and just bought one- at $69 (including tax). On the plus side, the hat is guaranteed for life and even insured against loss for 2 years (if I lose it, I can buy a replacement for 1/2 price). I walked out wearing it, sized to my big ole’ 24 inch skull (circumference). During the course of our trip, it got daily use but since we had such lovely weather (post Alpena), I never did have a chance to test out its water resistance.

Following a short detour in to Kilwins for fudge (all Chris) and the discovery of a Canada “store” offering free info and maps (we loaded up), we got back on the road and crossed the Mighty Mac a few minutes later.

Mackinac Bridge at night
Mackinac Bridge at night

Our original plan was to stay overnight in Sault Ste Marie and cross in to Canada in the morning, partly because I’ve never seen the Soo Locks and partly because we wanted to double check the rules about importing alcohol and food in to Canada. However, after the flat tire and rained out air show, we decided it would better to press on. Our border check was absurdly easy- the Canadian agent never even looked at our IDs! Chris was disappointed. The agent was hot and he was hoping for a strip search, I think.
We decided to drive to Thessalon, Ontario, about 1 hour 20 minutes down the Trans-Canada Highway. Thessalon is where my great-grandparents were married and I hoped to find the church or at least take a few pics. Despite website claims of “a wide variety of accommodations” we arrived at 10:30 pm and could only find ONE motel with a posted rate of $160 per night (before taxes!). The next town on my “list” was Blind River, approximately 40 more minutes at the posted speed limits of 45-50 mph. We drove on, noting a Bavarian Inn (no vacancy) and a small motel with cottages place before coming to Blind River. Knowing this was a larger town, I was sure we’d find something. And we did find a large RV park and two apparently closed for the night or closed forever motels. After a quick survey of the map, we turned back to the motel we’d noticed in Iron Bridge, about 20 minutes back up the road. At this point its midnight and we are exhausted. The sign in the motel office said Open but the only soul in the place was a sleepy cat. I rang the bell a few times and the owner with his very heavy Canadian accent finally appeared, along with another kitty. By the grace of something, he had one spot left. It was a twin size bed but we just wanted to sleep. I have no idea the normal rate but he offered us the room for $20, cash and he even took American. We said yes and then discovered our room was actually a small cottage with a small kitchenette. In the morning, we found that our little cottage door opened on to a lovely view of the Mississagi River.

$20!
$20!

 

Too bad we didn’t have more time to enjoy it. But it was time to hit the road again, pressing on towards Killarney.

First order of business was breakfast. We drove a little ways and came in to the town of Spanish, so named because it sits at the mouth of the Spanish River.  The city’s website tells a store of a beautiful Spanish woman taken by Indians during a raid; a woman who later married an Indian chief and I guess her reward was the right to name the area (circa 1750)

We drove along the main highway and noted the various places serving breakfast then decided to stop at Dixie Lee’s because Tim Horton’s was really crowded.  First I thought Dixie Lee was a local place but it turns out its part of a chain.  However, this place served breakfast items seemingly separate from the main menu of fried chicken and such.  I ordered a BLT bagel with home fries while Chris had an omelet and toast (plus home fries).  And he ordered a Coke- in a can. His first taste of Canadian Coca Cola.  I knew that Canadian sodas were different and I generally remembered that they tend to have less carbonation than the American versions.  In the case of Coca-Cola, the Canadian formula also uses real sugar in combination with HFCS. Breakfast was good and filling but we still had some driving to do- back on the road.  We did a quick tour of Spanish and found this old wreck of a building down by the marina (the marina had a nice fancy new building with gym and laundry). 

St. Joseph School for Girls
St. Joseph School for Girls

The website tells me this was a residential school for “Native” Girls.  There was a boy’s school nearby but its been torn down. Notice the pretty flowers?  Someone lives in a small home right in front of the building.


One of our original ideas was to camp on Manitoulin Island.  Based on time, we decided to concentrate our stay in Killarney but we did take a quick dash down the road towards Manitoulin Island, turning around  in Little Current, the gateway to the main Island.  We stopped periodically, took a few pictures. climbed some rocks and checked out a waterfall then Chris scammed his way in to a free ice cream cone.

Whitefish Falls
Whitefish Falls

 

 
The Mountains of Manitoulin- Granite and Quartzite
The Mountains of Manitoulin- Granite and Quartzite

 

 

Wooden Swing Bridge to Little Current
Wooden Swing Bridge to Little Current

 

Finally, we made it to Killarney Provincial Park and got ourselves a campsite.  We bought firewood and set up camp.  Before leaving Michigan, we had chopped up some meat and tossed it in Mojito sauce to marinate.  I cut up some veggies and cooked that with some instant mashed potatoes for dinner.

 

A roadside park just before entering Killarney Provincial Park Lands
A roadside park just before entering Killarney Provincial Park Lands

It was while making dinner and setting up camp that we welcomed our new “friend.”  Although the park warns of bears, especially in the backcountry, we weren’t expecting any bold visitors to our site in the heart of the car camping areas.  I heard a noise, I turned toward the car and I see these 2 little glowing eyes looking at me.  Sitting atop the roof, with his head insidethe car (open side door) was one of the fattest racoons I’ve ever seen.  I made some noise and he jumped off the other side of the car but I could still hear him in the brush.  We closed up the car and were much more careful.  Later that night, we heard him sniffing around but we’d locked up anything remotely food-like.  He returned to visit later.

 

To be continued in Part III where we really get up close and personal with the racoon, go on two boat rides and eat “the best Eggs Benedict ever” (Chris’s statement).


Today, I discovered that the motel, McCoy’s has a website. They also proudly proclaimed the availabilty of wi-fi in their cottages.

Mexico Newaygo

Chris and I went camping this weekend, at Newaygo State Park along the Muskegon River.  The park is small, about 100 sites and rustic.  We made our reservation on-line which is a cool feature as you can see the site map and pick a specific location.  What is not so cool is that the map isn’t completely accurate and they charge $8 for a reservation fee.  We picked a site far from the playground and the bathroom, we thought.  As it turns out the pit (oh,  vault is the fancy name for that now) toilet was directly across from our site.  They must pump then on Thursday or Friday because it wasn’t too bad when we arrived but was pretty stinky by Saturday night.  Before we left on Sunday, we drove around the camping area to note the better sites, for next time.

This being a camping trip, of course we had foods cooked over the campfire.  On Friday morning, Chris picked up some turkey tenderloin and put it in a caribbean jerk marinade so we made kabobs for Friday night.  They were good but this turkey was really hard to cook.  Our fire got hot enough to turn the grate red hot but these things were still raw in the middle after 20 minutes!  Saturday night we had sausages plus potato salad picked up at a local grocery store.

S’mores were dessert both Friday and Saturday night.  I found the perfect stick for marshmallow toasting and I’m quite upset that I forgot to bring it with us!  Hopefully the next person to stay at site #6 will find a good use for it.

During the day on Saturday, we explored the area including the towns of Newaygo and Fremont. Or rather we tried to go to Fremont. They are supposed to have a nice Farmer’s Market there and I thought we could get provisions for Saturday night dinner.  Between road construction and the National Baby Food Festival we couldn’t get anywhere near downtown.  Fremont is the home of Gerber Baby Food and they sponser an incredibly large parade during the festival. A parade which happened to be starting at exactly the time we arrived in town.  That was kind of a frustrating trip.

We found a few things to covet at an Sports Outfitter store in Newaygo- kayaks, a cool Tilley hat for me some more camping equipment- but left without spending any money.  Later, we did pick up one of these:

Photobucket

I can’t wait to use it next time- just like Girl Scout days!

Sunday morning, out of firewood and not much to eat for breakfast anyway, we went in to the “town” of Croton and dined at Rio Cafe. We drove past this place earlier in the weekend and couldn’t help but notice the large “BREAKFAST 8 AM- 11 AM” sign. On the way there on Sunday, we learned that the American Legion also has a breakfast buffet on the weekends but I pushed Chris to at least check this place out first.

Okay, they serve Pepsi products so that was a strike against them. The cafe is small, maybe 6-7 booths plus two pub tables. From the sounds of it, they do a pretty good take-out service though. And during lunch/dinner, they also operate an ice cream store serving Hudsonville Ice Cream, like pretty much every ice cream stand in the area.  Since it was breakfast time, we skipped the ice cream.  The restaurant has a selection of traditional breakfast items including eggs, toast, pancakes and so forth.  They also have a few breakfast burritos and specials.  Sunday’s specials including pecan pancakes and a skillet dish that Chris chose. It was potatoes, eggs, peppers and mushrooms topped with cheese and served on a fajita platter.  He tells me (today) that it wasn’t particularly exciting.  I had a breakfast burrito with bacon, eggs and cheese.  It was huge and cheap- our total bill was $13 and that included a glass of fresh oj.  I would have liked the bacon a little crispier but I still managed to eat half the burrito. It cam with homefries and those I had to push away because I would have eaten every last one of them and then been overly stuffed later.  Crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, these were ideal homefries.

Deets:

Web: None
Address: 7641 S. Croton Hardy Drive, Newaygo, MI (actually in Croton); 231-652-5977

Hours: Sun-Thu: 8AM-8PM; Fri-Sat: 8AM-10PM

No credit cards; non-smoking


No food photos but here is a shot of the Muskegon River from atop the Hardy Dam:

S’mores and Blue #1

We went camping this weekend- kind of a last minute trip. Much like summer means fresh meaty tomatoes- camping means campfire which means S’mores.

Chris and I picked up a box of graham crackers, packages of marshmallows and Hershey’s chocolate bars. We also found some higher quality chocolate but I couldn’t bring myself to not use the ubiquitous Hershey bar!

It ended up raining so we didn’t really get to make traditional S’mores with toasted marshmallows but we made do. Lying in the tent, munching on our little sandwiches of yum, I looked at the bag of marshmallows. The ingredient list in particular.

Now, I know that marshmallows are hardly the highest form of quality good food. I know they are mostly made of sugars and gelatin. But, I was surprised to see artificial coloring- Food dye Blue No. 1.

Marshmallows are white! Why do they need artificial color- to make them more white?!?

There is a growing movement in this country to ban many of today’s commercial food dyes. Most are purely synthetic and made from some scary stuff. Blue No. 1 is made of coal tar. Coal tar is about what you’d expect: a very thick by-product of turning coal to coal gas or coke. According to wikipedia, it smells like napthalene. Napthalene- the primary ingredient in mothballs. (Coal tar is also used in certain anti-dandruff shampoos and in the making of aceteminophen (Tylenol)).

Of the artificial food colorings currently in use in the United States, Blue #1 has a better reputation than some of the Yellow and Reds.  Blue #1 is not linked to behavoioral problems in children however it has caused cancer in lab rats- no doubt in extremely large amounts.  There is a large group of parents who believe that excessive consumption of artificial food colorants and certain preservatives causes hyperactivity in children.  And there are some studies, mostly from England, that seem to support such a finding.   Time Magazine recently published an article about one such consumer advocacy group’s efforts to ban food coloring in the US.

While searching for more information about synthetic food colorings, I found an interesting piece from the FDA. Its essentially propaganda for the wonders of fake-colored food.  I quote here:

The color of food is an integral part of our culture and enjoyment of life. Who would deny the mouth-watering appeal of a deep-pink strawberry ice on a hot summer day or a golden Thanksgiving turkey garnished with fresh green parsley?

Even early civilizations such as the Romans recognized that people “eat with their eyes” as well as their palates. Saffron and other spices were often used to provide a rich yellow color to various foods. Butter has been colored yellow as far back as the 1300’s.

Why Are Color Additives Used In Foods?

Color is an important property of foods that adds to our enjoyment of eating. Nature teaches is early to expect certain colors in certain foods, and our future acceptance of foods is highly dependent on meeting these expectations.

The primary reasons of adding colors to foods include:

  • To offset color loss due to exposure to light, air, extremes of temperature, moisture and storage conditions. 
  • To correct natural variations in color. Off-colored foods are often incorrectly associated with inferior quality. For example, some tree-ripened oranges are often sprayed with Citrus Red No.2 to correct the natural orangy-brown or mottled green color of their peels (Masking inferior quality, however, is an unacceptable use of colors.) 
  • To enhance colors that occur naturally but at levels weaker than those usually associated with a given food. 
  • To provide a colorful identity to foods that would otherwise be virtually colorless. Red colors provide a pleasant identity to strawberry ice while lime sherbet is known by its bright green color. 
  • To provide a colorful appearance to certain “fun foods.” Many candies and holiday treats are colored to create a festive appearance. 
  • To protect flavors and vitamins that may be affected by sunlight during storage. 
  • To provide an appealing variety of wholesome and nutritious foods that meet consumers’ demands.

Now, they seem to be saying that consumers are more likely to buy something that is brightly colored.  Sigh.

Yeah, I can see that.

But where did it start? Which came first- the desire for more color or the marketing campaigns that forcefully you an orange should be crayon-orange and anything less is inferior product?   I had no idea that oranges were sometimes sprayed to look more orange-like.    But I know I’ve looked at oranges in the store and turned up my nose at the ones with more muted yellow-orange skin. 


Bottom line is, I’m not going to stop eating marshmallows. I rarely eat them now. I’m not going to eliminate all artificial food coloring from everything I eat. Its not practical at this point and I’ve got bigger fish to fry- namely avoiding High Fructose Corn Syrup and tomatoes, from either Florida or Mexico. Can’t help but notice, however, that if I avoid eating a lot of processed foods with HFCS, I’m reducing my intake of food coloring by default.