I was 11 when I learned that a Northern Michigan crawfish doesn’t taste like a Louisiana crawfish.
This discovery came at Maple Bay, a campground on Burt Lake — an inland lake in northern Lower Michigan known for its sunsets and having the best parties, whether by land or sea.
After a handful of pinched toes, my stepdad and his friends decided to use the surplus of crawfish in the swimming area at the campground to their advantage, proposing a crawfish boil, Northern Michigan style. They collected all the cooking tongs between their three campers and gave them to us — a festoon of dirty, barefoot and mildly bored children — along with a five-gallon bucket. We set upon Burt Lake with all the vigor and vigilance of a battalion headed to war, meat tongs in hand.
Our mission was simple: fill this old plastic bucket dotted from paint projects past with as many crawfish as we could catch. We’d all caught crawfish before — along with not getting freaked out by seaweed touching your feet, this was an inherent skill associated with growing up in a place where the lakes were mucky and the warm water creatures plentiful.
We caught a few crawfish, maybe one or two each, within the first half an hour. We knew we needed to increase our productivity, lest our dads not have anything to cook us for dinner. We got serious, gathering into groups of two to augment our efficiency. One would corner the unassuming crustacean from the front, and just as it would attempt to escape backwards, the other would be waiting with the tongs. Working off the excitement of our improved yield, we began ignoring the pinched fingers and harsh criticism from our comrades; tongs were stolen by those presumed to be more proficient in the tonging role, sharp words were exchanged over proper technique, friendships were questioned; but we forged on, uniting over the common goal of filling the plastic bucket on the beach.
Ultimately, we got enough crawfish to supplement what our dads had already planned for dinner — steaks, thank God — so they were more of a fun aside for our parents than the main course. Still, we were practically drunk with pride over our loot.
This is my Northern Michigan. Many people see Northern Michigan as white sand beaches and gaslight districts, ice cream and sunsets over cold, clear lakes, uninterrupted by trees and powerlines. My Northern Michigan included all of that stuff in limited quantities, don’t get me wrong. But my Northern Michigan also involved catching crawfish with meat tongs and throwing them in a big bucket to be boiled by a bunch of middle-aged guys under the false assumption that they’d taste good. It involved playing with old bath toys in the drainage ditch next to my house. It involved camping near muddied ponds filled with bluegill and bass, their perimeters lined with tall weeds and lily pads, the lake bottom so soft you’d sink six inches with each step towards the deep end. My vacations as a kid largely consisted of heading to the campground down the street, which was completely familiar and yet uncontrollably exciting. My friends and I would practically be foaming at the mouth on the Friday afternoons that we all got to pack into the truck to drive a couple miles down the road for the weekend. We’d swim in the seaweed and catch minnows before gorging on Paula-Dean-style pasta salad (which is to say, lots of dressing and more cheese and pepperoni chunks than is healthy or appropriate) and running around in a freedom-induced haze.
I recall weekends spent spraying my friends with super soakers filled with mud puddle water — in my formative years, weekends evolved to include finding things to jump off into the bodies of water near my home, and finding out just where to land to be cushioned by a bed of seaweed below.
I’ve thought a lot about Michigan lately, about what it means to me and all that other stuff that comes to mind when you miss a place. Living in a high desert surrounded by sagebrush and rattlesnakes may be a contributing factor to this recent infatuation, but in lieu of feeling bad for myself for having nowhere to go for a swim, I’ve chosen to feel gratitude over the place that raised me to be the freshwater weirdo that I am.
After all, nights on the rivers of home feel so out of reach now, out here where mountains take the place of lakes in terms of big, almost incomprehensible things that take your breath away. I miss hex hatches and late-night fishing missions alive only with moonlight and crickets and the howls of coyotes; I’ll forever yearn for the way firelight tunnels up through the jack pines and spruce trees at trout camp, illuminating the pocket of stars above.
Anyways, I’m getting a bit theatrical here. But for those that are “back home,” I hope you can go spend a night fishing, or around a fire on the edge of a weedy lake or a blue-ribbon trout stream. I hope you can enjoy a Two Hearted IPA there. I hope you swim in the lakes, play Frisbee in them, catch minnows or crawfish in them, whether on their white-sand beaches or in all their glorious muck. I’d recommend not eating the crawfish, though.