Well, how can I fully explain last week? Last Thursday, I took my last final exam ever – unless, of course, someone wants to pay for a graduate degree program or PhD. Frankly, it is amazing. I attended Michigan State from 1999-2004 – and then Delta College and Saginaw Valley State University to obtain my teaching certificate (2014-2016). When I started my teaching career, I almost immediately decided that I wanted to add an English endorsement to my social studies and Spanish secondary endorsements. Back to school I went from 2019, class by class and in the middle of a pandemic, until last week. I am done. Now that my grade is finalized, I will finally be able to add the English endorsement (secondary) to my teaching certificate. In fact, I already applied to have it added.
So, what’s next? Well, after this summer, I am not entirely sure. We will see where things take me come fall. I have several ideas. For now, I am in the midst of getting the canoe livery ready for the summer. Starting May 15th, I will be working there full-time once again. I’ve actually been taking reservations at home all winter. People are eager to get out on the river! As I say so many times, we have the best customers. I love thinking about how many memories have been made at our campgrounds and on the RIfle River over the decades.
RIght now, I couldn’t be in a better place. I wrapped up so many loose ends over the last academic year and did exactly what I set out to do. I have so many great options in front of me. I finally feel ready to move on. Stay tuned!
Sometimes I question whether or not Dad realizes what an example he set for his children – or at least me, as I can’t speak for my brother or sister. He, along with my mom, spent the last nearly 46 years owning and operating Russell Canoe Livery and Campgrounds, Inc. and are still actively involved in the business. They purchased the canoe livery from my paternal grandmother, Judy Reid, in June 1977, a few months prior to their wedding. Growing up in and with the business, I saw firsthand what my parents and grandparents did to grow the business, including the sacrifices they made.
As a child, whenever anyone asked what my dad did for a living, my response of “he owns a campground and canoe livery” fascinated many. As the canoe livery developed, Dad focused on creating a business that not only worked around our family life – it complimented my mom’s teaching career and our school schedules well. It also allowed him to pursue his hobbies of hunting and fishing in a way impossible for most people.
I admit it: I know more about hunting and fishing than any non-hunter, non-fisherwoman I know. All thanks to Dad. I grew up feeding Beagle hunting dogs used for rabbit hunting; with various mounts in our basement; and learning what a Pope and Young record meant, once my dad killed a Canadian black bear with a bow and arrow. That bear now infamously resides in our main office/store in Omer, a legend in his own right.
As a young child, when I asked Dad why he hunted deer, he took the time to give me the full, true explanation. At six years old, he explained how deer hunting helps control the deer population in Michigan. If they weren’t hunted, there would be many more car/deer accidents, and they could become over-populated, causing starvation and disease. I have never forgotten that lesson. Even though I am no hunter myself, I have no issue with it – as long as rules are followed and as much of the animal is used as possible.
What I admire most about my dad is how he was able to create a life for himself in which he prioritized what he wanted out of life – and it wasn’t money – it was about lifestyle. Even though he didn’t directly use his degree in wildlife biology in his career – he didn’t become a conservation officer – that knowledge allowed him to more fully understand what was needed to become a better hunter and fisherman. Dad’s passion for his hobbies, even today in his 70s, still inspires me.
What I’ve long realized is that I am just as passionate about reading and writing. He may not see it or recognize the correlation, but I do. It is the reason why I earned my writing certificate from Delta College, took additional humanities courses when possible, joined Mid Michigan Writers, attended several writing workshops, and so much more. Everyone should be so lucky. I am never bored. I am eternally grateful that my dad was able to find a way to make it all work and set an example for me to follow. Per usual, I’m just doing things the “hard” way. I will get there … eventually.
Recently, I realized that I mention my hometown extensively without providing many details. Unfortunately, many readers – even seasoned Michiganders – might have no idea where Omer, Michigan is. It is just under an hour north of Bay City. If you take the 188 Standish exit off of I-75, you will likely end up on US 23 north in Standish. Omer is the next small town, approximately 7 miles north on US 23. A bridge over the Rifle River, a caution light, and a set of railroad tracks are all landmarks to let you know that you have traveled through the city.
Being from Omer, Michigan isn’t for the faint of heart. For decades, the city of Omer has held the distinction of being Michigan’s smallest city, boasting a population just shy of 300 souls. Living in a small town does not come without its hazards. Nothing remains private for long. Both of my parents grew up in the area as well, with both of their families having ties to the area going back generations. Growing up attending Standish-Sterling Community Schools, not only was I a teacher’s kid as my mom spent most of her teaching career at Standish Elementary, our family business, Russell Canoe Livery, meant that my family was well-known in both Omer and Standish. In fact, Omer has no school, aside from a Head Start program aimed at preschoolers. When Omer’s school burned down in the early days of the 20th century, it was never rebuilt.
Sadly, despite its location in the heart of Arenac County and its one-time status as the county seat, little remains of a once thriving city. Today, the Arenac Country Historical Society works to preserve the Old Courthouse, the lone remaining structure to tell Omer’s cautionary tale. During the early part of the 20th century, roughly 1905-1918, Omer experienced a series of natural disasters (namely fires, floods, and tornadoes) that nearly destroyed the city. Throughout the 80s and 90s, the local diner, first known as Cody’s and later Ziggy’s (now a Dollar General), had disposable placemats outlining Omer’s history, including the natural disasters.
Originally named Rifle River Mills, Omer’s identity has always depended on the Rifle River. In the late 19th century, lumber from dense northern Michigan forests traveled rivers such as the Rifle to the sawmills in the south, namely in Bay City and Saginaw. In fact, our main location in Omer, our smaller campground, is the remains of an old mill pond. In fact, it becomes easy to imagine the pond if you look at the current topography of the campground. Today, the Rifle River is used exclusively for recreational purposes – fishing, canoeing, kayaking, rafting, tubing, and more. One day last summer, I saw two young girls in bathing suits walking down Carrington St. carrying their canoe. It is forever frozen in my mind as the most “Omer” thing I’ve ever seen in my life.
Today, Omer is home to three campgrounds, two of which are also canoe liveries, Russell Canoe Livery and Campgrounds, Inc., being the largest. In addition, Omer is home to Meihls Mechanical, a self-storage business that is continually growing, Dollar General, the Sunrise Side Senior Center, a library attached to city hall, a post office, a small park with basketball hoops and playground, the Old Courthouse, and not much else. While not exactly thriving, the city itself looks better than it has in decades, closed Rob’s Auto and Greg’s Market aside.
Today, Omer is relatively well known for two things: the local sucker run and witchy wolves. The sucker run deserves it own post. As it will be starting soon, stay tuned. My piece on the witchy wolf legend, dating back to right after the US Civil War, can be found here. Omer will never be perfect, but it will always home.
These last few weeks have been eventful, and frankly, fun. While my parents were in Ireland, I house sat for them. First, I love my parents’ house. It is comfortable and, next to my own house, is a space where I can just be myself. Housesitting for my parents during the early part of the fall means checking our Crystal Creek Campground as well. Crystal Creek is adjacent to my parents’ house. In fact, the house – my home from ages 3 to 18 – sits behind our store. It is hard to separate the two.
There is something about the empty campground, with the promise of fall in the air, that gets me every time. It is gorgeous and my favorite time of year. I can’t help but think of all the time I spent playing in the campground as a child after the campers left for the season. The land itself is forever a part of me.
During the great shutdown of 2020, I lived with my parents. It didn’t make sense for me to live alone at a time when no one knew how long it would last. Those days were largely a challenge for a variety of reasons, but the campground helped. Even though we had no idea when would be able to open up for Summer 2020, my parents and I spent time getting the campground ready. It was something tangible we could do. Mom and I picked up sticks and garbage daily while my dad and brother took care of most of the brush. It gave me a new appreciation for the land and the river, especially after we had the 500 year flood in May 2020 and rebuilt to open in mid-June.
But, home is so much more than just my parents’ or my home. Last weekend, I had the opportunity to return to Michigan State’s unrivaled campus – the home of some of my best memories. My brother, sister, sister-in-law, and I made sure my nephews and niece had a great first experience at Spartan Stadium. While wonderful in many ways, unfortunately my niblings didn’t get to see the Spartans win. Still, just being on campus brought back so many memories – the kind of memories that can only be relived when you’re home.
As I have said before, I have a love/hate relationship with Labor Day. I am always happy to put the canoe livery to rest until next year, and yet, summer always seems to go by way too quickly. I only made it out on the river once this summer (our annual company trip) … so far. While there is a part of me that wishes we always had summer weather here in Michigan, I know better. As a lifelong Michigander, I definitely need the change of seasons. Both times I lived in Texas, I missed it. In my soul. It never felt natural to hang out on patios in December, needing only light jackets. Where was the crisp fall weather, the smell of burning leaves, visits to apply orchards? It just didn’t seem right.
I came home today to see all of the canoe livery buses and mini buses parked in my backyard, safe from any flooding. The store is condensed and ready for us to close in a month or so. All of the picnic tables are stacked, put away until spring arrives yet again. Just a few weeks ago, we were packed at both locations and had several hundred people go down the river on Saturday morning. Now, we have the place all to ourselves once again. It always catches me by surprise how quickly we go from beyond busy to ready to close up for the year.
I can’t imagine the canoe livery not being a part of my life. I thought about it earlier this summer, and I realized that it truly was my first home. Until I was three years old, my parents, my sister Erica, and I lived in a mobile home at our main location in Omer. It was located where our large pole barn is now. I’ve literally watched my parents build their business my entire life. My brother and sister saw much of it as well; however, I am just enough older to have witnessed a bit more than either one of them. It is interesting, and frankly, I’m not sure it could have been done today – at least not in the same way. I remember my dad making annual spring trips to Minnesota to purchase more canoes, the original three buses purchased after my parents married in 1977 (they made the best forts when not in use!), and the tiny walkup store we had prior to our current store in Omer.
So many of my childhood memories are tied up with the canoe livery. One of my first memories is of playing the card game war with Grandma Reid in the old store. Another early memory is of Grandma and Mom playing two-handed Euchre, snacking on MadeRite cheese popcorn, waiting for people to come off the river. I would spend hours playing in the river and by the dock, not getting out of the water until I was completely waterlogged, trying to ignore my goosebumps. I distinctly remember being excited when the calendar changed to March and April – and yet being SO disappointed that it wasn’t nearly warm enough to go swimming in the river. I can’t think of a better way to grow up.
I love the fact my niece and nephew are growing up right near the canoe livery. They visit me at the store several times a week. I can’t begin to describe the nostalgia I feel watching them play. They are fish, and there are many times I have had to warm them up after they have spent a little too much time in the river. I have to remind them to put on shoes in the store constantly – reliving the time I found a bee with my bare foot at age 6. One day this past summer, my niece decided that she wanted to take a shower in the showerhouse at the campground, nevermind that she could take a shower in her home (a two minute walk at most). What cracked me up most is the fact that I remember doing the exact same thing at her age. It was a production. The forts, the pooling of money to purchase items in the store, leaving bikes in all the wrong places – sigh. So fun. I’m glad I’m in a position to spoil them a little bit. I hope that they enjoy every minute.
It is no secret that fall is my favorite season. The hustle and craziness that is the canoe livery during the summer comes to a swift end once school starts. There is nothing quite like it. It truly is the most wonderful time of the year. No matter what I am doing, there are always new routines come September. While I will eventually be returning to the classroom as a substitute teacher (within the next few weeks), I am taking this year to tie up several loose ends, namely my teacher certification in English (secondary). I have two classes yet to complete – the first of which started on Tuesday. I admit it: I LOVE being a student, even if taking classes at the undergrad level makes me feel old. It is sobering to realize that I am old enough to be my classmates’ mother. Although, as my mom pointed out, I would have been a young mother. As for my plans, there are also some surprises in store, so stay tuned!
This year, I want to take the time to put things in place for the canoe livery next summer. I’m in the perfect spot to do so. I have the knowledge, time, and interest. I just hope that it all pays off. Frankly, I am proud of what I have accomplished in the ten years I’ve been back at the canoe livery. I’ve created Facebook pages for both of our locations, which are thriving; redid our website, and then outsourced it once I realized my limitations; and implemented Canoebook. We’ve grown, evolved, and faced huge, unforeseen challenges as a family. I’ve also worked on our supply chain. I will always look at things from a supply chain perspective (much more on that later). Hopefully, after some tweaks, Canoebook will be even better. Yet another project to complete before May. Let’s face it: I am the IT department of Russell Canoe Livery (with a little help, of course). Thankfully, I enjoy it.
As I thought about what I wanted to write today, as I reread some of my previous blogposts, I kept coming back to the same themes: 1. Writing about the writing process, 2. My love of new beginnings, and 3. Carpe Diem (seize the day – cue Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society). I can’t help myself. The writing process fascinates me, and I am constantly learning, even when I wasn’t active here. This point in my life truly is a new beginning – or it at least feels like one. As for Carpe Diem, well … I lost a dear friend this summer to pancreatic cancer and recently a former classmate and her family lost everything in a house fire (including her husband, another classmate). I’ve watched over the last couple of years as my dad wrote and then published a book on his life. Speaking of my dad, he continues to set a great example in terms of going after what one wants out of life, even if we don’t agree on everything. I just need to follow it. It is time to get to work.
Thank you for reading, for staying with me. Welcome back!
By mid-June, things were starting to come together at the canoe livery … but would our customers return? Boy, did they! We had a wedding at our main location in Omer towards the end of June. After the wedding, with one more weekend in June left, we became increasingly busy, experiencing volume rivaling what we normally experience mid-to-late July or even early August. True to form, we remained busy right up until the mid-August.
Normally, this would be welcomed and wouldn’t have been an issue. However, this year, thanks to COVID, we didn’t have adequate time to properly prepare. During a “normal” year, we have much of June to prepare for the crowds. Things ramp up during June until it becomes crazy from the 4th of July until mid-August. Well, we lost that time to hire and train. We had a week, maybe two, before we started to become that busy. Add in the pressure of new safety precautions, difficulty in getting merchandise, and rebuilding from the flood, and one gets a sense of why it became so stressful. I feel as though I have been running a marathon since May.
Please don’t get me wrong. I am eternally grateful that our business not only survived but grew during COVID. I refrain from saving thrive because it would not be sustainable long-term. Simply too many hours and too much work in such a short period of time. Still, it haunts me that so many small businesses didn’t survive or are in danger of closing permanently. All I could think of this spring is the decades of work the canoe livery represents – my family history and my personal history. It would not exist if not for the hard work, dedication, foresight, and planning of my parents, my grandparents, and now my brother and I, along with countless others over the years. So much in my life simply would not have been possible without the canoe livery. In it, I see my future. Whether I like it or not, the canoe livery and the Rifle River is a part of me. The very idea of it no longer existing is unimaginable.
If nothing else, I do hope that I have turned the corner and truly have a fresh start this fall. It feels that way. I could use some routine and consistency in my life – along with a healthy dose of “normal” – whatever that is now. It is time to figure out exactly what it is that I want. I know that I have returned to that theme dozens of times here over the years. Yet, I still don’t know.
Who is to say that I will be content to spend the rest of my life alone? If I met the right man – and I repeat here, the right man – I can see myself in a relationship again. Yet, I have a difficult time seeing how I would meet him. Same goes for children. I would love to be a mother. I know I would nail it. Yet just the mere thought of the foster and/or adoption processes is enough to make me want to break out in hives. I know what can go wrong all too well. Maybe it will be time to “jump” sooner rather than later. I do know that I do not want to regret what I didn’t do in my life. Until then …
I’ve always loved fall, but somehow, this time of year just means more this year. I’ve been on an emotional rollercoaster (more on that in a minute, and not all entirely COVID related) since mid-March. I want OFF! NOW. I never dreamed that I would help run a business and teach middle school during a pandemic, but here I am. Something I never wanted to add to my bucket list.
As I am smack-dab in the middle of returning to in-person classes for the first time since mid-March, it is SO nice to have some normalcy, particularly after a summer and spring that was anything but “normal.” I missed my students deeply, and I enjoy just observing kids being kids.
So, about this spring and summer … Well, of course, it all started mid-March – that ill-fated Friday the 13th to be exact. As the shutdown deepened, I began to worry about opening the canoe livery for the season. Worry about the survivability of the family business #1. Frankly, it didn’t look good. Just as we, along with pretty much everyone else on the Rifle River, made the decision to open for self-contained camping only during Memorial Weekend, the other shoe dropped.
May 18th-20th, we received close to 7 inches of rain. Dams in nearby Gladwin and Midland counties failed. Fortunately, we did have a little warning thanks to another livery on the river. My parents, brother, and I were able to save much of our technology and merchandise in our store in Omer. Good thing we had that warning. We ended up with 3 feet of water in the store. That wasn’t even the worst part.
During the shutdown, I made the decision to stay with my mom. I don’t think either of us wanted to be alone in our own homes for an extended period of time. My dad was at their cabin in Canada when the shutdown happened, and he didn’t come home immediately. I was over at my parents’ house when the stay-at-home order dropped. Then, it just became habit. What was I supposed to do at home by myself that entire time? Normally, I am rarely at home. I am usually at work, running errands – all kinds of things – none of which I could do during the lockdown.
Anyway, my parents and I watched in May as the Rifle River filled our Crystal Creek Campground near my parents’ home. It nearly reached Pinnacle Bridge, which is amazing in and of itself. Then it happened. I read a Facebook post that stated that the Forest Lake Dam broke. We evacuated my parents’ home. While the Forest Lake Dam isn’t directly on the Rifle River, it would feed into the nearby river if it did break. There simply was no way to predict what would happen if the dam broke. My parents feared losing their home of nearly 40 years, not to mention their business of nearly 45 years. I can still hear the panic in both of my parents’ voices. I hope to never experience anything like again it in my life. Same can be said for most of March through August.
Fortunately, the dam held. We returned to my parents’ home later that day when we received word that the immediate danger had passed. While I haven’t made a habit of watching the local news in decades, I did watch that evening as local affiliates reported as the Edenville and Sanford dams collapsed, devastating Gladwin and Midland counties. I know the area. I used to manage a convenience store in Sanford. I traveled M-30 across the Edenville dam many times. Wixom and Sanford Lakes are no more, and the Tittabawassee River reclaimed its original path. It so easily could have been my family. My parents could have easily lost their home – MY childhood home – and their business that day. So many in Midland and the surrounding area did.
When we were finally able to survey the damage, we were lucky. The flood mainly damaged our main location in Omer this time. Keep in mind that we suffered devastating flood/ice damage – along with tornado damage later that summer – at our Crystal Creek Campground in 2018. In Omer, we lost our propane tank, our ice chest, fencing, and a campsite. Yes, you read that correctly. When our campground – a former mill pond – flooded, the water drained in one area, completely eroding one of our campsites. We had to get excavation work done in order to rebuild. All of this on top of 3 feet of water in our store, bathrooms, and pole barns. The cleanup took nearly a month, delaying our opening. When we were finally able to reopen in mid-June, we didn’t know what to expect.
I will leave off here for now. There is so much more to the story. While I will discuss some aspects of what happened after we reopened another day, there is much more that will have to be left unsaid. So much of what made this summer truly horrendous isn’t even my story to tell.
In my family’s experience with the flood, I watched my parents, my brother, and I come together to make things happen under unprecedented circumstances. COVID made things much more difficult than they needed to be. Something as simple as ordering merchandise for the summer became a nightmare. Yet, it worked. We somehow made it work. That is precisely why I wanted to tell this story.
Above all, I hope all of us – every last person affected by COVID, which is the entire planet – finally get some semblance of normal. We deserve it!
In the past, I’ve written Father’s Day pieces for and about Dad. In fact, I shared one of those old pieces with Mid-Michigan Writers at our last meeting. Through that process, I realized that I have a series of stories about my father, not a simple post of memories. That post contains kernels of several stories. In fact, as I read the piece Monday evening, other stories came to mind. It is now a piece I need to dissect, rework, and reorganize – among many other things. It might make a nice companion piece to Dad’s hunting stories when I finally get around to writing them.
So, today, I am not going to share stories about Dad. No. Instead, I am going to share the greatest lesson he ever taught me. My entire life, he taught me that life is short and that you must go after whatever it is you seek. He always did exactly what he wanted to do. It is time for me to do the same. I am not quite there yet, but I am on my way. Happy Father’s Day Dad!
Dad and Me ~ Thanksgiving 2002 – One of my favorite pictures of the two of us!
Grandma Reid and me – Michigan State University – 2000
Nothing compares to spring in Omer. In the middle of all the mud, daily extreme temperature swings, the rain and snow, not to mention the annual Sucker run, my family and I start gearing up for the busy summer ahead. The canoe livery will always be a part of my life, and as my parents prepare to retire, I can say I am finally starting to make it my own. Our Facebook pages, website, and our new online reservation system all represent years of hard work on my part. Slowly my brother and I are taking on more and more responsibility.
This year, for many personal reasons, I am looking forward to this summer. For the first time in a long time, I have a clearer vision of what I need to do. Writing will take its place alongside all my canoe livery responsibilities. In the meantime, I am working as a long-term substitute teacher until the end of the school year. Last week I transitioned from subbing in a different classroom every day to taking on the responsibility of finishing out the school year in a 4th grade classroom. Just as I eased into a routine with my writing, I need to readjust. In June, I will have to do it again. Please stay with me as I try to figure out a good schedule here.
On a personal level, it has taken me years to come to terms with the fact that I wouldn’t be happy unless education (teaching), business (the canoe livery), and writing were a part of my life. I need all three. When I received my teacher certification testing results for the business, management, and technology subject area, I felt anger. It clearly showed I should have never doubted myself when it comes to my business education. Of the three tests I took for my teaching certificate, I scored highest on the business exam. All areas of the test.
Yet, I did doubt myself when my business career hit a brick wall in 2005. So many things happened at a result that I took a good long look at what I truly wanted to do with my life. Thanks to that reevaluation of my career, I eventually earned my teaching certificate and my general writing certificate. Now, after all these years, I work every day making it all fit together. I simply ask that you stay with me. I will figure this out.
More than anything, I am proud of the family business my grandparents and parents built over the years. This summer represents 60 years in business. I grew up working not only with my parents, but my grandparents as well – especially Grandma Reid (Dad’s mom, pictured above). She, and my parents, taught me so much about business, customer service, and hard work growing up. Several years ago now, I asked Grandma what Grandpa Russell (Dad’s father, who started the canoe livery and passed away decades ago) would think of the canoe livery today. She didn’t quite know what to say. Now I wonder what she would think of the changes we’ve made.