Park’s new playground ready for kids

The Memorial Day weekend is a time set aside to honor those who have given their lives while serving in the U.S. military. There are many ceremonies across the country in honor of these men and women who helped make and keep our country what it is, and we should all reflect on the sacrifices they made to ensure our freedom.

The weekend also serves a much less noble purpose, with many Upper Peninsula residents looking forward to the end of May as a time to get their camping gear ready and hit the woods.

This fraternity of lovers of fresh air, the whistling of breezes wafting through the pines and campfires runs the gamut from rustic backpackers who find out-of-the-way wilderness settings to those who basically drive their second home up to an electrical hook-up and turn on the TV.

Whatever your degree of roughing it, though, there is a common theme for many campers – gathering up the family and getting away from home for the weekend.

Here in the U.P. we are very fortunate to have an abundance of pleasurable locations to enjoy our camping trips, with many state, federal and local campgrounds spread across the peninsula.

One of the more popular locations in the central U.P. combines offering a variety of camping options and a lot of features to keep the kids busy.

This well-known camping area is Van Riper State Park near Champion and its more rustic big brother, Craig Lake State Park on the other side of U.S. 41.

These parks offer just about anything campers are looking for, from modern, full hook-up sites that will accommodate RV’s of any size to wilderness campsites nestled against a picturesque lake that are walk-in only.

One of the highlights of 1,044-acre Van Riper is its half-mile of sandy beach along Lake Michigamme, which draws swimmers all summer long.

Craig Lake State Park, at about 6,980 acres, is considered Michigan’s most remote park, and its isolated nature is one of its biggest draws.

Despite weather this spring that has not been very attractive for campers, there’s a special event planned for Saturday at Van Riper that should help draw people out into woods, especially families with younger children.

At 11 a.m. Saturday, the park will be celebrating the grand opening of its new playground, which has been about three years in the making.

Instrumental in bringing this project from the drawing table through fundraising and construction has been the Friends of Van Riper and Craig Lake State Parks.

Formed about four years ago, this group has a core of dedicated volunteers who work hard to make the parks the best they can be.

Friends of the parks raised money to fund most of the project, according to Carl Hosang, president of the group. Fundraisers included everything from bake sales and collecting returnable cans to selling t-shirts and sweatshirts.

In addition, Hosang said major donors – Including members of the Steelworkers union at the Empire Mine, A. Lindberg & Sons, Ishpeming Concrete, Auto Value of West Ishpeming and volunteer campground hosts Les and Ada Ruohomaki – assisted the group in raising the $25,000-plus needed for the project. The park also kicked in about $4,000 for wood chips to finish off the playground area, Hosang said.

The new equipment complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and is the beginning of what the group and park officials see as a much bigger playground, spreading down toward the park’s hallmark beach.

With tight budgets these days, it’s great to see a group like the one at Van Riper and Craig Lake working hard to pick up the slack and make visits to the parks much more pleasant, especially for the younger campers.

And as with most groups of this type, the friends can always use more members, particularly ones who don’t mind pitching in on some park improvement projects. For more information on joining the group, call the park at 339-4461.

EDITOR’S?NOTE: City Editor Dave Schneider can be contacted at 906-228-2500, ext. 270.