My one-year vacation at home in St. Clair Shores, Michigan, near Detroit, was winding down and I wanted to visit my Brother Tad who lived in Wixom, Michigan located near the Detroit Finnish Co-Operative Summer Camp Association (D.F.C.S.C.A.) one hour to the west. You see the Pykonen family spent 10 summers at the D.F.C.S.C.A. between 1965 and 1974 and I thought it a good idea to revisit the place before heading over to Tad’s. Mom and Dad discovered this gem, nicknamed the Finn Camp, through a mutual friend and liked what they saw deciding it the ideal family environment. The association requires its’ members to have at least one-quarter Finnish blood and the adults to volunteer 24 hours a year maintaining the grounds, working in the organization owned Ravintola (restaurant), bar and dance hall (the site of many plays and heritage dances put on throughout the year mostly in the summer), the sauna, or as board members. The campgrounds are close Labor Day to Memorial Weekend but members visit the bar year round to attend board meetings (Dad was treasurer) Christmas festivities, or to just socialize.
Located 30 miles west of Saint Clair Shores the association is on what was once an 80-acre farm nestled in pine, maple, and birch trees, with frontage on two lakes known as Sun and Loon Lake. Loon Lake is shared with residents of Wixom and many homeowners have boat launches or swimming areas, the Finn Camp has docks stretching out into the lake about 18’ but Sun Lake is owned entirely but the association and where most of the members hangout. There are two docks both go out around 50’, one for swimming which has a 30’ diving tower that many a brave individual leap or dive from, I only jumped, and the other dock is for fishing or launching your boat into the still, marsh surrounded lake. Honestly, the real reason most members hang here is for the authentic Finnish sauna used year around by members and their guests. During the summer months adults wrap sausage in tin foil, place it on the rocks, sauna a bit, then enjoy frosty cold beer and sausage in the changing room whilst talking over current events. In the winter a hole is in cut in ice-encrusted Sun Lake, the hearty soul heat up in the sauna, dashes to and leaps through the hole then scurries back to the sauna to recoup and enjoy some of that sausage and beer. The association signed their charter in 1925 aiming to promote social, physical, cultural, and recreational activities for the enjoyment of the members living, first, in canvas tents which gave way to the 150 one-room cabins in use today known as “camp country” and bisected by Loon Lake road.
Under overcast skies I intentionally arrive in Wixom one hour ahead of schedule and park in the main entrance on Loon Lake then walk down a tree-lined dirt road that wind through the grounds and into the past. I am looking for a cabin painted barn red with white trim numbered 139 and instead find it light brown with green trim possibly to blend in with the surrounding foliage? Not sure I double-check the number, yep this is the once Pykonen cabin! The small wooden deck Dad constructed with help from fellow Finns, and Pabst Blue Ribbon, in 1967 is out-of-place as the new owners have relocated the entrance to the back of the cabin overlooking a mosquito infested swamp and portions of Loon Lake. I suppose it is only a matter of time before this is destroyed due to non-use and signs of deterioration from Midwest weather. Many a summer night Mom and Dad sat on that porch to relax in the cool, night air particularly after a summer storm and many a night I fell asleep inside listening to their muffled conversation while the remnants of those rainstorms rolled off leaves and smacked into the ground sounding like a giant bowl full of breakfast cereal.
The cabins are about 500 square feet of electrified living space divided into sleeping, dining, and kitchen areas with no indoor plumbing so a commode, or Thunder Mug, as Mom and Dad called it, handles late night nature calls as there are restrooms in camp country open around the clock but like the outhouse of the 19th century not close enough. Water for quenching a summer thirst, cooking, and cleaning is pumped by hand from on site wells and lugged in a five-gallon jugs back to the cabin with siblings and I sharing this task and that of taking the trash to the incinerator (boy that was fun!), all for one and one for all don’t ya know. All cooking is done on a two burner electric portable stove or an electric skillet on a small counter top or dining room table then breakfast and dinner ate in the same area, semi-primitive! A total of six squeezes into this space, two adults, and four rambunctious kids happy to be out of the city for three months and now as I peek inside am astounded as to how this was managed.
A short distance from cabin 139 I come upon a sandy corner in the road and recall the many summer evenings with streetlights yellow cast contrasting against the evening sky, friends and myself on our Mustang bicycles flew around this corner in many games of cops and robbers sometimes getting caught by the loose sand and the law. This is such a wonderful place for the family to spend the summer as there is ample space for children to enjoy the outdoors in addition the association offers activities all summer long, giving the adults the relaxation they so deserve.
Summer at the Finn camp kicks off on the third weekend of June (mid-summer in Finland) with the Juhannus celebration that commemorates John the Baptist, (before the party was Christianized it was called Ukon Juhla to honor the Finnish god Ukko). There are traditional songs and dances, pots of Mojakka (beef stew), Pulla (sweet bread), gallons of hot coffee as well as conventional American foods and The Pasty. For those of not familiar with The Pasty it is a Cornish dish brought to American by Cornish miners immigrating to the United States in search of a better life some of them settling into the copper mines on the Keweenaw Peninsula on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. My grandmother taught my mother and her me and every so often I treat friends to this laborious yet delicious meal. Think potpie without the gravy. At night the Kokko (a bonfire of piled tree branches and wood gathered throughout the year) blazes to life near Sun Lake per tradition that is linked with fertility, cleansing, and banishing evil spirits as young and old watch the flames dance high into the night sky.
Walking across Loon Lake Road, following a well worn path up a small hill I come upon a large opening, the Kenttä (large outdoor common area which includes the restaurant, dance hall, and bar) and conveniently nearby is the A-Field or Athletic Field, where every Sunday afternoon the Finn Camp men’s softball team challenge any and all local clubs from surrounding towns, the losers picking up the tab for refreshments. Afterwards both teams gather under the Victory Tree a large oak tree in dead center field where a plaque commemorates the camaraderie.
The first weekend in August known as Children’s Weekend caps off the summer with the youth testing athletic skills in swimming and track and field ( at the age of nine, I won first place on the kickboard when my competition’s board broke) on Sun Lake and the A-Field. On Saturday night The Finn Camp Players present their version of popular plays one I appeared in, The Wizard of Oz Meets Laugh-in combining the characters from the 1939 movie, The Wizard of Oz, and the popular 60’s television show Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in. I played actor Alan Sues part Big Al sports caster but when the curtain opened and a sea of faces waited I did what any 10-year-old would have, I froze couldn’t speak!
The past fades to present time as I approach my car, the journey complete. I give the grounds one last sweeping glance and realize this may be the last time I am here. The Finnish and American flags stand together fluttering in the breeze off Loon Lake near the restrooms, testament to the Finn Camps’ perseverance even though subdivisions threaten the parameter. Today long-standing members pass the tradition on to new and their families keeping the vision started in 1925, alive. I drive off thinking of those magical summers of long ago and, although memories, they will last forever.