Bonfire On the Beach

The joys of a summer bonfire with family at the cottage are cherished through the years. // Illustrations by Gary W. Odmark
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It’s late. My mind is far from sleepy, but my body would love to rest. A warm breeze drifts through my bedroom window carrying the music of spring peepers along the banks of the creek. The air smells earthy with a dash of sweetness. Trees are blossoming, and warmer days are teasing forget-me-nots from their winter slumber. Although I’m home, my mind wanders north to pleasant memories of summers at the lake.

Bonfire on the Beach

Closing my eyes, I see an old black and white photograph of me playing in the sand at Crystal Lake. I’m barely 2 and my wispy, blonde hair is messy and windblown. My toes are sandy. The sun is so bright that I’m squinting and the look on my face is pure bliss! How could I know that this early sojourn would be the beginning of a wonderful, lasting tradition?

Stretched out before me, Crystal Lake shimmers like a rare aquamarine jewel gently hugged by high, green hills. Breezes from nearby Lake Michigan sweep across the water to form billowy, white clouds at the lake’s southeast corner. The water sparkles as sunlight sketches fleeting patterns on the sandy lake bottom.

Hidden in the dark blue waters, schools of perch swim through delicate underwater gardens. In the light blue shallows, crayfish tuck themselves under rocks. Above the waves, dragonflies zip through the air and gorge themselves on whatever hatch is in season.

Time has its own pace and cadence here. Some days are hot, hazy and perfectly still; on others, the wind whips up whitecaps that chase one another the full length of the lake. On any day, this beautiful lake refreshes my spirit and soothes my soul.

Outside my bedroom window, an owl calls. I should be sleepy, but old memories keep me awake. I recall a warm summer day filled with blue skies, lively waves and brand-new freckles. Our girls and their cousins have been in and out of the lake all day. Their towels are damp and caked with sand. They’ve built an elaborate sandcastle with a deep moat that waves fill just as quickly as they steal dry. The girls grab handfuls of wet sand and let it drip through their fingers to become whimsical, leaning towers. They top their masterpiece with a seagull feather, a collection of shells and one prized Petoskey stone. They are so proud!

We scrunch our toes in the cool sand. Our sweatshirts smell smoky. There is no rush. Time stretches out like the Milky Way as the fire slowly dims and the water grows calm. One by one, lights across the lake go out. We watch as another summer day settles.

Eventually, our hungry bunch heads up the hill to the cottage. It has become our gathering place. Our family is spread out across Michigan, Minnesota and North Carolina, but every summer we come together. It’s a tight squeeze now that our families have grown, but no one seems to mind. Kids sleep on the floor in sleeping bags squished together like sardines and the dog is always curled up somewhere in the middle.

As the sun dips low and shadows lengthen, the kids forage in the woods for kindling, logs, and marshmallow roasting sticks. After dinner, we all make our way back to the beach with paper bags overflowing with firewood, assorted flashlights and dry towels. Elegant swirls of light pirouette and glow in the dusky air before vanishing. The fireflies have arrived. Our little sandy beach is nestled among cedars, snow-white birch and Queen Anne’s lace. The water is a soft whisper. A few faint stars peek through the darkening sky. This is the best time.

Bonfire on the BeachThe dads set to work building a bonfire. Following the crisp strike of a match we watch a flicker of light rise beneath a teepee of branches, twigs and crumpled comics. A warm glow soon lights the faces of my favorite people. Smoke spirals into the fading light as the heat of day eases into the cool of evening.

Across the lake, cottages glow as families play cards, roll dice and inch colorful pieces across old board games. We sit in a cozy circle on a bohemian array of beach chairs. High above us a scattering of constellations fills the night sky with familiar patterns. The fire enchants us; its flames flicker like spirits swept up in a joyful dance.

Above the far shore, the moon rises into the evening sky. Our girls swim under the stars and splash in the cool shallows with their cousins, whispering, giggling and sharing secrets. They emerge soaked and huddle in towels and old sweatshirts, still beaming.

Amid firelight and shadows, the search for skipping stones begins. The stones skitter across the water and disappear into darkness.

In time, the fire dwindles and we stir the embers to reveal a perfect bed of glowing coals. On freshly whittled sticks, we roast marshmallows and smush them between graham crackers, peanut butter and chocolate.

Bonfire on the Beach

The murmur of happy conversations is lulled by gentle waves. Ancient cedars embrace our peaceful gathering as tales are recounted and kept aloft like beach balls at a summer concert. Old and young and those in-between are here.

We scrunch our toes in the cool sand. Our sweatshirts smell smoky. There is no rush. Time stretches out like the Milky Way as the fire slowly dims and the water grows calm. One by one, lights across the lake go out. We watch as another summer day settles. The night is clear and cool.

Like the cedar trees that surround us, we are rooted in this place. Year after year we return to weave our cherished connections linked by fire, water, stories and stars.

For me, these simple summer memories are an essential tonic for sweet dreams. Outside my bedroom window, the night is dark except for a canopy of twinkling stars and the moon’s crooked smile. When at last my eyelids grow heavy, I slip into the soft tumble of summer dreams.


Carol Votaw is a children’s book author and piano teacher in Rochester Hills. Each summer, she heads back up north to kayak and sail with her family on Crystal Lake.

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