Many of you that know me have heard me talk about Shastaland, but not everyone knows the backstory. Here it is.
Ever since my first time bow-hunting with my dad at the age of 12, I remember the feeling, the longing really, for a piece of land that was all ours. Michigan offers an abundance of public property to hunt, and together we made day trips, stayed in campers and tents, rented cabins, and joined friends and family when the invites came, but I longed for a basecamp we could call our own.
I was always looking; dragging my dad to various pieces of property where we would dream about how we would hunt it, where a cabin might go, and the perfect place for a fire pit. But it was never really in the cards.
As the years went by the dream seemed less likely as I became busy with my job and starting a family and dad worked his way toward retirement. Two boys had become part of the equation and, as soon as they were old enough, they joined us on our hunting and fishing adventures, staying in the rented cabin, exploring the woods, throwing lures to fish, sharing stories around campfires, playing card games by lantern light, and practicing with their toy bows. They grew to love the outdoors and this special place we returned to every year as the leaves began to turn. But the dream of our own little piece of land never left. In fact it grew stronger.
When the boys were old enough to actually start hunting with us we would take turns sitting with them in homemade ground blinds, working to build up the patience required for long sits. Eventually they were able to join us in the trees and we would set up stands in nearby hardwoods to supervise and make sure they stayed safe. It was fun to see them grow and develop as hunters. We built memories to be sure, but day trips became difficult and we could only rent the nearby rustic cabin one weekend per season. I wanted more. More time together. More space to spread out. More opportunities for the boys. I quietly continued my search for a place to call our own.
By 2012 my longing had reached a fever pitch as I realized how quickly the boys were growing up. They would turn 10 and 12 that year, and I could feel the moments accelerating by. With the added constraints of their sports schedules, I was losing time. I began my search in earnest and was able to get my wife to buy-in to the idea, at least in theory. To me that was close enough. I scoured Craigslist for property listings, picked up local real estate magazines, and visited websites. I knew the general areas we wanted to be in. I also knew that I would want at least enough land to hunt itself and it needed to be in close proximity to public land as well. If it offered nearby fishing opportunities that would be a great bonus. I dragged my dad to various properties – looking at small parcels with old cabins and remote chunks with more acreage. The boys got shuttled along to look at other pieces and plots and plans when dad wasn’t available. I was on a mission. We walked a lot of land. But none of these places felt right.
And then in late June I saw an ad on Craigslist through a realtor. It was for three 20-acre parcels near Cadillac, only about seven miles from my buddy's hunting camp and the public-land hills I had been successfully gun hunting for the last several years. The parcels were on a paved road and backed up to thousands of acres of federal property open to the public and very near some great fishing lakes and rivers. The land was a mix of young pines, berry bushes, hardwoods, open areas thick with ferns, and cedar swamps. I was intrigued. My job afforded some flexibility so onew afternoon I ditched work, hopped in the car, and made the drive. I had an old pair of shorts in the backseat (in case of emergency) and a pair of sandals. I quickly changed out of my work clothes and started to walk the property. It was interesting. It felt right. An older tree stand in the hardwoods confirmed that someone had, at some point, deemed this area worth hunting. I saw tracks in the softer areas – both deer and bear and then I jumped a doe and her fawn. I was hooked. I knew this was it. Returning home that evening, my legs covered in scratches from my shorts-and-sandal adventure that day, I had a little explaining to do with my wife.
I was given the green light to continue on with the process. I called the realtor and got more details, then got in touch with Greenstone, who specializes in recreational/farm land lending, to understand the process and what was needed. And then I called my dad. I wanted him to walk this property with me to see if it felt right to him too. We drove up together and walked the land. He felt it. He was in. We had found a place we wanted to make our own. While we would have loved to secure all 60 acres, the current (wife–approved) budget only allowed for 20, and we knew exactly which 20 we wanted.
We were set to close in early September and I scrambled to get the property ready for the Michigan Youth hunt which would happen just a few short weeks later. We had a handful of stands that we had used on public land that we carefully placed around promising areas. In the meantime I worked feverishly to get more gear. Craigslist became an obsession and I bartered, bought, and traded for trail cameras, additional stands, ladder sticks, picnic tables, and even a beat-up, old Yamaha Blaster that we could bang around on.
But my biggest obsession was finding a place to stay on the property. The area offered cabins for rent nearby – but that just wouldn’t do. I wanted something of our own. I obsessed over it, sending my dad links to various “deer-camp-special” campers that I wanted him to buy (I was out of cash at this point). I was finally able to convince him when I found a 1973, 28-foot Shasta camper that didn’t look too horrible. Some minor damage, a leak here and there, a flat tire, a broken taillight – no worries. Dad gave me the cash and my buddy Jeff and I went to pick up the new cabin on wheels. We had to pump up the weather-checked tires to make the trip– three of them mostly held air. We drove it back to the house to clean it up some – the awning falling off on the way. A few zip ties and bungies and we were back on the road – again, no worries.
I convinced Jeff and another friend to help me tow the mostly road-worthy camper up to the property. Somehow it made it, and we celebrated the new lodging with a few beers while I surveyed the kingdom. We had our basecamp.
The Shasta could sleep my dad and I and the two boys – kind of. Dad took the table-turned-bed near the “kitchen” while my older son and I took the two benches around the front table and my younger son took the fold-down bunk above the table. Since we didn’t have running water, the back of the camper (previously the bathroom) became our storage area. We’d eat outside on the $25 picnic table I picked up or, in bad weather, we’d use the front table while sitting on the “beds” my son and I used. It was a little tight, it leaked some, and it didn’t really hold any heat (something we discovered later in the season). We didn’t have electric so we would use lanterns for light and we did our best to keep the brown shag carpet and flower curtains that came as part of the "package" clean-ish. We didn’t care. The Shasta was our weekend home and we felt like kings.
We worked the land on our little 20 acres, developing food plots (still a learning process) and the boys (yes, all of us) blazed trails, cut firewood, ate horrible food, practiced with our bows, shot guns, rode quads, sat around campfires with friends, harvested Morels, played games, built forts, fished nearby lakes and rivers, occasionally hunted, and mostly just enjoyed having our own place and spending time together - laughter was our currency. My friends and family took to calling the place Shastaland, after that old camper, and the name has stuck.
In our 5th season on the property we finally harvested our first deer. A small buck that my son took during the youth hunt. Sure we’d seen a bunch of others and passed on a few, but this place has never been purely about deer in the freezer. While my kids’ earliest memories of hunting will always be attached to the public land we first explored together and the rustic cabin we gathered at once a year, Shastaland is our little sanctuary – a place we can call our own and all can be kids again.
I still hunt public land regularly but this place has become our basecamp and I wouldn’t trade the memories for all the money in the world.