The summer's heat and drought aren't keeping vacationers away from America's national and state parks. Millions of visitors are seeing the nation's history and natural beauty, whether by RV, car or on foot. Those who visit - parks in northern Michigan, along the Great Lakes, might stumble upon some free entertainment about the state's history and natural beauty.
Later this summer, Lisa Johansson will wake up in a tent pitched at a campsite in one of Michigan's state or national parks. She'll spend the day hiking or kayaking, just like any other park visitor. But a little before 7 o'clock p.m. you'll find her, her husband and two other not-so-ordinary campers pulling musical instruments out of their cars and tents and setting up for a performance in the park. "What we do for these particular settings is bring the natural surroundings to the fore." says Mrs. Johansson. "We also do some shipwreck stories and some contemporary pieces that have been written about appreciating the vastness and beauty of the Great Lakes."
For the past few summers, her band Song of the Lakes has been part of the Michigan Great Outdoors Culture Tour. The Tour sends musicians, storytellers, dancers, and actors out to parks in remote areas of Northern Michigan, where residents and visitors don't have many opportunities to attend concerts and performances. Each group performs for one night and then moves on to another park. One of Lisa Johansson's favorite performance sites is Bay Furnace National Forest Campground on Lake Superior where the remains of a mid-1800's iron smelting operation are still standing. "There's this wonderful old furnace that looks like an ancient ruin and we set up right in front of that. We generally try to find the prettiest backdrop that we can and it's not hard to do that," she says.
But these performances in the parks are more than entertainment. All the musicians on the Tour perform songs that are in some way about Michigan, the Great Lakes, shipping, or nature. And the actors and storytellers portray characters from Michigan's history, tell Native American legends, or spin yarns about the fish that got away. Nancy Mathews coordinates The Michigan Great Outdoors Culture Tour for the state's Humanities Council. She says the Tour was created in 1998 as a fun way to give park visitors a history of the place where they're vacationing. "Visitors walk away with a better understanding of the areas which they are visiting they have the opportunity to then explore a little further into the history or the culture or the people of this area," she says.
By the time this summer's Tour wraps up at the end of August, 20 performance groups will have staged 97 concerts and presentations at 49 parks. Lisa Johansson and Song of the Lakes won't be pitching their tents until mid-August, but she says the band's looking forward to their time on the Tour. She says they like playing in parts of the state they usually don't get to. "Meeting people who probably wouldn't make it out to our concerts… and for ourselves, being re-inspired by Michigan's natural resources and the vast number of parks that are ours to go visit," says Mrs. Johansson
This is the fifth summer the Michigan Great Outdoors Culture Tour has made history come alive at the state parks. Later this year, the Humanities Council will release a CD featuring songs and stories from the Tour's performers, bringing the warmth of a summer vacation to the chill of a northern winter.