Visiting Pilgrim Haven
Last week, I visited Pilgrim Haven Natural Area near South Haven for a day hike. The Pilgrim Haven Natural Area is part of the Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy (SWMLC), having been set aside through a generous donation by a local philanthropist Suzanne Upjohn Parish. After decades of sitting idle, this special property that had been a summer camp for several generations was gifted to SWMLC to care for and develop into a public park.
I had attended church camp there for several years in the early 1980s, along with some of my best friends. It closed as a camp in the mid-80s and I visited once in ’89 when it was vacant. For a long time, although I knew it had been sold, I had assumed that the Lake Michigan shoreline real estate had been developed. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I became aware it was still mostly untouched. This was just around the time when SWMLC began to publicize their plans, and when I began visiting the site again. Read about my first visit here.
Since then, I have visited several times. When the camp was first sold many of the buildings were immediately removed. At the time there were more than a dozen camper cabins, a bathhouse, staff cabins, a small auditorium, a dinning hall, a museum, a year-round residence, and other maintenance buildings. When I was there in ’89, the dinning hall and some cabins were still there.
Pilgrim Haven Today
What stands today includes the stone fireplace from the dinning hall and a small water feature meditation area. The dining hall was demolished, but SWMLC was able to raise funds to stabilize and preserve the large two sided chimney as a memorial to the camp years. There is also an original wooden camp sign that is prominently displayed near the entrance. There are remnants of the old roadway through the camp and some of the paths. On this visit, I also found a cellar foundation in the hillside that I had not seen before.
In the few years that SWMLC has managed the Pilgrim Haven property, they have added hiking trails, a paved parking lot, paved beach access, vault toilets, a footbridge over the creek, and interpretive signage. It is a hidden gem, a small beach park with no entrance fee and short walking distance to the shore. The natural area hasn’t been overly crowded the times I have been there, but there’s always a steady flow of people enjoying the park. Pilgrim Haven has been repurposed from being a cherished and beloved summer camp to a beach access nature area for new generations.
This visit was one of pilgrimage. As the name Pilgrim Haven correctly implies, this is a place of deep rest and reflection. It is one of the Thin Places I have found, a place where the boundary between heaven and earth is thin. For the first time this year, I went alone to enjoy a day of prayer, mediation, and solitude. I hiked all of the trails, listened to the wind in the trees, and sat near the shore. It is truly a beautiful spot.
Memories of the Past
Walking the grounds of camp also involved some time travel, as the memories hang thick in the air and visions of the past fade in and out. As I stand near the old chimney of the dining hall, which is now a free-standing structure, I can imagine the wall filled back in behind and above it.
The scene changes. Doors on each side lead to another room behind it where the other side of the chimney faces. Banners with camp themes and Bible verses hang on the walls, and the room is filled with noisy middle schoolers, ready for dinner. The round tables are full of campers with counselors spread out among the kids to keep the peace. It doesn’t work so well, since this is a rowdy group – all hot and stinky from games in the side yard, hungry and eager to eat. But first, called to attention by a lead counselor, we sing the blessing. The Johnny Appleseed song:
“Oh the Lord’s been good to me,
and so I thank the Lord,
for giving me the things I need,
the sun and the rain and the apple seed.
The Lord’s been good to me!”
I am brought back to the present as two women walk up, hiking out of the woods. The song quiets and the building dissolves again into the grassy field with a lone chimney standing in the middle. “Hello!” I greet them, “This was my summer camp as a kid.” They are from out of town, first time visitors they tell me, and don’t know what Pilgrim Haven was.
Sharing the Story
They patiently listen (and seem interested enough) as I tell them about camp as it was, and what it means to me now. I didn’t talk too long, I promise. It is a Thin Place after all, and I am confident that they will be able to feel the rest of the story as they walk around. I direct them to Vesper Point, to the trail that overlooks Lake Michigan, where I first learned to worship God over the water and sky of a Lake Michigan sunset. “Eco Divina,” I explain to them about vesper services, “worshiping God through nature.” But, I risk saying too much, and leave them to go on their way.
I quietly turn back to my own path and walk down what once was the road in front of the dining hall, past the large old trees that remember me from my youth. Humming, I touch their trunks in greeting as I pass them, “the Lord’s been good to me.”