Summer’s Most Magical Moments Happen Around the Campfire


Heather and I took the kids camping this past weekend. We didn’t travel far, just over to a campground on the eastern edge of Sleeping Bear Dunes outside of Empire.

We’re starting to develop rhythms and rituals on our family camping trips. Most are of the traditional variety, and certainly one of our favorites is the evening campfire. First we gather – dry leaves, pine needles and small sticks for kindling. Then it’s s’mores with the girls, and conversation recounting the day’s adventures.

There are few distractions outside of the crackling fire, and so the kids often get restless. This quiet time is a bit of a shock to their systems, and so “downtime” is easily mistaken for “boredom.” But soon they begin to explore the edges of our campsite, gathering rocks, finding bugs, and inventing games in which they are daring explorers probing new territory. We’ve learned to give it time for them to get bored with their boredom. Eventually the campfire becomes a precursor to creativity.

Once the girls go to bed, Heather and I settle in around the fire in camp chairs with plenty of beer in the cooler and good summer music softly playing in the background.

Saturday was the perfect night for a fire. Our wood was dry. There was little wind. The campground has a canopy of tall trees, but there was a clearing above our site that allowed us to look up at the stars on what was a brilliantly clear night. The fire burned warm in the cool air as we poked at glowing embers with sticks. We gazed, both at the stars above and the dancing flames at our feet, and we talked.

There’s a reason we still tell stories around campfires. For thousands of years humans have gathered around the communal fire and told stories about legends, dreams and adventures. It’s no different today, as many of the most intimate conversations take place over candlelit dinners, in front of cozy living room fireplaces, and around the warmth of outdoor fire rings. It’s as if the whiff of smoke and flicker of flame bring out a primal instinct to connect and share. Perhaps that’s why summer campfire memories of times spent with friends and family are so vivid and lasting. The draw of the campfire is baked into our DNA.

The space around a campfire is like the starry sky above, infinite and full of possibility.

It’s a place for white space and wonder, free from the constraints of everyday life. It’s where Heather and I like to think big. And even if those dreams seem less attainable the next morning in the harsh light of day, they still smolder long after the night’s end. Even the ashes of a long extinguished fire can be stoked back to life with a bit of effort.

Perhaps I’m taking this too far. After all, many would argue that a campfire is just a utilitarian pile of flaming sticks meant for generating heat and cooking food. But I don’t think so. Symbols and traditions are what give meaning to families and cultures, and for many of us the tradition of the summer campfire is one of the most powerful. Even former Disney CEO Michael Eisner has reflected on the campfire’s importance in making him who he is:

“Simply consider the lessons I was taught by the campfire…every time the rich reward was the same as we simply sat and enjoyed our consuming creation. And, there was one aspect in particular that never failed to intrigue me, and that was the process of seeing the single small flame of the match spread to the kindling and then the twigs and then the smaller branches and finally the larger logs. It didn’t dawn on me until years later, but this was the perfect metaphor for the creative process…Years later, I found myself running a network television division and then a movie studio and now an entire entertainment company. But, much of the success I’ve achieved can be traced to the direct and metaphorical lessons I learned in building those campfires.”

The point is that summer, especially here in northern Michigan, goes fast. Too fast. It’s a paradox – a time to slow down, but also a time to pack in as much as possible. Summer is a time to make memories, the most enduring of which are born from rich experiences. {tweet that} And the summer campfire is a place to both relive memories and create new ones. It’s where ideas take shape. As Eisner explained, it’s where sparks of creativity become raging infernos of lifelong purpose.

Purpose is a very personal thing – it means something different to everyone. But when it comes to discovering purpose we all have one thing in common: We most often find it in quiet moments of reflection.

We’ve been writing a lot about adventure this summer, and we often equate adventure with robust physical activity. But some of the most exciting adventures happen when our bodies are still, and our minds are racing with possibility.

The season of blue skies and warm lakes is quickly slipping by, so here’s an idea to add your end-of-summer bucket list: There’s no better place to engage in adventurous dreaming about life’s infinite possibilities than around the campfire.

Don't Let Summer Slip By Without an Epic Campfire Experience

Looking to add a bit of fire to your summer? Fires are permitted on all of the Sleeping Bear Dunes mainland beaches. There’s nothing more magical than enjoying the warmth of a fire while watching a brilliant sunset over Lake Michigan from the beach. Just remember to follow these guidelines from the National Park Service:

Beach fires are permitted on the mainland beaches of Lake Michigan between the water’s edge and the first dune. Please do not build fires on or near vegetation. You can help by extinguishing your fire with water and cleaning up all debris before leaving. Do not bury fires – hidden embers can burn unsuspecting feet. Beach fires are not allowed on the Manitou Islands except in the fire ring on the beach in front of the Bay Campground on South Manitou Island.