Innisfree: Fondly Remembered Outdoor Camp, 1970-1988

by S. A. McFerran

Many school groups from Traverse City and Leelanau traveled to Innisfree, a camp for environmental education, on Pyramid Point within the Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore.  The program operated year-round within sight of the Manitou Passage, and the fifth- and sixth-grade student visitors would stay for four nights at the Camp.  Students were led on beach and wood hikes by a crack team of naturalists. In the winter, there were snow shoe hikes and ski trips. Canoe trips on the Crystal River was a staple activity as were “get lost” hikes.

Gus Leinbach and group, on a hill at Innisfree Camp, ca. 1970. Image provided by the author.

Gus Leinbach bought the camp in 1970 and started the Innisfree Project which was named after a William Butler Yeats poem by that name. Gus was an educator from Ann Arbor who set up the camp with the concept of self-direction for the campers and counselors. If you had an idea, a skill, and interest then you could form your idea, pitch it to a mentor or guide to help, propose it to the rest of the campers and get a group together to do what you wanted. There was a bike shed with tons of parts to work on building bicycles, an old car to learn how to fix engines, a frozen zoo of found animals that were preserved, and an old orchard with apples to pick. The kitchen always seemed to be open for campers to come in and help. It was a true community experience that offered endless possibilities to explore, create, invent, and express.

Gus and his wife Paula operated Crystalaire on Crystal Lake before establishing Innisfree. Camp Lookout “spun off” from Crystalaire and still carries on the tradition of self-directed camp life, where campers and counselors create their own inventive activities. Gus died in 1988, and Innisfree was sold and is still operated as “Camp Kohana.”

During the summers at Innisfree, trips were offered and campers traveled on bikes along the roads of Leelanau and to faraway places such as New England and Isle Royale. I have recently been in touch with Carolyn, my co-leader of a small group of campers to Isle Royale. We both still agree that it was the best trip ever.

Campers at Innisfree. Photograph provided by the author.

In the summer of 1984, we loaded the van with campers and equipment, and we were on our way to meet the ferry boat at Copper Harbor. The trip to the ferry gave us the opportunity to get a sense of the cast of characters within the group. Our first stop was on the Keweenaw Peninsula where I parked the van and made everyone hike up a giant hill to an old fire tower. I insisted that the view was worth it. Everyone was stiff from the long trip across the Upper Peninsula and needed to stretch their legs.

We ate delicious thimble berries along the trail, as I regaled the group with stories of the awesome view from the old fire tower. We got to the top and all we saw was a big block of cement with some metal pieces sticking out. The Forest Service had removed the tower. From that low point, on a high place, it was all downhill to Isle Royale.   

The ferry boat at Copper Harbor was surprisingly small. We loaded our backpacks and were off. Lake Superior was very rough that day and many in the group were sick. The water calmed as we approached Isle Royale, and were greeted by a blast of warm air. Camper Emily said: “It smells like pine air freshener!”

We were warned about foxes that would steal food by the Rangers as we unloaded our gear. Willy, a short boy from the Philippines, and Steven, a lanky Inuit, were captivated by the idea of seeing a fox. They rigged up an apparatus for tricking the fox as we set up camp at Rock Harbor.

1978 Isle Royale camping expedition by Innisfree campers. Photograph courtesy of Beth Leinbach.

After being splashed by the water of Lake Superior, it was surprisingly hot at the campground. Emily emerged from her tent and informed Carolyn and I that she had changed her mind about the trip. She demanded a helicopter. She wanted to go home. After some tears and anguish Emily was ready to listen. We explained there would be no helicopter and she was with us for the duration of the trip.

Somehow we had ended up with a large cache of frozen hot dogs. Everyone had eaten their fill so Steve and Willy decided that a hot dog would be perfect fox bait. While foxes stole food we informed Steve that he was not allowed to feed them due to park regulations. Not to be thwarted in his quest to see a fox Steve rigged up hot dog on a bungee cord on a string that he could pull just before the fox grabbed it. He was up all night swatting mosquitos and outfoxing the fox.

The water of Lake Superior is known for being frigid, but late summer sun beats down for long days on the inlets and coves of Isle Royale. The water there becomes delightfully swimmable. Large slabs of granite warmed by the sun made fine places for our group to rest after a plunge. The balance of our trip was spent hiking and swimming in Royale coves and inlets.

One afternoon, when we made it to camp on the early side, we decided to build a sweat lodge out of our tent poles and fly tarps. We were near the end of our week on Isle Royale, so by this time all the campers were pretty good friends and didn’t mind trying something new. We built a fire and found some upland cobbles to heat up.  We all got on our bathing suits and crawled into the makeshift lodge.  The hot rocks were placed in the center and we all sat and sweated until we couldn’t stand it anymore.  With lots of hollering, we all ran through the busy campsite and past the families quietly camping. As a group we all jumped off the dock into the deep Lake Superior water.  It was then I knew that we had changed the campers’ lives.

Gus and Big Pig, at Innisfree, undated. Image provided by the author.

After dropping off all of Steve, Willy, Emily and all the rest, Carolyn and I returned to Innisfree where the late summer band camp was underway.  The Big Reds were blasting fight songs out into the Manitou Passage and Big Pig was watching the band maneuvers from his sty near the football field.

The site where the Camp was on Pyramid Point is amazingly beautiful.  The high bluff above Lake Michigan was lined with trees to sit in and among and gaze at the sunset. And the beach below with the rustic waterfront was a wonderful place to play. But the real beauty of Innisfree was in the people.

S. A. McFerran is a graduate of the National Outdoor Leadership School and has led six, 24 day wilderness courses in addition to an Antioch College Environmental Field Program. He has led outdoor programs for Northwestern Michigan College, Appalachian School of Experience, Group and Individual Growth and Traverse Area Public Schools. He worked as a naturalist and trip leader at Innisfree.

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22 thoughts on “Innisfree: Fondly Remembered Outdoor Camp, 1970-1988”

  1. This is such an awesome place! I remember going there in the 6th grade, wonderful memories. Some schools still do but the name now is Leelanau Outdoor Camp, Westwoods in particular did a day camp this year and fifth graders have always gone at the end of the year for three days. Wonderful tradition!

  2. I lived in Ypsilanti when I was 10-12. I went to camp Inninsfree. For 3 summers. I loved it. I would love to know where to see old pics of years 1977-1979. Or talk to someone who went there at this time.

    1. Lesley- I was at camp Innisfeee several times between 1976-1980. My parents took us as a family for a week or so several summers and one winter and my 5th grade class went on a field trip twice to the camp. I made friends with one of the counselors “Frank Franklin “ or “Franko” as we called him! Awesome guy !!!
      It was a magical place !
      Kelly Don Stuhlmueller
      Traverse city, MI

  3. Way kool i was there several times as a kid me and my teacher caught a wild artic snow wild owl my name is robert spiegel but then i was known as Bobby Maki if anyone remember, s me please Drop mr A line i wanna come home and visit the place that i love i may be older now but this place holds beautiful memories in my heart i know Area very well i know it has changed since i have been away so many great times i have had there if this place still exist please let me know i feel as i wanna come Home see all your happy faces and new faces this the only i know to reach out of course wr didn’t have this technology now but im old school i just wanna come home and be with the people i luv in this area i want to im ok im a vfw rider we help people that need help and we take care those who passed all this stuff i learned was from the great teachers of life that i was taught right there in innesfree nobody knows that like i do love you all com bye my lord com bye awe god be with you always!!! Ps lets bring home

  4. A group of friends in college at MSU went there for a week one summer. Sometime in early 70’s. It was magical. I loved the big lodge and we stayed in a nearby cabin with 4-6 beds. So beautiful down at the lake. A true retreat. Sorry to here it is gone

  5. I was there in the mid 70’s. I went to school in Milford, MI. I had a great time and remember all the fun things we did. I remember making an igloo down by the tennis courts and we spent the night in it! Nothing but pure fun.

    1. My dad was a teacher at Johnson Elementary (maybe you had him) and every year he and some of the other teachers would take their students there for a week.

      I usually went with him when I got to be old enough.

      An amazing place, and I’m sure it had a big impact on all of the students. I know it did for me.

    2. My dad was a teacher at Johnson Elementary and was among the teachers that took their classes there. Maybe you had him.

      I used to tag along and recall many happy memories such as playing Predator and Prey and songs in the evening by the fire place (the counselors would play guitar and dulcimer)

      Such an amazing place.

  6. I remember Innisfree fondly! I was there the summers of 1972 and 1973. I remember there was a couple from the Netherlands who led us in folk songs and dance. I remember building a geodesic dome, going cherry picking and camping out on the dunes. What a wonderful place!

  7. Just looked more closely at the picture. There I am third from the left sitting on the wall! Cool! (do I get residuals?) 🙂 Thanks for the great memories!

  8. When I student taught at Cherry Knoll in T.C., we took our classes to Inisfree….I remember having conversations with Gus about his philosophy about camping… .all kids need a place to go to camp…..I am now 63 years old, retired teacher. His words and ideas stuck with me all these years.

  9. I went to high school in Muskegon (’76-’79) and every summer we would hold marching band camp at Innisfree. Such amazing memories. We’d do a midnight March with the entire band down to the beach and the entire band would March right into the lake, instruments and all. Man, I miss those times!

  10. I attended Pathfinder school, we visited Innisfree many times. I recall I made the journey there in 1979, 1980, 1981, and 1982. Great memories! Our school went there in the Fall, it was a wonderful way to get to know one’s classmates. I day trade stocks now but it would be so enchanting to step back in time and experience Innisfree again.

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