At Michigan’s Algonac State Park on the St. Clair River, the leviathans of the land meet the leviathans of the lakes.
According to a report in the Detroit Free Press, thousand-foot freighters rumble by on the river, while a few yards away, a parade of massive recreational vehicles cruises the park access road, checking out the coveted front-row campsites.
Visitors to Algonac, and most other Michigan State Parks, have likely noticed a lot more trailers and motorhomes in recent years.
In 2001, nearly 36% of campers in Michigan State Parks pitched tents for their stays. But by 2005, tent campers had dwindled by nearly a third, even as the total number of campers remained the same.
Everybody else was sleeping in some type of recreational vehicle – a term that covers everything from modest popup trailers to million-dollar rock star motor coaches.
State Parks spokesman Harold Herta said the two camps of campers – RVers and tenters – usually get along pretty well. Tenters may direct the occasional jibe about roughing it at their more luxury-minded neighbors, but generally, the only serious friction comes when RV owners run noisy generators or air conditioners in rustic camping areas.
RVer Walter Danek sums up the appeal of putting away his tent for good.
“I’m through with manual labor,” said the Rochester Hills man, now enjoying his first summer with a 34-foot Winnebago Sunrise. And it’s not as if Danek and wife Sharon, both 68, are afraid of roughing it. They’d been dedicated tent campers since the ’80s – right down to an Alaska trip where the only thing between them and the elements was a Hillary dome tent.
But in October, the Daneks decided life was passing them by, so they bought the Winnebago they’d always craved – a 2005 model with about 3,000 miles on it and a price tag of about $79,000.
“This is like first-class for us,” Sharon Danek said during a recent trip to Algonac. “We don’t miss the tent – not a minute of it.”
Around the state, plenty of other campers seem to agree. At six state parks – Algonac, South Higgins Lake, Tahquamenon Falls, Tawas Point, Wilderness and Yankee Springs – the number of people pitching tents has been on a steady decline since 2001.
“Everybody wants their luxuries,” said John Demick, a manager at General RV in Mt. Clemens.
Motorhomes on General’s lot range in price from about $40,000 to about $500,000, Demick said, although some extremely luxurious coaches can go for up to $1.8 million.
Some of the luxuries in one machine – a 41-foot Mandalay diesel on General’s Mt. Clemens lot that has a suggested retail price of $259,500 – include a computerized leveling system, four built-in slides that, at the touch of a button, automatically make the living area wider, revealing a 34-inch widescreen TV.
Add to that the sumptuous fragrance of leather upholstery, pull-out couches, a second fold-out loveseat and a master bedroom with a king-sized bed, and you’ve got a luxury hotel suite that rolls down the highway at 65 m.p.h.
Of course, hotel suites don’t burn a gallon of fuel every 7 or 8 miles. Industry experts are the first to acknowledge that RVs guzzle fuel, but they also point out that these aren’t vehicles people use for daily commutes.
An economy that’s flaming out like a marshmallow in a campfire has taken a toll on RV sales in Michigan. The high point was 1999, when 17,852 new trailers and motorized RVs were sold in the state – a number that dwindled to 13,973 last year.
“But it’s almost unfair to judge what’s happening in the industry by what’s happening in Michigan,” said Bill Sheffer, director of the Michigan Association of Recreational Vehicles and Campgrounds, who notes that national sales numbers show total RV shipments up 15% so far this year.
And it seems that even $3-per-gallon gas prices haven’t discouraged most RVers, including Lois and Bill Rettig, who towed their 35-foot Sandpiper to Algonac from Wabash, Ind.
“You can make up for that with your cooking and your camping,” Lois Rettig said.