Although Friday’s warm spell had already melted some of the ice layered on top of the lakes in Osseo, Michigan, it didn’t deter the ice fishers from participating in the 58th Tip-Up Festival this weekend.
The Tip-Up Festival is the Hillsdale Conservation Club’s biggest fundraiser of the year, with money going toward both scholarships and club activities. It also brings Hillsdale county dwellers together.
“We cater to the kids around here,” Kirk Culbert, “Mr. Mayor” of the festival, said.
Scott Phillips ’77, a conservation club member who does realty for his day job, also jumped in.
“The adults have fun, but it’s all for the kids,” Phillips said.
Culbert added, for the record: “There’s lots of supervision.”
For Phillips, it’s especially important to get kids outside today. He speculated that kids might need replacement thumbs in the future because of all the gaming.
“I think it changes their lives. It’s about seeing nature, not about hunting and killing,” Phillips said. “Hunting is conservation. It’s part of keeping everything in line.”
The weekend’s two most popular events were the steak dinner, during which volunteers served up about 200 dinners, and the prize-cash raffle, which always packs attendees in shoulder-to-shoulder.
While fishing is the main draw, the festival has grown to include deer, coyote (pronounced kai-ote), and squirrel hunting. Coyotes are especially problematic, according to Culbert, as their hunger for pheasants has almost killed the pheasant population.
“We’re overrun with coyotes, so anyone who brings them in, thank you,” Phillips said. “They’ve got no predators but us, they populate almost like rabbits.”
Culbert regaled me with a coyote story. A hunter he knew was up in a tree, hunting. A pack of coyotes stopped below the tree and he shot at them until he ran out of bullets. Some friends, having noticed the hunter’s absence, came with their pickup and chased the coyotes away.
“They’re bad news,” he said, shaking his head.
Phillips said there are a couple hundred members of the conservation club, which has an affiliate rifle club.
Most of what the conservation club does is for the kids, Culbert said, from 4‑H to practically all shooting sports: .22, archery, BB, pellet, trap, and muzzleloader.
Over the past few years, the club has even sent 10 kids to national shooting competitions for archery, .22, pellet, and muzzleloader, said Bonnie Shaffer, a member who organizes the shooting sports.
Shaffer said that starting February, the conservation club will have beginning bow classes on Mondays at 6 p.m. that are open to the public, for children 5‑years-old and up.
Overall, Shaffer said it’s been more than wonderful to work with the club and the kids.
The cash and prize raffle, as well as most of the hunting gear the conservation club allows members and children to use, are acquired through donation — which Phillips said involves a little chasing down.
“We get a lot of good feedback,” Culbert said. “A lot of donations come from local merchants, and we get deals.”
For example, Clubert was at his doctor’s office getting his new prosthetic leg fit when he told his doctor about the festival. He came out with a prosthetic leg and a pledge to donate $250 to the club.
The festival doesn’t leave out non-hunters and non-fishers, however: On Friday, 60 people filled the hall for a giant Euchre tournament.
Hunting and fishing fall down the family, Culbert explained, when Phillips jumped in, adding that kids sometimes get their dads interested, too.
Phillips recalled how his dad, J. Donald Phillips, Hillsdale College president from 1952 – 1971, would take him fishing when he was younger. The elder Phillips also took a November vacation for open-season deer hunting, bringing his college work up north with him.
66-year-old Ralph Slade ambled up, Bud Light in hand, ready to tell stories. In one, he was in a tree hunting, wearing camo. He was still for so long a squirrel eventually came up to his pant leg and climbed up his body as if he were part of the tree. The Hillsdale native estimates he’s been coming to the tip-up festival since the late 50s, early 60s, way back when it was held on the beach at Baw Beese Lake. He said some things have gotten better and better over the years.
Still, some aspects stay the same. Slade said there are a lot of festival regulars who he only sees here.
Outside, Tony Borroughs, from Morenci, Michigan, is carving animals out of stumps with a chainsaw. It’s his second year exhibiting the wood carving process in real-time at the festival, but he’s been carving for about 10 years now. A chainsaw, unexpectedly, is nothing like the clay sculpting and drawing he did before that.
“It takes some getting used to,” he said. “You have to respect it like it might bite you. Be aware. It’s a lot faster than anything you’ll ever use.”
He called it an alligator.
At the moment, he was examining a log with branches coming out every which way, figuring out how he would carve a perched owl into it.
Lansing local Nick Green is over by the painted wooden fish punctured with hooks from which fish dangle, inspecting. He’s visiting his in-laws, and they were fishing on Baw Beese with no luck. It’s his first time coming down for the festival.
He’s also the editor of Michigan Out-of-Doors, a hunting magazine that grassroots lobby group Michigan United Conservation Clubs publishes.
Compared with the tip-up festival at Houghton Lake, a big event that draws a larger crowd, Green described the Hillsdale Tip-Up Festival as pretty local, with more friendly competition.
“It’s fun to see the community get involved in something,” Green said. “It’s family oriented. It gives a sense of community, and it’s a good way to get to know people.”
Back inside, it’s a little after lunchtime but members in specialized T‑shirts are still delivering pulled pork, hot dogs, and potato wedges from the kitchen.
The potato wedges are the best potato wedges I’ve ever eaten.
Phillips describes the festival people as a “fun crew.”
“Nobody has an agenda,” he said. “They’re fishing, drinking a beer, or two…”
Lottie LoPresto, the festival organizer, walks by. Phillips flags her down, heralding her as the “guts and glue” of the operation.
LoPresto has been in charge for more than 10 years now, keeping track by the 50th anniversary, when, she remembers, they went all out. The weekend of the event, she stays late into the night.
“We have a good crew that is the heart of this event,” LoPresto said. “You can’t do it as two people. This event is run on 20-plus members.”
She said given last year’s freezing rain and ice storm, she can’t complain about this year’s warm weather. The only event the melting ice cancels is the kids’ ice fishing.
She’s proud that the event is self-funded.
“It’s amazing,” she said. “You think of our community as poor, but we still have its support.”
With the euchre, cash and prize raffle, fishing, hunting, kids’ activities, and wood carving, there is still one thing that LoPresto thinks the festival is missing.
“I would love to have an ice sculptor.”