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N. Michigan student takes college living into wild

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

For most college students, living off campus means an apartment or a rundown house.

Gabe Prizer,22, a senior at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, Mich., has lived in a shelter in the woods since August, 2015. He pauses to speak with hikers Friday, April 22,, 2016. "There is a lot of activity along this trail," said Prizer. A native of Troy, Mich, Prizer simply wanted to challenge himself, and build his shelter in a park overlooking the Dead River empoundment a mile from the university.

For Gabe Prizer, it meant a sleeping bag in a grove of trees, where he once awoke to a squirrel jumping onto his face.

The Northern Michigan University student, who believes in the beauty and simplicity of the outdoors, started living in the woods near the Upper Peninsula school a year ago after hearing stories from a family friend who did a similar thing while at NMU, nestled on the shores of Lake Superior amid miles of natural landscape.

Earlier this month, Prizer left his shelter in the woods, where, during three semesters outside, he saw an albino deer, heard coyotes howling and taught himself how to play the harmonica. Perhaps most important, the 23-year-old Troy native spent many nights under the stars reflecting on what kind of life he wants to live after school.

Northern Michigan University senior Gabe Prizer started living in the woods a year ago after hearing stories from a family friend who did a similar thingat the U.P. school.

“What’s my next adventure? I am always asking myself that,” said Prizer, who graduates in May after an internship in Metro Detroit. “One of my favorite quotes is: ‘You must take adventures in order to know where you truly belong.’ ”

Prizer started discovering where he belonged soon after he arrived at Northern in 2013. He had spent the previous year at Oakland Community College, taking basic courses before declaring a major in electrical engineering.

But after a few weeks at NMU, he was so stressed about a class in his major that he hiked up Sugarloaf Mountain, a few miles from campus with some of the best views in the Upper Peninsula. Just before midnight, he built a fire and realized electrical engineering was not his path.

After mulling his thoughts for a week, Prizer dropped the electrical engineering class and changed his major to outdoor recreation. Then his friend gave him a mohawk.

“There was a girl who liked me at the time. Then she quit talking to me,” Prizer said. “But it was one of the best days I ever had.”

Prizer’s Sugarloaf Mountain experience planted the seed for living out in the woods. But Northern requires its students to live in the dorms for two years, so he had to stay on campus for three more semesters.

During that time, he surfed in Lake Superior during the winter, took a summer job on a hops farm in Traverse City, bought a motorcycle and backpacked for six weeks in Europe. He was tested the first week on his backpacking trip, saying he was robbed in Spain.

Prizer used a piece of bark from a white birch tree as a log book and asks anyone who finds his shelter to sign it.

“I learned a lot about myself,” Prizer said. “I learned tenacity, and I never gave up even though (the thieves) took my watch and phone. It taught me to live in the moment more. The only time I knew what time it was was when I listened to the church bells or asked someone. It also taught me to appreciate what I have, and you can’t change the past. You have to see what you can do to move on.”

Prizer’s intention to change his lifestyle wasn’t taken seriously at first.

After he learned his roommate was transferring to another college, he started telling folks he was going to live in the woods instead of an off-campus apartment. Some people questioned him, motivating him even more.

Prizer found a spot near the trailhead of Tourist Park, a city park in Marquette. He spent months building a shelter of rocks, logs and a camouflage tarp about half a mile past the Dead River reservoir, in a ridge in a forest strip. With winters in Marquette averaging 21 degrees and 117 inches of snowfall, Prizer brought an extreme weather sleeping bag and ground pad to stay warm at night.

He didn’t have a car, so he walked to and from his camp, which was nearly 2.5 miles to a campus building where many of his classes were held and where he could take a shower. He would often eat while he was on campus, though he had a stove at his camp.

“It was a challenge,” Prizer said. “When I spent night after night living outside, I thought — how long can I live outside?”

When it was really cold in the winter, he would put boiled water in a bottle and sleep with it. Other times, he would couch-surf with friends.

“I’m happy he’s living true to himself,” said Vicki Prizer, his mother.

“What’s my next adventure? I am always asking myself that,” said Prizer, who graduates in May after an internship in Metro Detroit. “One of my favorite quotes is: ‘You must take adventures in order to know where you truly belong.’ ”

While there were times she worried about him, Vicki Prizer acknowledges she might have had something to do with her son’s adventurous spirit. He grew up riding horses. When he was 10 years old, he was almost a certified scuba diver. He also traveled with her to Costa Rica and Panama, where he played on the islands with the children of the indigenous Kuna Indians.

“He’s pushed himself to limits a lot of people probably wouldn’t,” she said. “I’m just so proud of him.”

Scott Jordan, an NMU assistant professor in outdoor recreation, leadership and management, said he has mixed feelings about Prizer’s escapade in the woods.

“He’s somebody who follows through with his ideas,” Jordan said. “But living off of government land, I am not sure he was legally camped. As outdoor recreation professionals, we should be obligated to set examples of land use laws.

“It was awesome, and I admire that he follows through what he says he is going to do, and it’s great he went out there and got away with it. But if everybody did that, we’d probably have problems with our lands, managing impact and use.”

Marquette officials also expressed mixed sentiments.

While Prizer does not appear to have camped on city land, it’s possible it may be property owned by local power plants, said Andrew MacIver, Marquette parks and recreation coordinator.

MacIver cautioned against the lifestyle, noting there are safety issues with the terrain and wildlife — and, occasionally, moose and bears.

“It has to do with safety and trying to avoid squatters, making sure the property is maintained and to mitigating liabilities,” MacIver said.

It’s definitely not the easiest environment to survive in, with the brutal winters and snowfall, but it’s not impossible in an area populated by individuals with a love of the outdoors, he added.

“Kudos for the kid for showing some ingenuity and offsetting costs and getting in touch with nature while he is up here,” MacIver said.

Many of Prizer’s friends give him a big thumbs up.

“He tends to do a lot of things I wouldn’t even dream of doing,” said Alysa Kluesner, 21, an NMU senior originally from Caro. “I complain about walking to class in the cold, but he’s out there sleeping in it. He’s pretty cool.”

Randal Wiley, an NMU senior from Grand Rapids, called Prizer an “adventure in himself.”

“He didn’t take life for granted,” said Wiley, 21. “He wanted to make life an adventure. He’s an inspiration to me.”

Prizer is now back in Troy, where he grew up, and beginning an internship at Planet Rock, a climbing gym. After that, he plans to go out West and land a job leading tours horseback riding, fly fishing or hiking.

Wherever he lands, Prizer expects it will be another adventure.

“Possibilities are endless,” he said. “If I put my mind to it, I can achieve anything that I want.”

kkozlowski@detroitnews.com