July 18-22, 2007
The Great Lakes Sea Kayak Symposium is in it's 23rd year, and takes place on the harbor of the wonderfully sleepy little town of Grand Marais. It runs three and a half days from Thursday to Sunday afternoon, features wide-ranging and excellent instruction, a great variety of guided trips, and consistently good speaking guests on Thursday through Saturday evenings. Kayak and equipment vendors and reps also attend and there is always an opportunity to try on some nice boats.
Arriving late I missed out on Thursday's activities but made lessons on Friday morning. The groups were nicely sized in the 10 to 15 person range, a great size for learning and just getting to know one another. Everyone seemed to be intent on getting the most out of the long weekend, and the weather certainly cooperated. After lessons ended that afternoon, I got to talk to Andy Knepley of Great River Outfitters, who sold me my first sea kayak when they were still located in Michigan. Afterward, I had a chance to get in a decent run from Grand Marais down the Grand Sable Falls trail and back, as the day was just too crisp to not take advantage - although with the winding and rolling two-lane highways, I was wishing I had brought my road bike for the trip. Later that evening, Wendy Killoran presented an interesting narrative on her solo circumnavigation of Newfoundland. The passion with which she takes on her travels really comes through, and listening to and speaking briefly with her was a bit of an inspiration, because I'd really like to take on an extended trip while I'm able. I met a few folks during the wine and cheese party afterward before giving in to sleep and returning to my campsite.
Saturday morning I took one of the tours, a 12-mile round trip from Sand Point to Trout Bay on Grand Island. Twenty of us met at the city campground and carpooled to Sand Point near Munising, where we were on the water by 10 a.m. I drove to the launch with a young instructor and great guy named Nate, who rode shotgun and supplied a few good CDs for a soundtrack to ease us through the early morning.
I've never paddled in a group so large, and it was nice to get to paddle awhile with each other, sharing conversation against a mesmerizing backdrop of golden sandstone cliffs, sea arches and shallow caves, and emerald water. We had a lunch stop in Trout Bay before making our return trip, and paddled back along the rocky shoreline and back to Sand Point through the wake of three consecutive tour boats. Returning to Grand Marais around 5:15 in the afternoon, we arrived in time to make the Grand Marais High School fundraiser, featuring the upper peninsula's original pocket food: beef and vegetable pasties. Afterward, race winners were awarded, followed by a raffle and a fascinating presentation by Dave Snowberg on his epic travels of the ANWR in Alaska by kayak and on foot, intended to raise interest and awareness to the land and it's sensitive position. Dave, like Wendy Killoran, really has an eye for composition and his photography was a show by itself.
Sunday I slept through the morning mist paddle but made Kelly Blades' “kayak games” and “kayak play”classes. A benefit of these courses is discovering more about boat control, but it's really all about the fun. Kelly seems to be a natural fit for this stuff, and had everyone in the water, laughing, and exhausted by the end of the courses. Before we were done, there were more than a few amused spectators standing on the beach. Afterward I tried out a few more of the boats on my wish list, and the symposium wrapped up with a very impressive traditional rolling demonstration by Doug Van Doren.
This was only the second Great Lakes Sea Kayak Symposium I've been to, and I really enjoyed it. Tiffany Van De Hey and the rest of the team put on a wonderful show. Everyone seemed to genuinely enjoy being there from whatever their perspective. I've been sea kayaking about 6 years now, so it was nice to get to say hello to some of the people I've met along the way, and get to meet a few more involved in the paddling community. And the weather really was perfect Upper Peninsula summertime.
Moreover, the town really seems to graciously and warmly embrace this event, and the schoolkids and staff did a wonderful job putting the fundraiser dinner together. I spent some time talking to locals and seasonal residents throughout the weekend and found them to be unfailingly laid back and kind. This town is a great jumping-off point for getting one's various outdoor grooves on in a really beautiful area. And somewhere during the weekend, I realized I had visited this area three times in the last 9 months and last paddled Pictured Rocks exactly one month ago. This area is beginning to feel like a familiar friend.
Another thing about unplanned vacations: they seem to be over before you know it. As I drove home I reflected on the weekend, how enjoyable it was, and again, how those impulsive little vacations really turn out well.
Additional photos here: