Monday, August 27, 2007

"Playing Catch Up"

Great Lakes Sea Kayak Symposium 2007
July 18-22, 2007

Sometimes it seems that the best vacations happen when the trip is an unplanned impulse. Last July 18, during a difficult week and upon encouragement from a friend, I split Petoskey for a spur-of-the-moment trip to the Great Lakes Sea Kayak Symposium.

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:

Tuesday, August 7, 2007


Last Sunday I paddled the shores of Lake Michigan from the Wilderness State Park entrance to Mackinac City and back with a local friend. Under azure partly sunny skies and on clear aquamarine great lakes seas we paddled toward Big Mac, the four-mile suspension bridge celebrating it's 50th anniversary of completion this summer, and solely responsible for the connection of the Lower and Upper peninsulas of Michigan. We michiganders owe the Mackinac Bridge Authority thanks for their continued successful management of this bridge.

We expected east to southeast winds throughout the day and anticipated paddling our return in tailwinds and following seas. Waves built as we lunched on the shores of the mighty bridge, and on our return back, we found ourselves in 3'-4' confused following seas as we crossed Trail's End and Cecil Bays. The kind of ride where you have to keep your hips loose and your hands from getting behind you, and resist relaxing on the wave. Good bracing practice. The topography at the tip of the mitten seems to split the east winds, which come back together from over sea and land at Trail's End Bay. As a result, we had following seas with a quartering chop.

I love the Greenlander in these conditions; it's a bit sensitive due to it's hull cross section, more grippy than slidy like my Pintail, but it really cooks in following seas and wind. Oftentimes I can catch a wave from atop it, drop into it and catch the one ahead.

We were able to enjoy some extended rides, dipping to maintain course and speed, and brace from occasional quartering waves, making excellent time on our return and getting in some good practice for an upcoming trip to the Apostle Islands in fall.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Teaching a Friend

For the last few weeks I’ve been teaching and encouraging a friend to sea kayak. We’re both preparing for the Race Around the Bay, a 4 mile paddle/33-mile cycle/8-mile run around Little Traverse Bay, sponsored and organized by Northern Michigan Sports Medicine in Petoskey, MI (more on this event soon). As someone who loves paddling, and aspires to be an instructor someday, the opportunity has been rewarding. The fact that I get to help a friend learn is an added bonus.

After quite a few stints in my Greenlander on flatwater, and not being a stranger to kayaking or being on the water, I suspected she was ready for some more lively conditions, so last week we made a 4 mile crossing from Petoskey to Harbor Springs and back. A west wind with considerable fetch brought 3’ and occasional 4’ swells to the bay, and Harbor Point funneled winds to make the final mile or so even more interesting.

It took me the entire first half of the round trip to begin to let go of my concern for her. But on the return paddle, I quietly smiled inside at her revelry of being out in these conditions, enjoying them and appearing to be completely at home. I heard a few whoops of joy and watched some instinctual bracing, all which caused my smile to spread to the outside. We made the 7 mile round trip in under 90 minutes.

Conditions often define the level to which people want to pursue kayak touring. For me, although I love paddling of any kind, getting into lively and challenging conditions is what I most enjoy about the sport. Watching a friend get the same enjoyment as you do from an activity you love is like sharing a great secret.

Kayaking Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to kayak the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and just over 3 hours’ drive time from Petoskey, Michigan. I paddled the area with a friend from across the bay, and we traveled Southwest to Northeast from Munising to Grand Marais, a 45-mile route, in three days’ time.

In my limited experience, I place Pictured Rocks as the most beautiful lake shore in our country – towering sandstone cliffs rendered in warm sunset shades, rising over deep blue-green waters of Lake Superior, and topped by mixed forest habitat clinging to the cliff tops. About halfway through the trip, the cliffs give way first to lower rock outcrops interspersed with cobble beaches, then to the giant Sable Dunes, before finally reaching the terminus of Grand Marais, an idyllic little harbor town with an end-of-the-world ambience not unlike the town of Cicely, Alaska in the TV series Northern Exposure.

This area also has great sentimental value to me, having visited several times on family vacations and later in life with a mother who helped instill my enjoyment of the outdoors. I’ve also hiked the trails with friends and acquaintances. But until this summer, I’ve never had the opportunity to view the entire coast from the water. We were blessed on our trip by great weather, open backcountry campsites, and sparse park population, and only plagued by the notorious stable fly during the last day.

The trip left a few tangible personal impressions on me, but two were paramount: first, the old
familiar feeling of being drawn back to my love for backcountry travel was rekindled as it is every time I get off the beaten path; secondly, gratitude for my recently departed mother’s selfless efforts in making the outdoors such an important and appreciated part of my life literally knocked me to my knees at one point. I’ll never stop wishing I could somehow turn back time and give the thanks to her I long to.

Other impressions were made: We encountered a fair amount of younger people traveling by foot on the park’s trails, which I found reassuring. At first glance it seems less and less people are interested in the backcountry experience and the lack of interest gives me pause for the future of our parks systems. In a time when we seem to be more focused on material goals, surviving the rat race and training our children to compete in that race early on in life it was refreshing to see mainly younger backpackers. I was also reminded of the potential of Superior’s moods; even though we had decent weather, one cannot paddle near to the towering golden cliffs without feeling vulnerable and wary of changing conditions. As always, I was struck by the beauty and remote feel of this park and the surrounding area, but for the first time, the unique perspective caused me to be moved by the sheer scale of the Pictured Rocks. For the first half day I suspect we were both grinning like schoolkids.

I’m sure I’ll return as often as possible – one of the wonderful things about my home town is it’s proximity to places like this – and I recommend the trip to anyone. In terms of safety, the lake is best traveled in summer, after the temperatures stabilize and before the fall winds begin. One should be properly prepared, coordinated with others for any action required by difficult conditions or emergency situations, and packed and dressed for a range of weather and temperatures. When we were there, water temperatures were in the 40s, which doesn’t give you much time to endure exposure. Having said all this, there are various options for travel distance, level of isolation, and amount of exposure to the elements.If you live anywhere near the Great Lakes and enjoy Sea Kayaking, there aren’t many destinations I’d place higher on a paddling wish list than this spectacular creation of nature.