When we left the deer camp on Friday the wind was beginning to blow. We had knocked three hours off the drive to Marquette by meeting Pod at camp Thursday night and enjoyed a hot sauna, and some new beers including Hop Dog Double IPA from Anchorage, AK (courtesy of RonO) and a nice brown ale, Third Stone, from Lincoln, NE (courtesy of the UndergroundHippie from Omaha). The wind was supposed to ramp up to the 20-25 knot range and blow all night, excellent weather for the Gales Storm Gathering except for one small problem. The wind was from the south which means the Marquette area would be in the lee.
No worries Saturday morning however, as we were paid a personal predawn visit by LordSurf himself, Keith Wikle at our spartan state park cabin, a half mile off the trailhead. We were informed that if we wanted to surf, a crew was heading 90 minutes south of Marquette to Manistique, MI where that south blow had been building waves all the way up Lake Michigan from Chicago for the past 24 hours. The last thing any of us wanted to do was drive more and we had decided to stick to our Pictured Rocks and rock gardening plans until we hit Downwind Sports and were informed that everyone was heading to Manistique. So off we went.
The Manistique River flows into Lake Michigan and is protected by a large breakwater with a lighthouse, the perfect place to launch. Beyond the breakwater the waves were a steady 3-5 foot with plenty of seven footers, especially at a shoal area 400 yards off the light. Our coach was Mike McDonald, a fellow I'd worked with before up at the Great Lakes kayak symposium, a skinny stick guy who helped me master the elusive forward finishing roll. The students were me, RonO, the ManFromSnowyLegs, the PunctualGerman, and RickH, my buddy from Illinois. A quick word on waves and 'wave inflation'. One of the first things we did was determine how big the water was. If a buddy disappears in the trough of the next wave it's at least three feet. If you are counting 'thousand one, thousand two......' before they pop up the waves are higher. Try sitting down next to your car. Most car roofs are roughly five feet off the ground. As you look up at the roof from the vantage point of your butt, imagine the car rolling in your direction. That's a five footer. There were plenty of waves that day that were bigger including the one that 'window shaded' me shortly after we got out into conditions.
As I was sliding up the wave it began to break. I quickly leaned into the wave but was a hair too late and I turned my low brace into the setup for my roll. When I came up I told myself, "OK self, we are officially now paying attention". RonO saw the 'performance' and had a smile on his face. It was a great day on the water. We surfed, broke out through the surf, worked on boat handling, did some rescues, some stroke refinement, and were made aware of some little yet crucial things. When MSFL attempted a roll he discovered that his drysuit had not been completely burped which prevented him from getting under the boat. I learned that I was about a boat length too far away for a bow rescue and we wound up doing our first T rescue of the day. Later Rick took a swim in the surf and the PG got him back in his boat very nicely with a 'T'. The most spectacular moment of the afternoon was when the MSFL got broached by a big wave in exactly the same spot that I had my rolling practice earlier. It was surfing him toward the rock breakwater and then window shaded him and he rolled up. Still on the wave, he went over again and when he rolled up for the second time his boat was pointed the correct way for him to paddle off the thing. We both agreed that it was some of the best learning of the day. Like downhill skiing, if you don't fall a couple times you just ain't pushin' it. We all decided it was the most fun we have had sitting down in recent memory.
The structure of the course and the skill level of the instructor and participants made it work. We all had a working roll, some of us were instructors, and I had worked with Mike before, a guy with one of the most fluid and seemingly effortless Greenland paddle stroke repertoires I've seen. Three sticks and three Euro blades was the paddle breakdown. This course makeup allowed us to dispense with a lot of basic talk and just paddle, watch, model skills, and learn from each other. And surf. Surf, surf, and more surf, which was a treat for us surf starved Apostles paddlers. I've gotta say it again, it was a great day on the water. The recap at the Black Rocks brewpub only confirmed that as we recounted our day over fine microbrews. Unlike other experiences which tend to increase in exaggeration leve,l directly proportionally to the number of pints consumed, this paddle day did not need any build up. We all agreed it was worth the price of admission and we still had one day left to go!