Great Lakes Sea Kayak Symposium in Grand Marais, MI. It’s always a pleasure to connect with old friends as well as inevitable gathering of some new friends. One of the more interesting conversations involved some folks who had been away for a few years and were able to compare and contrast the ‘good old days’ of this 27 year event with the current edition, especially methods of instruction and learning. The main observation, a comment made more than once, was about the collaborative nature of the experience at the current edition of the GLSKS.
In the early days there were a few sea kayaking pioneers that brought the sport to the Great Lakes and they had the strong personalities needed to pull off the introduction of a new sport. It sounded like structured course work based upon the lead coaches knowledge and perception of the activity, and the assisting coaches were pretty much ‘safety boaters’ that made sure that the students performed the strokes and maneuvers precisely as explained and demo’ed by the lead coach. Which, in all fairness, is pretty much how things were done in general back in the early ‘80’s, including more than a few college courses that I remember. The current edition of the symposium is much more collaborative and everyone gets involved including the lead coach, the other coaches, and especially the students. The prime example of this, the ability to change plans and dial in to the needs of the students, was illustrated perfectly on our Hurricane River to Au Sable lighthouse tour.
Our group consisted of nine students and an international array of five coaches, a pretty damn good ratio. The plan was to launch at the mouth of the Hurricane River and paddle to the lighthouse on AuSable point and back, a roughly four mile round trip. The lake is the boss however, and when we reached the launch site we had a steady 10 knot northwest wind with a couple hundred miles of fetch. The waves were about two footers, nice wave length between peaks, and were breaking about 50 yards out and crashing on the beach with that very impressive thump. Because this was a short trip, we had a lot of beginners as well as folks who had paddled for awhile but had not experienced Gitchee Gumee. It was apparent by the looks and muttered conversations that this was a bit more than most people had bargained for. The coaches huddled, assessed the situation and came up with the idea of practicing surf launches and landings as a way to see how comfortable people were with the conditions. When we presented the idea to the group they were all for it. Rene from Venice Kayak and I paddled out past the break to work with students after they launched. Ken, Steve, and Belinda worked with the folks on the beach. The launching and landing lesson turned into a boat maneuvering lesson and instruction on how to turn the kayak in beam seas. After all, when paddlers launch there is that requirement to turn around to land. It was one of the times in my short coaching career when I could actually watch as well as feel confidence build by the minute. Tenseness and tight neck muscles loosened as the process of paddling in waves was discussed, practiced, and demonstrated. After about the third launch and landing sequence we had a fairly confident group.
Graveyard Coast to 19th century Lake Superior sailors, to the landing area would have had steep seas as they curved around the point and this was not the day to attempt that with newer paddlers. I thought people might be disappointed but they were very upbeat and happy with their newfound rough water boat handling skills. By working together as a group, evaluating the collective skill and comfort level, and coming up with a workable alternative to the scheduled activity, we created a win/win afternoon with paddlers happy with the result. Thanks to Belinda, Ken, and Steve on the beach and to Rene (who loved not having to rinse the salt out of his paddle gear) out on the water. We had only met briefly before being assigned to this tour and yet we were all on the same wavelength as were our students. As I said earlier, the GLSKS is a great event with people coming from all points of the compass to learn, teach, paddle in some world class venues, and maybe even party and socialize a bit. I'm already thinking about next year........