We just returned from the 26th annual Great Lakes Sea Kayak Symposium (GLSKS) in Grand Marais, Michigan--a tiny town on the southern shore of Lake Superior. This is the oldest of the Great Lakes symposia, and it has a storied past. It was begun by Stan Chladek, founder of Great River Outfitters (GRO), who ran it for many years before handing it off to Riverside Kayak Connection. This year, Downwind Sports (which began and still runs the annual Ladies of the Lake symposium) picked it up. Bill Thompson, co-owner of Downwind Sports, organized the event, recruited the sponsors and vendors, and kept the coaches fed and watered. Kelly Blades, force of nature, recruited the coaches, restructured the courses and ensured the proper balance of safety and mayhem as well as plenty of laughs.
Bill Thompson and Kelly Blades model good communication skills.
This year, the symposium offered three days of guided tours along the scenic coastline and islands of the area. Participants could choose to paddle anywhere from 8 to 18 miles, past the colorful limestone bluffs and dramatic sand dunes of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. They got to try some rock hopping, poke into sea caves, and paddle under waterfalls and through arches.
The cliffs on the west side of Grand Island.
An arch on the north side of Grand Island, below the light house.
On Friday, when the symposium officially began, students chose classes with unconventional names but very practical purposes: Going Forward (forward stroke), Not Going Forward (turning and draw strokes), Staying Dry (bracing), Getting Wet (rescues), and so on. On day two, the wind kicked up in time for Bumpy Water Boat Control, Rough Water Play and Surfing.
The onshore waves built to about three feet, creating surf on the beach and clapotis near the break wall.
That day ended with the traditional Pasty Dinner (an Upper Peninsula delicacy) and Freya Hoffmeister's "Race Around Australia" presentation. The final day featured a Blessing of the Boats by the paddling pastor, Doug Van Doren, and a wacky race past squirt-gun toting kids and insult-hurling spectators.
Racers survive the Tunnel of Doom en route to the Valley of Insults.
Every symposium has its own personality, and its character changes over time. The GLSKS began with an emphasis on providing BCU training and certification for American paddlers and evolved into a tour-and-classes symposium that offered more courses for higher-level students. Under Downwind Sports' management, it continues that tradition while adding a sense of humor and a stronger presence by sponsors and vendors. And the kids' program was bigger, better and free with adult registration. (A shout-out to our daughter, Hannah, who ran it, along with her able assistant, Aidan Van Doren.)
Midwestern paddlers and coaches have many symposia to choose from every year. This continues to be one not to miss.