Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Back from Great Lakes Sea Kayak Symposium

Danny Mongno, Wener Paddles regional sales manager and field marketing coordinator, paddling past sailboats in the Grand Marais harbor.
The Great Lakes Sea Kayak Symposium (GLSKS) is a venerable event. It's the longest-running sea kayak symposium in the midwest, held annually in Grand Marais, MI, a tiny town (population about 300) that just won $40,000 in the We Hear You America contest to help rebuild its harbor breakwall.

When GLSKS comes to town, Grand Marais explodes with activity. Woodland Park Campground is awash in tents and trailers, the beach is covered in kayaks, and Lake Superior Brewing Company is packed every evening. 

The symposium offers three days of tours along with two and a half days of instruction, both on and off the water. Coaches from around the midwest and far beyond come to teach, present, socialize and compete in the manic kayak race to win rights to wear the ceremonial paisley vest.

An ominous designation for a paddling destination.
We don't mind driving long distances for a good symposium, but we took advantage of the opportunity by adding a visit to Whitefish Point, the "Graveyard of the Great Lakes" and home to the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum.  With Keith Wilke, we learned about some of the famous and not-so-famous wrecks that lie just offshore--some under just 20 feet of water. Interestingly, wrecks in this area were not solely caused by storms and shoals, as they were in the Sleeping Bear Dunes area. Here, many were caused by collisions as shipping traffic converged to move through the relatively narrow channel between Lake Huron and Lake Superior.

We couldn't resist getting on the water, of course.

Sharon and Keith prepare to paddle around the tip of Whitefish Point.
The beach, too, looked like a graveyard--of driftwood, not ships.
From there, we drove to Grand Marais. The next day, we led a group on an 18-mile trip along the west side of Grand Island, which is accessible only by ferry or boat. We paddled along the coast, beneath waterfalls and through arches, admiring the clear water and stunning painted cliffs.

A calm day on the west side of Grand Island.
Then the symposium began in earnest, with nonstop classes and activities. For students, this is an opportunity to learn from a variety of coaches; for instructors, it's a chance to work together and learn from each other. For everyone, it's time on the water, which is always good.

Steve Scherrer teaching a course on boat control for wind and waves. 
Each symposium has its own personality. This one's character is highly influenced by Bill Thompson of Downwind Sports, whose enthusiasm, energy and openness make everyone--instructors and students alike--feel welcome and appreciated; and by Kelly Blades, who possesses a unique blend of wackiness and seriousness. Kelly is one of the main proponents of learning through play, but his dedication to students is earnest.

The race course, explained in graphic detail.
The end of the second day featured the kayak race: 23 instructor/student teams, many of them volunteered by "friends" after they left the Werner Paddles wine and cheese social the previous night--just going to show, once again, that kayaking and alcohol are a dangerous combination. The race featured sabotage, arbitrary rules, collisions, confusion and all the other key elements of a successful competitive sport. The contrast between our race and the highly organized and respectable Greenland games--the subject of the presentation by this year's guest, Helen Wilson--was dramatic.

What keeps us coming back, year after year, to symposia like this one? Partly the camaraderie of an amazing community of coaches; partly the opportunity to give back to a sport that's given us so much. And partly because it's inherently rewarding to share the pleasure of paddlesports with people who are as into it as we are.

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