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Great Lakes Sea Kayaking Symposium Trip Report

kayaks on the beach

I just got back to Grand Marais, Minnesota after spending a four-day weekend in Grand Marais, Michigan at the Great Lakes Sea Kayak Symposium, an event organized by Down Wind Sports and Kelly Blades. The symposium gathers together some of the best instructors in the Midwest, combines them with some of the best instructors from Canada and even abroad, then it throws in a ton of sea kayaking students and mixes it up. It makes for a fun four days of adventure.
Grand Marais, Michigan is a small town of just a couple of hundred of people, a high school graduating class consisting of seven students, a brew pub and a grocery store, so while this event goes on, the town is taken over by kayakers. Cars with kayaks on their roofs seem to outnumber cars without kayaks, and it’s just as likely to see someone walking around in shorts as it is to see someone walking around in a wetsuit or lifevest.

redneck kayaking

The symposium was centered around two locations. The first was the community center. In it, Down Wind Sports stocked the main room with gear and product reps and a location for a slideshow. A classroom sat off the kitchen and a dinning room offered a place for instructors to gather for breakfast and lunch. The second location was a sandy beach on the western side of Grand Marais’ harbor. The beach felt chaotic. Hundreds of kayaks doted the beach and kayakers wandered between numbers and gathered for two classes a day. Throw in a few reps selling paddleboards and kayaks and you had even more fun. To top it off, the water was warm enough to not need wetsuits or drysuits.

And then there were the Canadians, making interesting structures out of kayaks as a lesson in balance…

Canadian kayak instructors

I’ve never been to a sea kayaking symposium before as a student let alone as an instructor, so this was going to be a new experience for me. I tried to go in with no expectations. Here’s how the long weekend played out:

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Thursday, Day 1

kayaking Pictured RocksI arrived at about 1 or 2 am in the morning after guiding a half-day tour in Grand Marais, Minnesota and then driving 10 hours to get to Grand Marais, Michigan. I’ve been in Grand Marais, MI twice before, so I knew exactly where I was going to camp. I found a place to park, grabbed my sleeping bag and pad and crashed under a pavilion in the park. I woke up at dawn, photographed the sunrise and met Jeremy Vore, who came up to me and said, “You must be Bryan Hansel.” I guess the massive tripod and big camera was the giveaway. After talking a bit, he offered a spot in his campsite to set up my tent.

After eating breakfast, our assignments for the day were presented. Derrick Mayoleth of KayakQuixotica, one other instructor and I were sent off to Miners Castle beach for a day of teaching photography on the move. We paddled past 100-foot red sandstone walls streaked with vertical bands of blue, white and green. The lake has spent years carving the sandstone into smooth and rounded curves, caves and arches.

For some of the pictures, I’d jump out of my kayak, swim into a cave or get out on shore, but I couldn’t get any of the participants to follow me. Back when I did retail, Ted Bell once said to me, “Canoeing is a naval experience, but kayaking is an marine expedition.” If so, then you gotta get wet when kayaking.

Along the way, Derrick and I had a chance to talk a little bit about safety in sea kayaking. It was prompted by watching teenagers jump off of the sandstone cliffs, swim into caves with just swimsuits on. They were fine, and we wondered if there is too much emphasis on safety, because you always hear crazy stories about unprepared people getting out of trouble just fine. We reached no conclusions. I’ll just carry on as usual.

After we got back, the instructors had a chance to gather and have pizza and beer before we had the big symposium introduction with Bill from Down Wind Sports.

Friday, Day 2

kayaks on a beachDay two was the first day of instruction. Like a good instructor, I prepared a lesson plan, wrote it out on my deck slates and then showed up on the beach with the other instructors. I was put into a group with Steve Lutsch, René Seindal and Steve Scherrer. I was a bit surprised when Steve Scherrer took complete control of the class and relegated Steve, René and I to safety boaters. When the students were assigned a task, I was able to help them get the most out of it.

Steve Scherrer had a great lesson plan and I picked up a few things that I want to use during my lessons, such as Steve’s progression for teaching a low brace. I thought that he taught a great course that pushed participants and in the end they learned things. It’s so cool to see how different people teach subjects and it’s really amazing because the kayaking culture on the north shore is cut off from elsewhere by a pretty big divide just due to distance alone.  Here’s Steve’s seven principles of boat control:  Boat 3:Yaw, roll, pitch; Body 2 :rotation, separation of upper and lower movement; Paddle 2: Angle of shaft, blade articulation.

The instructors at this symposium must be classy if they have this selection of spirits. A post instruction celebration in the parking lot.

At midday, I joined five other instructors to give a 30 minute presentation on the best placed to paddle on the Great Lakes. We really hammered to topic and despite the limited time, I felt we pulled together a solid and useful presentation. We live in one of the best places for kayaking in the world, so it was great to share and hear about other locations.

In the afternoon, I had another class, so I figured it would be somewhat the same. The most experienced instructor would just take control, but that didn’t happen. We split the class into smaller groups with equal number of participants. The class was about boat control and maneuvering. I quickly made up a lesson plan on the spot and taught turning and sideways motion. As the lesson went on, the participants seems to dig learning draws, so I introduced them to the concept of dividing your kayak into forward, center and rear slots like in freestyle canoeing and using draws, forward strokes, pries and in-water recoveries with different angles in different slots to move the boat in different directions. It seemed to be an eye opener or a puzzler that might open up possibilities as they practice with the concept later. And at the end of the class, we tried to stand up in kayaks and fun happened.

After dinner, we watch  Doug Van Doren do a Greenland rolling demo. The day ended with a slideshow about kayaking in Venice, and then a trip to the bar with Steve and René. And then a bit more hanging out at the campsite.

Saturday, Day 3

lake superior seicheDuring the morning, I taught a small class of two people. It was about boat control in conditions. I had them work on edging (both were good at getting an edge, so I worked with them on holding an edge), we worked on turning strokes and rudders. I did most of the strokes in a calm and protected area. Then we road the wind down beach to a shallow area that had slight chop in it. We also practiced landing and then played around with strokes in the choppy area. There was also a seiche going on that one of my students noticed, because I had them go on the beach stern first and while I was talking, the water left them high and dry. The stick in the picture marks the point where we noticed it. The high waterline shows the high point of the seiche.

I gave a short presentation on expeditions at lunch.

In the afternoon I co-taught a class on towing with John Browning of the Wilderness Connection. It had been a while since I co-taught anything and I thought that the way we collaborated worked well and was fun. We had the students learn a basic tow, inline towns, contact towing and dogsled towing. One of the fun events we had during this class was we found some swell to about two feet, which helped the students discover how the length of tow changes the ease of tow in waves. We also let the students puzzle out solutions and come to their own conclusions. The course title was Towing without the Dogma. I felt the self-discovery aspect that we incorporated worked well to avoid dogma.

stand up paddling

Then I tried a stand up paddling, because I made the comment that it just looks silly on my personal Facebook page and the rep took me to task over it. I have no comment about the experience. :)

That evening we ate pasties at the high school and watched Steve Lutsch give a slideshow about great places to paddle on the Great Lakes. Afterwards, we went to the bar for a social sponsored by P&H Kayaks. A few of us decided to head to the beach and watch the sunset. Then on our way to the beach to watch the sunset and drink another beer, I ran into Kelly Blades who invited us to his campsite. We got there before he did and later the Canadians joined us. We hung out talking kayaking until late in the night.

Sunday, Day 4

The day started with the discovery of the kayak art created by the Canadians and then a memorial to Robert Weitzel followed by a blessing of the boats. After passing out a few tshirts, I took to the road to make the ten hour drive home.

All in all it was a fun weekend. I was finally able to put faces with names that I’ve been reading about for years. I can definitely see how it’s a bargain for people looking for good instruction compacted into a short period of time. I wish I would have gone to one of these things when I was first learning kayaking, because it would have probably shortened the length of learning time for me. I hope to go back and instruct again in the future.

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