Toward the end of last year, a few ladies that I kayak with occasionally suggested a sea kayak symposium in summer might be fun. I’d heard about this one for a few years and always considered going, but never had the cash.
Considering it was still roughly nine months away, I figured I would have plenty of time to budget for it. So it was that I signed up for the Ladies of the Lake Sea Kayak Symposium in Munising, Mich.
Since I hadn’t any white water or wet exit experience, my skills evaluation only made beginner courses and tours available to me. I read the descriptions carefully and made my choices. Lodging wasn’t cheap, and after trying to figure out exactly what I wanted to do, a room became available due to a participant dropping out.
Even sharing a room wasn’t cheap, but I tried to justify it by telling myself it really was a vacation, and it was alright to splurge a little. Besides, it was in August, and that’s not a month you want to be tent camping. I chatted with my new roomie a few times to get the details straight, and waited for the big day to arrive.
The weeks leading up to my departure were busy and stressful, so I didn’t get to organize my packing the way I wanted to. I ended up throwing way too many bags of random stuff in the car and heading off. In my rush, I’d forgotten to eat and pee, so I had to stop before leaving town to take care of that.
The drive went fairly well, since I am a map ninja, and I arrived just after my friends had finished dinner. I was to join them originally, but in my rush had totally forgotten about the time change.
After dinner I registered and received all my rental equipment – paddle, spray skirt, wet suit, boat. I was fitted with a bright orange one, the first one I tried, and it was emblazoned with a strip of duct tape with my name on it. We would become very good friends over the next four days.
Thursday morning was a paddle on the Au Train River, just west of Munising. The day was overcast and warm. After crossing a small lake, we paddled a winding 10-mile course, stopping for lunch on a sandy shore in the middle of a forest as gentle rain fell.
Luminous blooming lotus flowers were everywhere on the river, and dragonflies escorted us as we followed the stream to the big lake. One of the crew took photos of us as we floated beneath a bridge, and I teased that he should be dropping ice cream sandwiches into our boats instead.
A few hundred feet short of the big lake, we beached our boats and waited for our drivers to return with the vehicles. The rain fell harder and harder until it was a deluge of cats and dogs, washing away all the sand we had picked up on the beach. We loaded up our boats and gear and headed back to town.
That evening 120 lady kayakers got to know each other better over wine, cheese and good conversation, and a few of us managed to get in a bit of gear shopping as well. It having been a wet day, I invested in a wet case for my camera and a dry sack for everything else.
Friday morning I was a bit achy from the previous day’s paddle but somehow managed to pull on a wet suit for the first time in my life.
There is nothing quite like the discomfort of having a hot flash when you are feeling like a stuffed sausage in a bag. I took a few deep breaths to keep myself calm, and gathered my things for the day.
Another overcast, warm day, but this time we were going out on the big lake. All classes were held at the same beach, with very sandy sand, and it ended up just about everywhere. There were big waves, which made getting in the kayak a hell of a lot more challenging than when we are goofing around on the Chain. I fell in the water getting into my boat, and although my ego was just a tad bruised, the water felt refreshing.
I was out of sorts, though, and the kayak felt very tippy, making me nervous. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong until I picked my head up and looked at the horizon and then everything clicked. I laughed as I remembered a tip from motorcycle class – “Look where you want to go” – and apparently it works for kayaks, too.
I spent the morning learning how to use a Greenland paddle, which is the traditional one the Inuit use. It’s a paddle typically made of wood, with a shorter grip width and longer blades that are narrow and flat. Meant for long-distance paddling, it’s actually quite efficient and very comfortable.
Breaking for lunch, I headed for the ladies’ room. Trying to use a pit toilet in a “Farmer John” wet suit is another challenging experience. Apparently boating skills weren’t the only skills we were going to gain this weekend.
The afternoon was about boat control. When the instructor asked what we wanted to get out of the class, I asked for some tips for getting in and out of a kayak in the waves, since I’d gotten the falling in the water skill down pretty well at that point. We reviewed the variety of life jackets people were wearing and talked about what we liked or didn’t like about them, which was very helpful.
We discussed the three-point seat for balance, which reminded me of horseback riding lessons I took a lifetime ago. Another set of skills that could be applied to kayaking. When it was finally time to get in our boats and hit the water, my instructor was right there, coaching me into the seat, and this time I did not fall into the lake! So far, so good.
We worked on forward, backward and power strokes, sweeps, edges and bracing. Sweeping the paddle in the water helps you turn quickly, and edging – or tipping the boat slightly on its side – pulls the boat out of the water for less resistance in turning. Bracing uses the paddle as a brace to aid in turning or to prevent tipping over.
To demonstrate how well you can stabilize a kayak, the instructor paddled over to me and told me she wanted me to stand in my kayak. Yes, you read that correctly. She wanted me to stand in my kayak. She positioned her boat next to mine facing the opposite way, and leaned over my bow with her body, holding the hard lines (the ropes that don’t stretch) on either side of my boat.
Her boat tipped almost completely sideways, she told me to sit behind my seat on the back of my boat. I did as I was told, and pulled my feet directly under me onto the seat. I grabbed the sides of my cockpit, and completely ready to fall in, I stood up slowly. The kayak wiggled a bit, but for the most part was quite steady. My classmates erupted in thunderous applause.
I sat back down in my kayak feeling like a paddling goddess. I had just stood in a kayak! On Lake Superior! I had more energy at that point than I’d felt all morning. I felt awesome. I was a kayaker.
Back at the hotel, a shower never felt so good. The contingent of ladies from central Wisconsin enjoyed a leisurely supper together at a local bagel place and joked about how strange it felt to be dry. That evening’s social activity was a presentation by two young women who had circumnavigated Lake Michigan in 2012 in a dugout they had made themselves, and a raffle giveaway of a variety of paddling gear.
We were all fairly exhausted from a day of education on the water, so we made it an early night and headed back to our rooms for a good night’s rest.
Next time: “Ladies of the Lake Part II – The Adventure Continues!”
Originally published August 19, 2016.