The Northern Michigan JournalNM LIVINGNEXT
A Part of the Water

Kayaking Lake Michigan
by Andrew L. McFarlane
Andy Schudlich rides a wave The Innuit people of the arctic regions of developed the kayak thousands of years ago, light and long boats, stable and watertight. The design which has served them so well has changed very little as kayaks have become popular outside of their native lands. Though kayaks can be in excess of twenty feet in length, they are seldom more than twenty inches wide. Plastic and fiberglass are substituted for walrus hide and the layers of skin which surround the cockpit and protect the paddler from rough seas have been replaced by Goretex and other modern fibers. The paddle, about ten feet long with a blade at each end, remains the same.

This summer, my brother and several of his friends all purchased kayaks. The eagerness with which they awaited the arrival of the boats was nothing compared to the abandon with which they took to them. Soon in addition to the essential paddles, they had purchased skirts, vests, outfit kits (to add bulkheads) and a host of other paraphernalia.

An old friend and neighbor Greg Jolliffe told me about his reasons for taking up kayaking. "I guess I just got a little bored with windsurfing, there just isn't enough wind up here most of the time. Kayaking is something that you can do whether it's calm or wavy-I guess I just needed another hobby," he said with a laugh to indicate that he probably didn't. "I have a sea kayak. It's 17 feet long, which makes life interesting in the waves, and has a rudder, something that some purists say you don't need, but it makes life a little easier if there's a crosswind. I can load it with camping gear and take off to the Islands. The trip to North Manitou, ten miles, takes about 2 1/2 hours."

Greg had complained about the wind, or lack of it, on the western shore of Leelanau County. For most of the year, his complaint is justified, but there is a period from late August until it becomes too cold to venture into the water when the "September Winds" start to howl. Dead branches are blown from trees, old Otter Creek Music of Suttons Bay--on and offline, the best source for all your music barns lose tin sheets from their roofs and the waves grow large.

I have been an avid bodysurfer almost since I could swim, and in the late summer and the early fall as the beaches empty and the water fills with large breakers has always been an occasion for excitement. On one such day at the end of August, I found myself amongst the waves and slightly frustrated. Though the waves were big, the break was all wrong and a few tentative runs were the best that I could manage. To top it all off, my brother and his friend Eric were out in their new, blue kayaks, gliding effortlessly with the waves.

Frustrated, I decided to try it, and was promptly dumped by a wave. Several days later, the waves grew again. I stood on the beach watching three kayaks ride the surf, noting the technique of the paddlers who would lean back or stick a paddle into a breaking wave and even rolling back to an upright position after flipping over. At one point my brother Michael's kayak was lifted to a position nearly perpendicular to the water, bow in the wave and fully half of the stern raised into the air. His excitement at pulling out of that predicament made me resolve to try it myself.

A day like that with the waves at four to six feet required a skirt, a piece of miracle fiber shaped somewhat like a cross between an apron and a hoop skirt. The rider sits in the kayak on the shore and stretches the skirt around the raised lip of the cockpit, and the skirt forms a watertight seal. Then one picks up the paddle and commences a "skootching" motion to slide the craft into the water. I skootched and paddled, leaning back as waves broke in my path, trying desperately to hold the craft on a straight course. Kayaks, especially the shorter ones and most especially those being piloted by novices, are unparalleled in their turning ability. A slight shift in weight or paddle can complete a turn in no time at all, whether intentional or otherwise. Still, I managed to get out to where the really big waves were starting to break, feeling rather proud of myself.

"You're holding it backwards," my brother called to me, referring to the paddle.

The geometry of the kayak paddle is unique. I reversed my grip and rotated the paddle through about every possible permutation until he said it was right. For several minutes I merely paddled back and forth, trying to get the feel of the craft.

"You must have hobbit blood in you," said Andy.

"Why do you say that?" I asked.

He laughed, "Because you kayak like a cave dwelling creature."

His point was that some people have a natural grace in a kayak and some, such as myself, do not. Still, despite my hobbit lineage, I was able to make a few good runs. The feeling of surrendering control to a force far more powerful than yourself, is quite similar to that of bodysurfing with a kayak, only faster. Lelanau Chiropractic Center -- 256-RUSS The basic strategy is similar to that used by surfers: Float around some distance out from the shore and wait for a big wave. I passed up a couple of waves as too large for my novice ability (no doubt due to my hobbit blood) but soon found a wave that seemed about the right size.

Having watched the guys, I knew to start paddling furiously is the characteristic nipping the top of the water stroke of a kayaker. The wave rose under me and suddenly I understood the allure of kayaking. Several years ago while visiting the Oregon coast, I watched a seal repeatedly surfing in the breakers near the shore. It was as if the seal was a part of the wave rather than merely a rider upon it, and now I felt something akin to that.

Of course, I forgot to keep paddling and soon lost the wave but quickly paddled back out for another ride. Unlike a canoe, where your paddle is pretty much the only means of interacting with the water, the kayak functions as a sort of extension of your body. Slight shifts in your weight, whether purposeful or inadvertent, can dramatically affect your course and speed. A kayak has foot braces and combinations (which I have yet to fully grasp) of pressure with the knees and the depth and angle of the stroke can be used to turn and to resist the action of a wave.

Feeling fairly good about my progress, I forgot about the relentless nature of Lake Michigan waves and was promptly swatted over by one. As I hung upside down underwater, I vainly tried to remember the method for completing a roll. After several seconds of totally ineffectual effort, I was forced to pull the strap on the skirt and swim to the surface. My position 200 feet offshore allowed me plenty of time to contemplate just how heavy water really is as I laboriously dragged the paddle and a kayak filled with water back to the shore. After the long swim and struggle on the shore to empty several cubic feet of water from the boat, I had had enough. Later I visited Scott Wilson, the owner of Sailsport Marine in Traverse City. He sells a lot of kayaks and I asked him about it. "I've been in the business for four years and there are definitely more people buying kayaks now, about double from last year. Kayaking has been huge on both coasts for some time and is starting to really catch on here. Basically, a kayak is very easy to throw on top of car and take to wherever you want to go. It's a relaxing way to explore and travel along the shoreline.

Scott says that the first question he'll ask someone who is interested in a kayak is whether they want to use it for long trips or just to play around in rivers or waves. Short kayaks such as my brother and friends have are called whitewater kayaks and feature quick response and tight turning. The sea kayak is longer and made to go in a straight line. There is also the choice of plastic or fiberglass. Plastic is substantially cheaper and can take more punishment. For paddling on the open water, Scott recommends a rudder. The new generation of rudders can be raised or lowered with a simple pull of a cord. One can also choose between a variety of widths, wider craft are more stable but slower as well.

For those whose only experience with paddling is in a canoe, Scott offered some observations."You're sitting right on the water so your center of gravity is much lower, putting you in a more stable situation. Also, the double paddle makes it more efficient, and you don't need nearly the effort or strength to travel long distances. The paddle stroke is also more natural. In a kayak you can paddle out to the side and don't have to bend your arms as much."

Kayaking Resources
Dick Flowers
Grand Traverse Area Kayakers Group

West Michigan Coastal Kayakers Association
Carl Geissel
923 Griggs SE Grand Rapids 49507-2731
(616) 241-3163

Scott Wilson
Sailsport Marine
13384 W. Bayshore Traverse City
A group of kayakers in the Grand Traverse Area meets every Wednesday evening at 7:30. Elmwood Park on M-22 near the marina in Traverse City on the first week, Bingham boat launch on the east side of Lake Leelanau the second, Gilbert Park boat launch on Long Lake the third, and Bingham Township Park on Bingham Road east of M-22 the fourth week.

What organization the group has comes from Dick Flowers. "We're just a loose group of people who get together to paddle for a couple of hours every Wednesday," Dick explained. "We go with whoever shows up and about the only person who's there every week is me."

For those looking for a little more organization, there is the West Michigan Coastal Kayakers Association who meet once a month through the spring, summer and early fall. Their last event of the year is in October at Ludington State Park. Dick is also a member of the WMCKA and said, "It's more organized, meeting about once a month through three seasons. We get together to practice rolls and rescues and to try each others boats."

I went down to the beach the other morning as the wind howled from the North and turned summer to fall and found my brother and Andy up at an uncharacteristic hour, lured out by the call of the waves. Amidst that punishing surf a canoe or green paddler would be swamped in no time at all. Despite the fact that they were being pushed hundreds of feet down the shore in minutes, bashed upside down repeatedly and freezing despite their wetsuits, they would rest only a moment and return, drawn by the lure of becoming, for a time, part of the water.
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