Howes: This weekend, Grand Marais is MI paddling mecca

Daniel Howes, The Detroit News

Grand Marais — Down in the harbor of this tiny town atop the Upper Peninsula, they’re teaching paddlers this weekend how to embrace the “Big Lake” and everything smaller.

Lifejackets? Check. No one leaves the beach without one. Kayaks, canoes and stand-up paddleboards? Check. If it’s propelled by a human, paddle in hand, it’s fair game at the annual Great Lakes Sea Kayak Symposium, now in its second of four scheduled days.

Big business it’s not, this paddling stuff. Not in the state that’s home to some of the most storied industrial names in American business history with their billions in annual revenue and global reach. But it’s a vibrant — and growing — slice of a burgeoning outdoor sports market tailor-made for Michigan and its water.

Arguably no place between Maine and Seattle offers the varied waters of Michigan, a peninsula surrounded by 20 percent of the world’s fresh water. It claims inland lakes and rivers, Great Lakes named Michigan, Huron, Erie and Superior, the Big Lake whose name is earned, repeatedly.

Here the symposium’s core can be summed up in a single word: safe. And qualified with another: respect — for learning, for fellow paddlers, for the environment, and especially for Superior’s water. Its awesome power, unpredictable personality and deceptive temperature (averaging 59 degrees in the summer) can exact a pitiless cost from those who pay it too little heed.

Too many still do, in boats and out.

Like the three teenage boys washed off the Grand Marais breakwall in the early 1990s by a 10-foot wave amid an epic storm. Only one of them survived, says their story told on an etched plaque near the lightkeeper’s house. Their memorial is an unambiguous warning about the perils of Superior, barely evident earlier this week amid light winds and blue skies.

Don’t get cocky. Like the leisure paddlers plucked out of the water along the epic Pictured Rocks last year after a freshening northwest wind began pounding waves into the sheer rock walls. The rebounding water, called “clapotis,” creates a mixing bowl of sloshing peaks and troughs that doesn’t end until the wind dies, the wall recedes or both.

Not much fun if you haven’t bargained for it. Like the casual paddlers who glide along in cotton T-shirts, lifejackets on their back decks, unaware that a fast-gathering wind could have them in the drink and well on their way to hypothermia before they can even pull the jacket on and get it zipped (if they can at all).

Too many stories of things gone wrong make the news too many times. In a recent blogpost, the National Park Service at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore wrote: “Kayaking in the Great Lakes can be a fantastic experience, but it can also be dangerous. We implore anyone interested in kayaking Lake Superior to seriously consider the risks, and to properly prepare before setting out.”

That includes training, understanding your limitations and those of fellow paddlers, and learning to assess risk based on current conditions, weather reports and, if possible, local knowledge. Because things change, quickly and fearsomely, on the Big Lake.

I’ve paddled Superior over five or six separate long weekends the past few years alongside some of the best paddlers and coaches in Michigan and the Midwest. Competent, smart, accomplished paddlers, almost to a person. And if I’ve learned one over-arching thing from the experiences it’s to respect the lake.

Organized by the Lansing-based Power of Water, the Great Lakes symposium is shaped around that principle for a little more than 60 participants this year. From beginners to advanced paddlers, from flat water to seas of three to six feet (if the lake provides them), the four-day paddling meet-up bills itself as a community of learning and adventure teaching skills and humility to know how and when to paddle — and when not to.

Sounds too serious? It doesn’t have to be. Arming yourself with enough knowledge to make the right choices in the right conditions for the water wonderland that is Michigan can be liberating. It can open a whole new world just a few hours’ drive from Metro Detroit and the larger urban areas in the southern third of the state.

And that’s the point of the oldest sea kayak symposium in the Great Lakes: to expand the community of competent paddlers, safely and effectively — and have a whole lot of fun doing it.

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.