I spend every May and June travelling to and around the edges of Lake Superior and Lake Michigan to spend time with seasonal kayak guides as they hone their paddling skills for the upcoming season. Every aspect about this is enjoyable, from the hours of windshield time driving between destinations when I can brainstorm and organize life to the new, interesting people that I get to meet and share time with.  And, of course, the really rewarding part is actually being on the water. 

I began my “season” of paddle training last week with a small staff from an outfitter on Minnesota’s north shore. I’ve done this course for five years now and it’s routinely my earliest of the year. Also routine is that the weather is typically cold, grey and wet. Thankfully, this year was different. We finally got to feel the warmth of late May sun and light winds to temper the frigid water that steals your breath and stings your skin.

Normally, I try to have a couple days of paddling under my wetsuit before I facilitate a course, but I hadn’t yet slid into my boat before this one. It sort of made that opening morning that much more meaningful as I pushed away from shore floating softly and steadily in my familiar 16’ sea kayak. As is the case, it is a very different experience than paddling a stand-up paddleboard and yet still so freeing and refreshing. 

Edging my boat in wide circles while the other participants adjusted back rests and fidgeted with their spray skirts, I went through a sequence of basic strokes that I was on the verge of teaching, slowly moving my torso, arms and hands to feel the blade in the water and my boat responding appropriately. Nothing had changed. My form and technique felt exactly the same as I’d remembered it feeling last fall when I’d last been inside a cockpit.

When I asked my students to gather into a pod near me I watched the ensuing aquatic stumbling as they tried to maneuver themselves into position.  But they did, though showing plenty of opportunity for improved proficiency.  Just like me, this was their first time kayaking this season, and for some, in years.

We spent the next couple days learning, practicing and playing.  At one point, passing a campsite along the shoreline of an inland lake, I noticed a small snow bank hiding in the shadows under some young fir trees. Yep, early season paddling in the northwoods.

We wrapped up the course with some on-water time on Lake Superior, where they’d likely be spending much of their guiding time this summer when conditions were favorable. Our window of time was glassy water and sunny. It’s interesting to watch the small change in body language when a paddler gets out onto the big lake. With the deep, dark and cold waters below them, clear as a cloudless night sky allowing the huge boulders to be seen many feet below, a tentative nervousness comes alive.  You see this in jittery hesitation as they rein in their stroke range and boat control.

This will eventually ease the more they get out there, but, as our group discussed, hopefully it doesn’t disappear altogether. It’s a good thing for anyone spending time on Lake Superior to be on edge a bit. An honest humbleness brings an awareness that should be shared by everyone out there. This is what I hope these guides instill on their clients this coming season, in addition to the pleasure of sea kayaking.

Lucas Will loves wilderness and enjoys many forms of recreation around the Bay area.  Adventure is his middle name.  Actually, it’s Frederick.  When not outside, he lives in a tiny house with his partner and their dog. You can follow him on Instagram under the handle Alfresco Bum.

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