Kiteboarding Lake Michigan with the Broneah Brothers

The morning is gray, cool and damp with remnants of last night’s rain lingering in small dark puddles on the wooden steps leading up to Broneah Kiteboarding, but the mood inside this Traverse City shop is considerably sunny. Barefoot, impossibly tan and dressed for business in swim shorts and sunglasses, owners Keegan and Matt Myers noodle around on a computer and answer cell phones from their seats at a long, low counter. Behind them, framed photographs of beach bonfires, frothy ocean waves and curvy bikini-clad chicks plaster the Caribbean-blue walls.

The shop’s door is propped open, allowing a square patch of light to form on the carpeted floor as the late-August sun strains to break through the clouds. A middle-aged man saunters in: flip-flops, sun-bleached hair, wind-burned cheeks, eyes hidden behind a pair of dark sunglasses. “Heeeeey! Johnny!” Matt says with a slight surfer-dude drawl, stepping around the counter to greet him. Johnny tips up his shades, extends his hand for a high-five and smiles as he asks the day’s most crucial question: “How’s the wind?”

For Matt and Keegan, this question is the driving force behind their everyday lives. Since the summer of 2002, after getting hooked on kiteboarding while backpacking through Europe, the brothers have built their business — and their world — around the wind. Returning home practically penniless after college, they took a gamble and decided to turn their passion for kiteboarding into an enterprise.

Selling kites out of their van and giving lessons to locals slowly led to more lessons, more customers and a store. Now, four years later, the brothers say they’re living the dream. They host annual camps in Traverse City, North Carolina, Puerto Rico and Argentina. They hold editor positions at Kiteboarding Magazine. They’ve landed Traverse City a spot on the map as a premier kiteboarding destination. And they’ve helped hundreds of people from all over the globe fall in love, just as they did, with one of the world’s fastest-growing sports.

That’s a lot to accomplish, and Keegan and Matt — ages 25 and 27, respectively — will tell you they’re not planning on slowing down anytime soon. But they’ll also tell you they wouldn’t be where they are today without their ties to each other and ties to Northern Michigan. In their company name, Broneah (pronounced “bro-NEE-ah”), “bro” is for the brothers and “neah” is a nod to their upbringing on Neahtawanta Point, a jetty off Old Mission Peninsula.The siblings’ success derives from their respect of these relationships — that, and maintaining a positive, easy-going attitude. Remaining open to possibility, taking new directions, being fluid and free. Just like the wind they chase every day.

Matt is perched on one of the shop’s countertops, eating a foil-wrapped egg-and-ham bagel sandwich, swinging his bare feet justabove the floor. Two thick black lines are tattooed across the top arch of each foot, corresponding with matching tattoos on Keegan’s feet — a testament to the brothers’ closeness and a souvenir from the European vacation where they officially learned how to kiteboard. Growing up in Northern Michigan as avid snowboarders and wakeboarders, Matt and Keegan were immediately fascinated when they discovered kiteboarding and — because kiteboarding hadn’t yet caught on in the Midwest — bought a kite directly from a dealer and attempted to teach themselves. Trying to learn without instruction was a terrible idea, they now claim, and could have been absolute disaster. The session ended with Matt nearly crashing onshore; the kite was packed away, but it wasn’t forgotten.

In the spring of 2002, Matt and Keegan headed off to Europe for separate study abroad programs — and they brought the kite with them. Once official study sessions were over, they spent the summer beach hopping through France, Italy and Spain, where the coastlines were crawling with kiteboarders. Despite booming popularity among Europeans, kiteboarding was still considered a fairly new sport. The first inflatable kites showed up along Europe’s coast and on beaches in Maui as recently as the late 1990’s.

Getting in on kiteboarding so shortly after its inception was a rush for Keegan and Matt; their prior knowledge of board sports only added to the excitement. Much like wakeboarding, kiteboarding involves manuevering a board that is attached to one’s feet. But instead of being pulled across the water by a boat, the kiteboarder is pulled — and lifted — by the wind via a large, arc-shaped kite. This enables the kiteboarder to jump higher than 30 feet, pulling stunts not possible with other water sports.

The brothers’ mastery of kiteboarding came quickly, and along the way they discovered snowkiting, the winter-weather version of kiteboarding that pulls kiters across frozen lakes and through wide-open powdery fields. It seemed almost too perfect when, upon returning to the states, they realized that the geography of their native North allowed for the two elements crucial for superb kiteboarding: limitless water and potent wind. “We just kept discovering all these spots that blew our minds,” Keegan says. “It was unreal.”

They spent the last few weeks of summer vacation 2002 kiting around the area and giving lessons to curious beachgoers. When they graduated that following spring and moved back to their home on Neahtawanta Point, they made an official decision: They would attempt to build a kiteboarding business in Traverse City. Give it one year. And if the plan failed … well, they’d cross that bridge when they came to it.

So far, they haven’t come to that bridge. “It was one of those things where you just had to put your mind to it. You know, “If you build it, they will come, ” Keegan says. They began slowly, selling kites and giving informal lessons everywhere they went. Their home base was the back of their van. Their customer base was anyone intrigued by those billowing, colorful kites. Their advertising? Mostly just being in the right place at the right time.

The brothers take pride in never having borrowed a single cent, though they give credit to a few people who gave them boosts early on. Russell Schindler, who captains Traverse City’s Nauticat cruises, donated a used Jet Ski to be used for lessons. Their father, Matt Myers, owner of Johnny Advertising, offered his sons free publicity. By the end of that summer they had saved enough money to open their headquarters in Traverse City, and as early as that fall they hosted their very first destination kiteboarding camp in Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.

Keegan and Matt say they wouldn’t be who they are without their upbringing in their family’s hand-built log home on Neahtawanta Point. After a long day on the water or at the shop, the brothers are likely to be found here, where they still live, lounging with a few pals on the front porch, propping their feet up on the railing while throwing back handfuls of sliced veggies, corn chips and salsa. Today they’ve lucked out: just past the front door, their mother, Mary Myers, is in the kitchen grilling chicken for the whole gang.

This is where Keegan and Matt spent their formative years “scrapping around,” scrambling through the woods, building tree forts and spending entire days swimming in West Grand Traverse Bay. A grassy footpath meanders from the front yard down to an open beach where the Myers family’s wooden dock reaches out into the water. Straight across is Suttons Bay; farther on, Northport. And to the side of the Myerses’ property, acres of untouched conservation land. This is Tucker Point — secluded, rare and nearly magical. The very tip of a peninsula’s peninsula. It is also, according to Matt and Keegan, one of the best places in the world to kiteboard. Thanks to its position in the bay, the air currents off Tucker Point are ideal for the sport, and the shore is so close to the Myers home, the family hears the wind sending waves smashing against the stony shoreline from the front door.

The brothers weren’t always involved with water sports. For many years, they were diehard about motocross, racing dirt bikes in competitions as far away as Florida. Matt even went so far as to obtain a professional license for the sport, but by that time, injuries had begun to take a toll on both brothers. Then, at a competition, one of their friends lost control of his bike, landed on his neck and died. “That was pretty much the sign we needed,” Matt says — the final push to quit the sport and find a new passion. Kiteboarding was a perfect fit; it was just as challenging but much safer. As Matt and Keegan learned more about kiteboarding, the sport quickly crossed over from pastime to lifestyle.

Taking it one step further by turning it into a living was simply a natural progression. “We just wanted to kiteboard all the time, and we figured the best way to do it was to teach people,” Keegan says.

The way to divvy up Broneah duties was obvious from the beginning. Keegan, the businessman, handles the finances and marketing. Matt, the artist, takes care of the company’s graphic design. It’s easy to see how it works, even after spending just a few minutes with them on their Neahtawanta porch. Keegan is more reserved; Matt is quicker to laugh. But as they dig into their grilled chicken and watch the muted colors of dusk creep up from behind the trees, it’s also apparent that their differences shine because of mutual respect. Their interactions with each other are easygoing and honest. They recount shared experiences with great joy. And they speak of one another with reverence. “When Keegan and I went to Europe, we slept in a tent together for three months. We went inside laughing, and we came out laughing. That’s how we are,” Matt says. “My brother is my best friend. We were always doing something cool together, and now we’re together in business and can watch it grow. I just feel I’m like the luckiest guy on earth.”

A stiff breeze whips across the east arm of Grand Traverse Bay, frosting the water with small white caps and tugging at the half-dozen kites scattered across the beach. Anchored to the earth by small heaps of brown-sugar sand, the massive crescent-shaped kites billow up like neon butterflies, shuddering and straining in the wind. Against the silent backdrop here at Petobego — a private sun-washed inlet about 15 miles north of downtown Traverse City — the incessant thwap of kite nylon takes on a life of its own. It’s an eager sound, a string of audible exclamation points that fuels the handful of students gathered here for Day One of a weekend kiteboarding camp.

Keegan crouches in a small huddle with the students, a crew that includes a Northwestern Michigan College student, a carpenter, a vintner, a Chicago businessman and a lanky teen wearing a shirt emblazoned with the phrase “Chicks dig scrawny pale guys.” The vintner is particularly excited to be here — his wife enrolled him in the camp for a Father’s Day present — and over the next two days, he eagerly blazes through each mini-lesson designed to teach the components of kiteboarding. He learns wind control with a small trainer kite and practices balance by wakeboarding behind a Wave Runner. He eventually graduates to a big kite and practices “drags,” allowing himself to be pulled through the water, face-first, dozens of yards at a time until he loses control and the kite crashes down.

It’s an odd scene: the body of a full-grown, respectable man being yanked and twisted across the shallows, the buzz-like flapping as his kite soars overhead, and behind it all, the serene backdrop of Petobego. He and the other students are fired up over getting faces full of freshwater and shorts full of sand, but on a sun-drenched afternoon at a place like this, they’re also getting an eyeful of some of the North’s most pristine scenery, which, for the Myers brothers, is one of kiteboarding’s biggest perks.

“I could never kiteboard all the spots I want to kiteboard in Northern Michigan in one summer,” Keegan says. “Northern Michigan has such a unique landscape, you can kite anywhere.” The brothers say there are as many as 20 kiteboarding hot spots Up North, including Point Betsie, the Platte River, and other landmarks within the Sleeping Bear Dunes lakeshore — it all just depends on the day and the direction of the wind. Drive down to Point Betsie Lighthouse on a blustery afternoon and those huge, soaring kites are visible over the dunes before your feet even hit the parking lot. “It’s basically the perfect sport for this community,” Matt says. “It fits really well with the feel of Northern Michigan. Kind of the reason people are here.”

The sun is slowly beginning its descent to the west by the time the kites are packed away at Petobego. The breeze slackens slightly, gently ruffling a cluster of cattails as the students traipse up the beach. The Myers brothers lead the way, hopping into the big white Broneah conversion van with Matt manning the stereo and Keegan behind the wheel. A student sitting in the back pipes up about what a long day it has been. The brothers laugh; “That’s our life,” Matt replies. They’re both grinning, because they know it doesn’t get much better than this. They’re making a living doing what they love: teaching, traveling, meeting people and sharing the magic of Northern Michigan. All in the name of the wind.

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