Kayak Northern Michigan: Lake Huron Paddling Workshop in Les Cheneaux

Kayak Northern Michigan: Seen on a map, the 36-island archipelago of Les Cheneaux in Lake Huron sprays like splatter paint along the Upper Peninsula coast just east of the Mackinac Bridge, irregular splotches of forest green set amid the blue of Lake Huron’s northernmost waters. Some islands, like Bear Island, are mini, with maybe just one house, or none, and smaller than, say, your average McDonald’s parking lot. Others, like Marquette Island, the biggest at five miles long, support entire communities of resorter families that have vacationed here in Northern Michigan for more than 100 years (roads, houses, a clubhouse even). In the spirit of island realms the world over, Les Cheneaux, with its many Lake Huron inlets and bays and channels and spits and points and basins and coves and estuaries and narrows and sloughs … well, it can’t help but be a romantic and evocative place to explore by water, especially in the intimate, up closeness that a kayak provides.

That allure became clear to Jessie Hadley in 2000 after working with The Nature Conservancy to develop eco-tourism business around the conservancy’s land holdings here. “We were trying to bring in a new kind of tourist because back then the traditional tourists, the fishermen, had declined because the perch fishery had collapsed,” she says. 

Hadley became so captivated by the islands of Les Cheneaux that she settled here herself, started an outfitter business called Woods and Waters Ecotours and opened a shop in the harbor town of Hessel. Kayaks became the centerpiece of her business—guiding kayak tours, renting kayaks to people who want to self-guide, selling kayaks to people who want to make paddling journeys a permanent part of their lives.

As a capstone to the summer paddling season, Hadley also started the Hiawatha Paddling Festival, which runs the weekend after Labor Day. Beginning Friday evening and ending Sunday afternoon, the festival—really more kayak training workshop than festival—is targeted to paddlers from complete novice through intermediate. “September is a phenomenal time to paddle,” Hadley says. “The water is still warm, there is little boat traffic, and the fall migratory birds are starting to come through.”

That kind of pitch is what draws about 20 people to the shore of Prentiss Bay on the bright and calm opening day of the 2010 workshop. All around the paddlers stretches full-on U.P.—a low shore rimmed in a thick cram of cedar trees, a shoreline that weaves as it pleases, creating the little harbor where teaching will begin, and the larger bay adjacent. And, of course, the water, on this Friday afternoon, a flat mirror of cobalt blue under September’s slanting light.

Hadley holds the event at a camp called Cedar Campus, a faith-based camp that can be rented for nonreligious events. The campus has dozens of snug cabins and lodges, a campground, a knotty pine cafeteria with good food and, super bonus, six miles of private Lake Huron shoreline at the eastern gateway to the Les Cheneaux Archipelago.

Many Hiawatha Festival students bring their own boats, but several do not, so for a small fee Hadley rents right-sized boats from her fleet—a nice chance to try out different boats for those in shopping mode. In the afternoon sun of the first day of training, instructors Jay Hills and Tim Gallaway come jouncing down the gravel road with a trailer stacked with 10 boats, every one of them a sea kayak. Orange, red and yellow, 17 feet long and longer, the boats are sleek, have upturned bows, and are built to take on more H2O turbulence than you might imagine—if you know what you’re doing, which is, of course, what the weekend is about.

Soon, another instructor, Ken Bruland, arrives. He helps untie the kayaks and carries them to the sandy shore on this tiny, protected pocket bay. Bruland runs Inland Seas School of Kayaking on Beaver Island. A regular instructor at the Hiawatha Festival, he is considered one of the premier instructors on the Great Lakes and leads kayak trips around the Beaver Island Archipelago.

Experienced instructors that they are, the team knows to get the students busy right away. Hadley fits the part of kayak woman in charge—outfitted in a red dry suit and PFD, spray skirt dangling from her waist, strawberry blond hair pulled back in a thick ponytail. She tells everybody to pick up a paddle and stand in a circle.

Before instruction begins, she has each person say a bit about themselves and why they’re here. It turns out students at this year’s event cover a range of experience. Bud is a student at the nearby wooden boat building school in Cedarville. He’s looking to learn some new things and unlearn some bad habits. Christine has kayaked 11 years, has had only one class and wants to re-practice rescues. Penny is attending the Hiawatha fest for the third time; she’s kayaked for eight years. One man is here with his teen daughter and is looking for paddling tips and rescue training. He’s never flipped a kayak but can swim well, he says. Catherine, a 70-year-old farmer, says she wants to be comfortable kayaking on her own. “I envy those of you with life partners who do this with you,” she says. “My husband won’t, but I told him I have to.

Jessie models some Yoga stretches to limber up the kayakers and then addresses the most essential of paddling basics. “With both hands, grab your paddle and hold it over your head with your elbows at right angles,” she says. What she wants is for everybody to create what’s called the paddler’s box—a square made up of the paddle held horizontally as the top side, the two arms from bent elbow to wrist as the two vertical sides and the line from elbow to shoulder and across to the other elbow as the fourth side. The idea is to keep this box shape as you paddle. But of course, the box would be out in front of you, paddle in the water, not over your head. “Pretend that that square is filled with a case of chocolate and wine that you are carrying to your sweetie,” Hadley says. You don’t want to disrupt the box. 

By keeping the box shape, it forces you to paddle correctly, using your big, strong torso muscles to drive the paddle and not using your relatively weak arms, shoulders and gripping muscles, which can lead to injuries like tendonitis and torn rotator cuffs. So, the idea: keep a light grip on the paddle, and push the paddle through the water by rotating your torso, and keep the paddler’s box square.

Oddly enough, your feet are important too. Jessie sits on the ground, like she’s sitting in a kayak. “You get a lot of strength and stability by pushing off the foot braces,” she says. The idea: with each stroke, you push your foot on the same side that the paddle is dipping into the water. The brace doesn’t move, so by pushing against it, you make sure all the energy you put into your paddle stroke is transferred to propel the kayak.

Soon students are in the boats and on the water. And the weekend is underway, a mix of nuanced tips on paddling—high and low bracing techniques for big waves, how to paddle your kayak sideways (important in rescue situations), a sweep stroke, a reverse sweep, and more—and games, like tug of war in kayaks and racing through an obstacle course of floating tires to amp up the fun factor while practicing.

Rounding out the experience, Jay and Tim take a half hour to demonstrate a dozen ways to roll a kayak (something too advanced for this weekend workshop to teach), Ken Bruland showed a slide show on Saturday night about his paddle trip from Beaver Island to Les Cheneaux the previous year to raise money for a Beaver Island food bank, and on Sunday, the group paddled to an area with curious rock formations in Bush Bay.

The only glitch encountered in 2010 was that normally the water temp is good for swimming, but a north wind had pushed all the warm top water out of the bay, allowing bottom water to well up. That left the water temp in the 40’s even though the air temp reached the 70’s on Friday. So despite being outfitted with wet suits from Jessie, students declined the invitation to dump out of their boats and into the 48-degree lake to practice rescues. Instead, they watched the instructors in their dry suits display the rescue techniques.

All along the way, Jessie keeps up the easy, relaxed banter that draws people to her as an instructor. “They call this a wet exit,” she says, beginning to explain a rescue. “I don’t know why they feel the need to say wet, because when you leave your boat, that part is pretty obvious.”  

The Hiawatha Paddling Festival runs September 9–11, 2011; all instructors certified by the American Canoeing Association. Find schedule, map, registrationform, more at kayakfest.org.

Tips From the Kayak Pros

Beware the Offshore WindKen Bruland has been kayaking for nearly 30 years, including many years of teaching and guiding trips. What’s the most dangerous weather condition he’s seen? “What has killed more kayakers than anything is offshore winds,” he says. By that he means a wind coming from land and blowing out toward the water. The condition fools people because near shore, the water is protected from wind by land and trees, so it looks flat and peaceful and lures paddlers to head on out. But the farther they paddle from shore, the windier it gets and the bigger the waves grow. Also, key point: the offshore wind is pushing you away from shore into the rough part of the lake. “If you don’t have the skills, you can’t get back in, the water gets worse, and you capsize,” Bruland says.

Dress for the WaterIn northern latitudes, water temperature is a critical factor in determining what to wear. Even as late as June, when the air temp over Lake Michigan might be summery, the water temperature can be in the 40’s and 50’s. In that kind of water, unless you are sticking close to shore you should have a wet suit. But know that even water in the 60’s and 70’s can make you hypothermic if you are immersed for a while, so if you are in a situation where that could happen—like capsizing in an open-water crossing—consider wearing a wetsuit. Upshot: warm, flat water, close to shore, no wetsuit needed. Otherwise, put one on. If you are stretching the season and paddling in colder water, you should have a dry suit (downside, expense: $400 and up).

Picking a Boat A kayak is a personal decision, so research, research, research. Go to demo days where you can try some boats. Read reviews. Don’t rush it or you’ll be buying another boat soon as you become frustrated by an ill-fitting kayak.

Essential Gear

Spray skirt: Keeps water out of the cockpit. Not needed on warm calm days, but otherwise good to have. Also keeps sun off legs, adds insulation in cold.

Life vest: By law you need a PFD. As you pay more, what you get is a better, tighter fit, less chafing and more freedom for the paddle stroke.Whistle: plastic, not metal, so it won’t rust. Get the loudest one you can find. Clip to your vest.

Bilge pump: Gets water out of your boat after you right it following a capsize.
Paddle float: Attaches to the end of a kayak paddle so you can use the paddle as an outrigger to stabilize the boat when you climb back in after a capsize.
Helmet: If you are playing in the surf of a great lake, the bottom is closer than you think. Also, rocks abound.
VHF radio: Allows you to communicate to anybody in three- to four-mile radius. Also has marine band weather station. Get waterproof, not just water-resistant. Know the battery life (Bruland prefers swappable battery type over permanent rechargeable 

What’s a Bulkhead, and Why Do I Want One Anyway?
Bulkheads are impermeable walls in your kayak hull, one just behind your seat and one just in front of your feet, that prevent water from filling the entire boat if you capsize. This is important because water weighs 8.35 pounds per gallon. If your boat fills with 40 gallons of water it weighs 330 pounds and your paddling partner cannot lift it to drain the boat. Most inexpensive recreational boats do not have bulkheads. 

Three Island Trips

As experienced kayak instructor Ken Bruland says, “Your most important tool is your brain.” That comes into play with these three trips. If you stay within your skill set, keep updated on the weather and make sure you avoid water you can’t handle, these trips are accessible to a wide range of paddlers.

1 Beaver Island Archipelago, Lake MichiganFerry your kayak to Beaver Island and choose from there. If inexperienced, stick to near-shore traveling around Beaver. More experienced paddlers will want to head for the outer islands of the archipelago. You can camp on Hog, High and Garden. Key point: know that there are some open water crossings, so if the weather changes while you are on an outer island and you can’t get back, you will need to be prepared to camp.

2 Government Island, Les CheneauxThe only publicly owned island in the archipelago. Pack your kayak with camping gear and head out from Cedarville or Hessel. Pop your tent anywhere you like, but some tended campsites exist. The multitude of islands means protected paddling is easy to find.

3 Grand Island, Lake Superior (pictured)Snug in the bottom of Munising Bay and just a half-mile from the mainland, Grand Island is protected from some of Lake Superior’s moods and easy to reach. But perpetually cold waters means you always have to be cautious here. The payoff: captivating rock cliff shoreline and, if weather behaves, and your skill set allows, the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore lies within day-trip reach.

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