In Grayling, paddling is big. Like, really big.
Jeff Kolka used to spend his summers chasing down the marathon team. The canoe marathon dream, that is.
Every summer, on the last Saturday in July, as many as 100 teams gather in thin black canoes, over 18 feet in length and barely as wide as a paddler’s hips, and race down the Au Sable River in the dead of night. Racing from Grayling to Oscoda, the race takes anywhere from 14 to 19 hours and covers 120 twisted miles.
It’s a whole thing. Jeff took nine-first place finishes in the Au Sable River Canoe Marathon with his canoe partner, Serge Corbin, and in 2019, Jeff was inducted into the Marathon Hall of Fame.
Nowadays, though, you’ll find his summers include partners of a smaller (shorter, younger, cuter) scale: Youth paddlers. Jeff coaches the Grayling Paddling Club every summer on Lake Margrethe, where youths gather one evening a week to try their hand at paddling.
There is a “Learn to Paddle” class with single-person kayaks for ages 7–15 and a “Youth Competitive Paddle” for older, more advanced paddlers ages 10–18, who paddle race boats and who just might, one day, be in the big one.
“I’ve always wanted to get more kids into the sport,” Jeff says. “Now I have time for it.”
Jeff, along with friend and fellow paddler Steve Corlew, worked with the Hanson Hills Recreation Area to get the program going in 2013. “We do everything at the lessons,” says Jeff. “We teach basic safety in the water, parts of the boats and techniques like ruddering the boat.”
One of the biggest safety lessons? Keeping your eye on the sky. “You’ve got to respect the weather,” he says. “Wind can blow you across a lake in a heartbeat.”
Jeff advises paddlers that if they are in trouble on a lake, they need to stop and evaluate their situation and take the best route to shore. “Sometimes it’s smarter to go with the wind,” he tells them. “It might be longer, but it can actually be faster.”
Jeff has three assistant coaches; brothers Jim and Tom Gardiner, and Tom’s wife, Pat Eilers. Together, they have as many as seven boats on the water at a time.
Beginner classes paddle within 30 to 40 yards of the shore, and parents often stay and lend a hand with the group. Jeff says he’s seen kids go from being terrified of the water to learning to purposely tip a kayak and recover safely.
“Learning to paddle takes time,” he says. “You don’t get quick results and satisfaction. But when you work hard and overcome, you’ve earned it, and no one can take that from you. That applies to everything in life!”
As paddlers advance, Jeff encourages them to sign up for the youth race at Spike’s Challenge, which takes place the weekend before the marathon and is when the excitement starts to build in Grayling. The youth race is an hour long, and Jeff loves to see how his students feel after a race.
“Ultimately, no, not everyone is going to win a marathon,” Jeff says with a laugh. “But when someone fights through a race, and you face the demons, the bad luck and the bad odds, but you persevere, you become a stronger and better you. I love to see that in a kid!”
The program also counts on the coordination efforts of Wendy Kelso, who keeps things “shored up.”