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Great Lakes Adventure Journal

A blog written by a guide, instructor and year-round sea kayaker on the upper Great Lakes.

Welcome, everyone! Thanks for being here.

 

I am a sea kayaker.

Some people might read that and think, well sure, anyone can buy a kayak. What's so special about this dude being a sea kayaker? Here's a hint: it has nothing to do with me.

Sea kayaking goes back 4,000 years, with some scientists positing that it was more like 6,000 years that humans first took to icy cold waters to defy death and survive. The Inuit are credited with the art of building a kayak and then learning how to manuever, roll and throw a spear in order to eat. They didn't do it for Instagram likes or sponsor but braved the elements and in the process created an agile, human powered watercraft that can take on frigid, dynamic seas. That my, friend, is what sea kayaing is all about. To me, it's all about defying odds, staying alive, challenging yourself, constantly practicing and mastering a discpline that requires both mind & body.

 

Forget about those plastic, floating bathtubs that are stacked in front of every big box outdoor goods retailer. Even Walmart sells these plastic rafts and labels them kayaks but don't be fooled. Like many beautiful, ancient artforms all those plastic tubs and rafts you see are vulgarized versions of sea kayaking with many folks thinking that kayaking is just for paddling on summer days with no lifejacket, training or real understanding of water safety or etiquette. I live in Door County and see that about 5,673 times every summer. Every now and some of these ill-prepared folks with bad judgment get into trouble on the volatile and frigid waters of the Great Lakes and lose their lives which casts a bad light on the rest of the responsible sea kayakers that spend a lifetime honing their paddling skills and connection to the water and always wearing a lifejacket. 

Sea kayaking is about something that cannot be held or given. Or explained. I once showed some pictures to a co-worker that was not even close to impressed with pictures of the water. I have come to understand this about sea kayaking and sea kayak culture: it's just not that "cool" when compared with skateboarding, skiing or rock climbing. There are no crowds of onlookers rabidly cheering. No groups of adolescent boys talking about that really cool sea kayaking reel on Instagram or trophies, sponsors or accolades. That's whitewater kayaking you are thinking of. If anything, sea kayaking is a sport generally associated with snooty old, rich white guys with a $5,000 fiberglass kayak on the roof of the luxury SUV. To most people walking by, looks, well, kinda boring.

Honestly, that's what always thought when I was growing up here on Lake Michigan. It never really interested me because of the interactions I had with snooty sea kayakers on shore. Generally they just weren't very nice, couldn't say hi or act like you existed.  Meanwhile me and my local buddies would set out on the water with sit-on top kayaks and a couple beers and paddle to an island just because it was a nice view.

 

Ask any industry professional about the current state of the sea kayak industry and they'll tell you it's a dying sport. Of the 20 million people that went kayaking last year only 2 million were sea kayakers, even lagging behind whitewater kayaking whose numbers have doubled in the last decade. Nowadays you vast hoards of tour companies launching tours packed with 15-20 people for quick tours in sit-on top kayaks anywhere there's a tourist crowd. They squeeze 2 people on these plastic rafts, hire any young person with no kayak experience because it's just 10 weeks of summer. Great for the high-volume kayak tour companies, they make a killing but in the process have also killed sea kayaking and ruined some really great spots on the water for the rest of us paddlers. I've worked for companies like this and honestly the rate of turnover for newbie guides is high, most last a month and half and never paddle again which bums me out because we need more young people taking an interest in the sport.

 

Part of  the reason I even do all this writing is to figure out how it happened for me so that I can help others get started. I can definitely say there was a defining moment when it clicked for me, as in when I decided to become a sea kayaker learn this watersport that sort of scared me. Honestly, my first day out on the water in a sea kayak I almost gave it up completely! It was more like a period of time rather than just one moment. After experiencing some major personal loss I quit my career as well and next thing ya' know the pandemic hit. But then I noticed, other people noticed that I looked healthier and happier and actually felt it. I thought  to myself maybe this new found peace and happiness is connected to sea kayaking?

Sea kayaking is more than just a boat. It's a challenge that helps you grow and overcome your fears. It changes your life by showing you the most astounding looks at nature, so much so that you never look at the Earth the same way again. Sea kayaking is a form of soulful exercise combined with the joy of human-powered tranportation. Nothing beats the feeling of getting to a distant shoreline or island using your own willpower and strength.

My truest goal is to get more people paddling because there's a modern day sickness induced by a disconnection to nature, lack of exercise and a mind poisoned by too much screen time. I hope you continue to paddle. For those that haven't, let's get you started!

This blog is supposed to be helpful but be forewarned there will be a lot about my journey to becoming a sea kayaker as well. How did a sort-of normal person that didn't kayak that often become a year-round sea kayaker, certified instructor and tour business owner that paddles all over Lake Superior and Lake Michigan? Guess you'll just have to stick around and read on! 

And I hope you do. I've learned so much from this paddle-centric life that has brought me so much health and happiness that I feel like I need to share this with you. Thanks for being here!

-Kayak Guide Justin

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