BY CONOR MIHELL
As a sea kayak guide, kindred spirits from around the world frequently paddle into my life. Some join me for a weekend to learn more about kayak camping, and then move on to do trips on their own; others return for the camaraderie of wilderness tripping year after year. Of those from the second camp, my relationship with a handful of paddlers has progressed from client to friend. Jerry Nowak, a social worker from Milwaukee, is one such paddler.
I first met Jerry on a weeklong trip tracing the outer islands of 80-mile Sibley to Rossport section of the Lake Superior National Marine Conservation Area, a wilderness archipelago in northwestern Ontario located between Isle Royale and the Canadian shore. A relative newbie, Jerry rented a sea kayak for the trip. He immediately proved to be a reliable paddler, affable and helpful in camp and always willing to embark on pre-dinner scrambles along the coastline rocks in search of agates and swimming holes—my definition of the ideal guest. When I didn’t hear from him for a few years, I assumed Jerry had decided he no longer needed a guide and was out there, somewhere, paddling on his own.
Then, days before I was scheduled to guide a 10-day trip on Lake Superior’s 110-mile Pukaskwa coast in 2010, Jerry emailed me. He wanted to join the trip, and was wondering if his new Necky Manitou 14—a light touring boat with two bulkheads and hatches and Necky’s trademark “dolphin” bow—was appropriate for the trip. Numbers were low that summer and I didn’t hesitate to reply: “For you, Jerry, it’ll be no problem.”
Jerry admitted he purchased the boat for day paddling in the sheltered harbors of Lake Michigan and for weekend trips on inland lakes in northern Ontario. I think we both had our doubts about its suitability for a multi-day trip on Day One, when Jerry struggled to shoehorn 10 days worth of camping gear and provisions into its relatively small bow and stern hatches. But he managed, and the yellow Manitou proved its seaworthiness a few days later, when weather delays forced us to paddle into twilight in five-foot seas. “It might be a bit slower and it gets bounced around more than the longer boats,” says Jerry. “But it always feels stable and it chugs steadily along”—just like its paddler.
Every summer since, Jerry and his Manitou have returned to join me for a trip. We did a repeat on the Pukaskwa coast—our mutual favorite—and the Sibley to Rossport archipelago in 2012 and last summer along the rugged Lake Superior Provincial Park coast. Earlier this year, I led Jerry and a group of paddlers for a weeklong trip along Lake Superior’s northernmost coast, thus completing his section-by-section transit of the Canadian shore. At the end of the trip I encouraged Jerry to make a traditional offering of tobacco to the lake’s resident spirits and to his beloved Manitou—the little boat that could.