By Conor Mihell
Long before the Lumpy Waters, Golden Gate and Rough Waters symposiums, sea kayakers gathered on Lake Superior’s Canadian shore for the Gales of November Rendezvous. The event was the brainchild of Detroit-based paddler Stan Chladek, which he named after Canadian folk singer Gordon Lightfoot’s famous ballad of the Edmund Fitzgerald, the 729-foot ore-carrier that sunk on Lake Superior in a 1975 storm. Indeed, the Big Fitz was still top of mind when Chladek’s first gathering took place in early November, 1984.
Since then, North America’s original rough-water sea kayak gathering has boomed, busted and spawned countless similar events across the continent. The annual invitation-only rendezvous has been called “a bunch of men sitting around shivering and drinking beer”—but only to the uninitiated. Sure, there’s some drinking involved (for the record, Captain Morgan’s spiced rum is the beverage of choice), but paddling has remained central to the event. Days are spent tracing the cliff-bound shore of Lake Superior Provincial Park to the Ojibwa pictographs at Agawa Rock; surfing overhead waves in long boats at Katherine Cove; and braving freak snowstorms to visit the sacred islands of Cape Gargantua.
Lately there’s been a revival of sorts. The infamous old woodstove-heated, canvas “moose tent” that was a Gales fixture in the ’80s and early ’90s has made a comeback. And so have the rough-water exploits, buoyed by a new generation of rough-water paddlers on the Canadian side of the lake. Chladek, the Gales’ central figure, has yet to miss a year. At 74, he’s a bit slower than he used to be, but he’s still the life of the party, and he still calls the shots when it comes to where we decide to paddle. “It’s like a pilgrimage,” he says in his thick Czech accent. “I need to do this once a year.”