By CONOR MIHELL
When it’s going off at the mouth of the Michipicoten River, on the northeastern Ontario shore of Lake Superior, the three-mph current of one of the Big Lake’s largest tributaries clashes with big, feisty, short period swells that sometimes top 10 feet. The result is “pandemonium,” says local outfitter and lodge owner David Wells. For adventurous sea kayakers, this means long, carving rides on the shoulder of the break and enders, cartwheels and pirouettes in the chaotic meat of the surf zone.
This October, the Illinois- and Michigan-based organizers of the Gales Storm Gathering hope the mighty Michipicoten is at its gnarliest best for their second-annual rough-water sea kayaking festival, which debuted last year on Lake Superior’s south shore in Marquette, Mich. Ryan Rushton of Chicago’s Geneva Kayak Center and freelance instructor and blogger Keith Wikle of Kalamazoo, Mich., conceived the event as a means of introducing intermediate paddlers to surf and current and to provide a safe environment for advanced paddlers to hone their skills. The gathering moves to a new location each year. In 2012 they’ve partnering with Wells’ Wawa, Ontario-based Rock Island Lodge, a bed and breakfast and sea kayak outfitting service, Naturally Superior Adventures, located on a seven-acre spit of wave-washed bedrock and sand adjacent to the notorious Michipicoten break, pictured below.
The symposium is organized in two parts: A five-day “coaching week” Sept. 30-Oct. 4 featuring BCU, ACA and Paddle Canada instruction; and a four-day rough-water symposium slated for Oct. 5-8. Guest coaches include Britain’s Andy Stamp and Nick Cunliffe, Washington state’s Leon Somme and Shawna Franklin, and Canada’s Christopher Lockyer, among a handful of other Great Lakes-based instructors.
Coaching week involves certified training and the gathering itself includes shorter workshops focused on paddling in current, rock gardens surf, night navigation, advanced rescues and women-specific programs. Wikle says the event is ideal for experienced sea kayakers looking for a challenge. “We’re about progressive risk-taking,” he says. “It’s about reaching for that next rung on the ladder. But if you slip, you’ve got people to catch you.”
Wikle also touts the rugged beauty and isolation of Lake Superior’s Canadian shore. But mostly, as an ardent surf kayaker himself, Wikle is itching to see what type of conditions the lake and river will deliver. “The Michipicoten River is the closest I’ve seen to a tide race on the Great Lakes,” he says. “You can have wind against current in such a way that you’ll actually have a standing wave forming just like on the ocean.”