Craig Zimmerman surfs Lake Superior's south shore near Picture Rocks National Lakeshore, east of Marquette, Mich. Photo: Conor Mihell

By Conor Mihell

It's not too often that kayaker Keith Wikle is disappointed when gale force winds blow through the Great Lakes. Last weekend, when 40-knot northerlies lashed the southern shores of the Third Coast with two-story breakers, Wikle rejoiced in surfing 14-footers on Lake Michigan outside his home in Kalamazoo, Mich. But at the same time, he was a bit miffed. Along with co-organizer Ryan Rushton, Wikle has been planning a rough water sea kayaking symposium on Lake Superior for this weekend, Saturday to Monday, Oct. 8-10. Last weekend's gale would've produced dream conditions for the first Gales Storm Gathering.

"Oh man, it was pretty big," says Wikle, an American Canoe Association (ACA)-certified instructor and founder of "That's what always seems to happen. The week before or the day after you leave, it's huge."

After months of planning, Wikle is still looking forward to this weekend's event in Marquette, Mich., whether or not conditions cooperate. He and Rushton conceived the gathering as a place for aspiring and experienced rough-water sea kayakers to hone their skills and develop a new network of friends. About 40 people have signed up and Wikle and Rushton have recruited 15 instructors, headlined by Shawna Franklin and Leon Sommé, co-owners of Body Boat Blade International on Orcas Island in Washington’s San Juans. "The overall trend of sea kayaking being seen as a static, dull, touring sport has changed," notes Wikle. "This is due to an influx of young, athletic people looking for things to do. This is the type of event that I would've wanted to attend when I was just starting out."

Waves flood the breakwater at Grand Marais, Mich., during a September gale. Photo: Conor Mihell

Paddling sea- and surf-specific kayaks in towering waves is only part of the Gales agenda. Instructional programs include courses in rescues, incident management and navigation. The nearby Menominee River offers paddlers a chance to practice maneuvering "long boats" in tidal-like conditions. There are also tours planned along the nearby Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Wikle says in future years he plans to move the gathering to other locations, including Michipicoten Bay on Lake Superior's Canadian shore and Duluth, Minn. "We were looking for places with lots of options," says Wikle. "We chose Marquette because it has an inner harbor, outer harbor and a beach break, plus there's lots of nearby paddling if it's calm. We also received great support from Downwind Sports,” a local outfitter.

Part of the event's appeal for Wikle is educating paddlers in the good etiquette that's essential for surf safety, as well developing a strong network of paddlers in the Great Lakes. Then there's the element of defiance that's ingrained in all freshwater surfers—the deep-set need to prove that the Inland Seas in the heart of the continent can serve up ocean-like conditions. "There's definitely something to prove. We want to have an event that's every bit as skill driven as the symposium in Anglesey [Wales] or the Rough Water Symposium in Rhode Island," says Wikle. "It's important to show that we've got all that activity here minus the tidal stream."

Check out the schedule and register online HERE » —there’s still time.

Touring the spectacular arches, cliffs and caves of Picture Rocks National Lakeshore is a calm water Plan B. Photo: Conor Mihell