Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan
By: Steve Lutsch
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is a stunning jewel on the Lake Superior shore of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Administered by the United States National Park Service, and the U.S. Department of the Interior, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore encompasses some of the most interesting and dynamically beautiful coastline found on the Great Lakes. Although only three miles wide at it’s widest point the park protects more than forty miles of Lake Superior shoreline. These coastal lands are owned by the National Parks Service and form the actual National Park. A second buffer zone has been developed inland from this coastal zone to establish greater protection of the park. This buffer zone consists of lands under a mixture of public and private ownership managed in a manner that will retain thearea’s existing character to help support and enhance the coastal National Park zone.
The 15 mile section of sandstone rock cliff that rise directly from Lake Superior northeast of the town of Munising to heights from 50 to 200 feet are the actual pictured rocks for which the park has been named. Here Superior’s waves have sculpted caves, arches and many strange formations into this soft rock. To the Ojibwa Natives of Lake Superior this area was the “Land of Thunder and the Gods”. Traveling along this coastline today one can visualize why the natives came to such a conclusion. The many caves and hollows carved into the cliff wall gurgle and breath with the slightest oscillation of Superiors surface. Add wave action into the mix and the cliff wall becomes a symphony of drums booming and thundering as air and water become compressed into the sea caves and explode outward. There are many tour boats that offer sightseeing excursions along this coast that depart several times a day from Munising but a skilled kayaker will have an exhilarating experience of being up close and personal with the wonders of this shore.
The sandstone being very porous allows for groundwater to seep down these cliff walls. This groundwater draws minerals from the earth and deposits a cavalcade of colours almost like paint in flowing bands down the many layersof the sedimentary sandstone. The rock wall is like an ever – changing artists canvas. There are even bands of blue created by the deposition of the mineral azurite, amazing. Azurite is a blue copper ore. A Superior storm will wash away much of these multi coloured mineral splashes of paint and in time another masterpiece appears. A good friend of mine describes the Pictured Rocks as the place mother nature has fun with graffiti. The colours and vividness of these mineral deposits varies from wet to dry years. Obviously during a dry year there is less ground water to draw out the colourful minerals. Regardless, it’s easy to see how the place got its name. As you travel east beyond the ramparts of the Pictured Rocks the coastline eases to form what is called Twelve Mile Beach. This long beach showcases the clarity of Lake Superior as you paddle along its shallows on a calm day. The water has such a pure, clearness that you have a feeling of floating along a tropical shore. That topical feel is visual only. When you dip your hand into the clear waters of Superior the coldness snaps you back to reality.
Rounding Au Sable Point and passing the Au Sable Lighthouse we see the spectacular Grand Sable Dunes. Rising to points almost 500 feet above the lake. These dunes have grown due to wind erosion that piled sand up onto the banks from original glacial deposits 10,000 years ago. Arguably Grand Sable Dune is one of the biggest dune structures on the Great Lakes. There is a four square mile area of wind deposited sand between Grand Sable Lake and Lake Superior. You get a feeling of being somewhere on the Sahara Dessert in North Africa when you experience this area.
Just to the east of the park is the town of Grand Marais Michigan. Grand Marais is the host base of the largest and oldest Sea Kayaking Symposium within the Great Lakes Basin. The kayak symposium is held each July. The town offers Woodland Park for camping, various tourist accommodations and boaters can anchor in the harbour.
It was because of this symposium that I was introduced to these Pictured Rocks, Grand Island and all the beauty of the Michigan shore of Lake Superior between Grand Marais and Munising. Good friends and symposium founders, Stan and Emma Chladek had pressed me to participate and help out as an instructor from the outset over 25 years ago. Stan and I had joined forces during many kayak adventures over the years. Some of our adventures were epic experiences I shall never forget.
To be honest I had developed a bias preference for the wilder wilderness experienced on Canadian side of the lake. Until seeing the Pictured Rocks region I had falsely imagined the American side to be tame. What I discovered, thanks to the symposium, was that the border dividing Lake Superior is merely a man made fabrication. The lake itself is one amazing entity and no one side has exclusivity over the other when it comes to the beauty, wonderment and magic.
The kayak symposium has its roots connected with the pioneers of the sport of Sea Kayaking. Modern sea kayaking and specific modern sea kayak designs came on stream in the mid 1970’s. Before that, as far as the Great Lakes goes I can testify some paddlers did venture out on open water venues outside the comfort zone of an open canoe in decked kayaks. These touring models resembled larger versions of slalom kayaks with less hull rocker to add forward directional stability and tracking. Only when Sam Cook a keen kayak enthusiast approached Frank Goodman a British kayak builder and owner of Valley Canoe Products in Nottingham England about designing a modern sea – touring kayak with specific features to meet the riggers of a true coastal expedition did a serious new concept develop. Sam Cook had proposed a 400 – mile expedition up the coast of Norway to the northern tip of continental Europe. That northern point of land is called the Nordcapp. When Sam and Frank sat down to layout needs and desires of modern kayak adventures the first modern commercial sea touring design became available. The kayak was named the Nordkapp. The 1975 Nordkapp expedition was a success and the Nordkapp sea kayak was placed into the Greenwich Maritime Museum in the United Kingdom as the pivotal design introduction to modern sea kayaking.
Frank Goodman had been building a Greenland Inuit inspired design under license called the Anas Acuta, (pintail in Latin). The history of the Anas Acuta is linked to West Greenland and an Inuit kayak builder named Emmanuel Korniliussen. Inuit kayaks had been around for millennia but by 1959 Emmanuel was one of the last kayak builders in the village of Igdlorssuit Greenland. Kenneth Taylor, a kayaker and student of Glasgow University was persuaded by Harald Drever, a professor at St. Andrews University in Scotland to combine his studies with his paddling interests and go investigate the Greenland kayak and its place in Inuit Culture. Harald Drever and Ken Tayor had both been members of Scotland’s Hostellers’ Canoe Club. Emmanuelle Korniliussen had built a kayak for Harald Drever back in 1937.
In 1959 Ken spent three months in Greenland. During this time Emmanuelle also built Ken a sealskin – covered kayak, complete with hunting equipment. This kayak returned to Scotland with Ken. In1964 Ken moved to the United States. His kayak was left in the care of Joe Reid and Duncan R. Winning. They took measurements and did drawings of the hull. These drawings gave rise to the building of many semi-replicas built by do-it-yourselfers. In the late 1960’s Duncan Winning gave a set of his drawings of Ken’s kayak to English paddler Geoffrey Blackford. Geoffrey Blackford lengthened the kayak 9.75 inches from the original and modified the ends to suit plywood construction and fitted the deck and cockpit to accommodate larger paddlers. This kayak became the Anas Acuta. Carel Quaife, a British Canoe Union development officer, produced a mold for fiberglass construction. Alan Byde, a popular coach and author later refined the mold before Frank Goodman took up commercial production. Stan Chladek had a connection to Frank Goodman due to the nature and links within the competitive canoe and kayak racing community within Europe. My connection with Stan originally evolved from a kayak racing background also.
When Stan and Emma Chladek moved to the United States and settled in Southeast Michigan their connections opened the new modern sport of Sea Kayaking, access to the latest innovative kayak designs and the teaching and coaching structure of the British Canoe Union, (BCU) to the regions American and Canadian paddlers. The Chladek’s became a bridge link between the paddling communities of Great Brittan and Europe with a community of paddlers at the Heart of the Great Lakes in both the United States and Canada.
It worked out that paddlers near this heart of the North American Continent from the Detroit Michigan and Windsor Ontario regions had access to true sea kayaks before many folks living on either ocean coast did. The development of the Great Lakes Sea Kayak Symposium grew in momentum and size over the first ten to fifteen years. The venue and proximity to the exhilarating coastline of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore proved a huge draw. The initial development of high quality instruction added to the events reputation of offering the best teaching and coaching standards available. By the mid 1990’s all the instructors had become BCU certified. In fact the location became the gathering place for many North American’s wanting to take part in BCU Instructor Training. Often courses, assessment and testing of skills and teaching began to be conducted the full week prior to the actual symposium. By 1998 a BCU Coach Four Course was offered for the first time in North America at Grand Marais.
But aside from the historic links the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore themselves became the overriding draw. The beauty of the Lake Superior shoreline here helped with the recruitment of lecturer’s and icons of the sport. Everyone wanted to paddle here and be part of this symposium. Symposium organizers were clever to capitalize on the venue and offered a variety of tours to fit every skill level. At times up to seven tour options, each with assigned certified leader and safety team would set out from various points along the coast. The trips ranged in length from a novice outing inside Grand Marais Harbour to a 25 mile circumnavigation of Grand Island.
I still remember the excitement and anticipation of participants and volunteer staff as kayakers from all points of the globe gathered for the opening Thursday sign in for each years weekend symposium. Some folk traveled a very long way but still gathered on the beach of Grand Marais West Bayshore Park around the communal bonfire. Friday was always trip day and as the community of kayakers grew into crowds of hundreds on each welcoming first night there was a sort of energy like a charge of electricity in the air. It was good.
I had paddled every inch of each offered tour over the years. All the shoreline is stunning in its own way but my favorite section is the Pictured Rocks Tour from Miner’s Castle Beach to Chapel Beach and return. I have done this 18-mile round trip over a dozen times, often assigned as trip leader. This tour passes along some of the most interesting sea caves, arches and tallest cliff walls of the park. The highlight is the Grand Portal at Grand Portal Point. I don’t think there is any place more stunning to see and experience than the Grand Portal on all the Great Lakes. The portal is a huge carved out tunnel chamber. Passage through the portal in a kayak is an experience never to be forgotten.
I must be honest some of my fondest memories of my involvement in the sport seem to always swing back to Grand Marais and the Pictured Rocks. It was here that I had the good fortune to paddle side by side with the pioneers ofthe sport, Frank Goodman, Sam Cook, Derek Hutchinson, Nigel Dennis and Bill Taylor from the U.K. The conversations shared with each of these individuals stay with me today. The time shared on the water with them still brings a smile. There was a day during a week of BCU training before the actual symposium when we took a group of candidates up along my favorite shore east of Miner’s castle Beach. There is a natural arch along this wonderful coast. Sam Cook was paddling next to me in conditions not conducive to a relaxed tour. The waves had grown to a size of substance and along the cliff wall confused seas and reflective waves created a challenge. The surf blasted through this arch. Sam looked over at me and I could read his mind. He took the lead and together we surfed our kayaks under the arch. I saw the exhilaration of joy on the face of a grown man several years my senior having uninhibited fun. I got it. That freedom to let go and fully enjoy life is something I hold onto.
It’s been some years since I have been involved in the Great Lakes Sea Kayak Symposium. Time and focus on other far off destinations and adventures to feed my spirit needed to be satisfied. Stan and I have long gone in separate directions. It’s been over a decade since we spoke. His kayak distribution and retail business along with the establishment of the Great Lakes Sea Kayaking Club based in Michigan had been the driving force of the symposium.
There had been questions about what will become of the Great Lakes Sea Kayak Symposium after the Chladek’s involvement. Talk was heard of the site being moved down to Michigan’s Thumb region on Lake Huron. From my understanding Down Wind Sports a local outdoor gear retailer and kayak shop www.downwindsports.com has stepped up to keep the symposium alive and well. I understand the American Canoe Association, (ACA) instruction program and classes are offered now. I also have seen some of the names of fine paddlers that had taken part in some of my instruction years ago are now guest speakers sharing their skills and knowledge. I feel good about that. I am happy to hear many good things about the Grand Marais Great Lakes Sea Kayak Symposium.
During my paddling carrier The Pictured Rocks, Grand Marais Michigan and the Great Lakes Sea Kayak Symposium have always been a sort of compass point I swing back to. I need to thank Stan Chladek for pulling me in that direction so very long ago. I wish nothing but the best to Down Wind Sports and the volunteers now keeping the event alive and thriving. It may be time to follow that compass again and return.
Steve Lutsch lives in Windsor Ontario. Steve was involved with the Great Lakes Sea Kayak Symposium and the BCU instructors training for many years as a senior instructor, tour leader, lecturer, slide show presenter and even the evening program master of ceremonies. He feels the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is one of the prime kayaking destinations anywhere.