By: Tom Bamonte
I attended GLSKS this year for the first time with Luis Caro, a favorite neighbor and paddling companion. We learned on the long drive up that Luis, a native of Puerto Rico, has a real fondness of empanadas, a pastry filled with good stuff that is a staple throughout Latin America and elsewhere in the tropical world.
When I described the glory that is the pasty, the high point of the cuisine of the Upper Peninsula (an ungenerous person might say this is like being the tallest person at a midgets convention), Luis wasn't biting. He argued that the empanada had been developed over the centuries by a rich and flavorful Spanish culture that spanned the globe. According to Luis a pastry developed by impoverished miners in the cold and dank environs of Great Britain and then rudely transplanted to the United States where it was embraced by Finns could not come close to matching empanadas.
I bite my tongue, but when Luis stopped to catch his breath I predicted that Luis would consider his first pasty a life-changing event. I described the sturdy goodness of the rutabaga, the noble root vegetable that is in every true patsy.
Luis confessed that he had never tasted a rutabaga and I pointed out that the absence of the rutabaga from Spanish cuisine no doubt led to the long decline of the Spanish Empire. Luis countered that the bastardization of the empanada in the form of the pasty had undoubtedly coarsened the culture of Great Britain, leading directly to its colonialist depredations that stunted development in wide swatches of the tropical world where empanadas are king.
I responded that I envisioned him going back to Puerto Rico as the pasty evangelist, spreading the rutabaga gospel and freeing people from the bonds of tradition and their overly spicy and unsubtle empanadas. Alternatively, I sketched a vision of Luis opening a pasty parlor in Chicago, attracting Yooper expatriates, hipster foodies and recovering empanada addicts in equal measure.
As we engaged in this spirited debate the miles clipped away and before long we cruised into downtown Grand Marais.
The town is perched on the west side of a nice harbor. The symposium is located on the beach. Off-water events are held at the town recreation center. I was told by a local that on GLSKS weekend kayakers literally take over the town and the locals are glad to have us because we are much better behaved than the hordes that descend in the winter on their snowmobiles.
To the west, between Grand Marais and Munising, an hour's drive and 35 mile paddle away, lies the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, which includes the towering Grand Sable Dunes. Grand Island, another prime paddling destination, is just outside of Munising. GLSKS takes full advantage of these sites by hosting a variety of day trips customized to all skill levels.
Luis and I camped in the Woodland Park Campground, which is located on a bluff overlooking Lake Superior within an easy walk of the symposium and town. The campground has showers, flush toilets and running water, so it is not a wilderness camping experience. All these amenities, however, are much appreciated after a long day at the symposium.Luis and I were lucky to find relatively secluded camping spots with especially nice views of the lake.
This year's symposium was organized by Down Wind Sports, a U.P. outfitter with stores in Marquette and Houghton. Down Wind also organizes the Ladies of the Lake symposium. (The 2010 edition opens on August 12.) I have nothing but good things to report about the Down Wind folks--friendly and helpful.
GLSKS was packed with kayaking luminaries. Freya Hoffmeister was the headliner, but there were well known instructors from all over the country in attendance as well. From everything I heard and observed all of the instructors, from Freya on down to the lowest ranking piker, were extremely generous with their time and expertise. Chicago was well represented at the symposium by Scott Fairty, the Bloyd-Peshkins, Lyn Stone, Hether Hoffman, Danny Thorley and likely several others I've failed to mention.
On Thursday I took the all-day Grand Island trip led by the Bloyd-Peshkins. The weather was perfect and the water in Lake Superior was unusually warm--almost scary warm for Lake Superior. Grand Island features colorful cliffs and inviting beaches and the trip was a great introduction to the area.
On our way back from Grand Island Luis and I stopped at Muldoon's, a venerable pasty shop between Munising and the ferry launch for Grand Island. As Luis worked his way through his pasty I could tell from his intense silence that it was a profound experience. He was unlearning years of eating spicy and piquant food so he could appreciate the mellow and filling goodness of a Yooper pasty. I'm confident that from now on he will have a pang of regret every time he frequents an empanada shop, yearning for a pasty while he has to settle for an empanada.
The next day I joined the trip along the Pictured Rocks. This was a spectacular paddle along towering cliffs and waterfalls. Scott Fairty was one of the trip leaders (after have driven all night from Chicago) and he kindly let a group of us paddle up close to the cliff faces, playing in the sometimes confused water and doing our best not to gouge the bottoms of our boats on the rocks. I'm so glad to have taken this paddle, one of the best ever stretches of shoreline for paddling in my book.
These day trips were a great way to meet fellow paddlers from all over. Some of these paddlers were from areas without an established paddling community and they complained of feeling isolated. It made me feel fortunate to be part of a large paddling community in Chicago, were we can be isolated together. Some of the people on these 18 mile trips were relatively new to paddling, but they did a great job keeping up and learning on the water. Other were old hands, having attended GLSKS for years.
On Saturday I took classes. These included a surf class because Lake Superior had picked up with 2-4 footers. I had so much fun in class that I stayed afterwards to play around with several other like-minded folks in the surf and chop where the beach met the breakwater at the entrance to the harbor.
On Saturday night the GLSKS crowd headed for the local high school gym for a pasty dinner hosted by the students. The pasties were made by the local kids under the guidance, we hoped, of the town's pasty experts. There were filling side dishes and extremely rich desserts as well, Freya Hoffmeister then gave her round Australia talk.
I had seen that talk in Chicago earlier in the week. It is a long way around Australia. I knew that tired kayakers in an overheated and stuffy gym after a heavy meal were in for a struggle. I confess I snuck out to enjoy a shower, see the sun set over the lake, and wander through town at dusk processing all of the good experiences over the past few days.
When I returned to the high school, I saw a small group of folks at the entrance slouching on a bench with their legs splayed before them, panting and nearly cross-eyed. Occasionally, others would stumble out with red faces and rapidly blinking eyes. The combination of a heavy dinner, a hot gym and a long journey was just too much for them.
There was a spirited after-dinner gathering at the local bar. The next morning there was a race. Luis and I were taking down our tents because rain was predicted for later in the morning and we didn't want to have to pack up wet tents. However, we heard that Chicago's own Scott Fairty gave Freya Hoffmeister a run for her money in the race.
My last class was an incident management course led by Keith Wikle, among others. The instructors would designate a leader from among the students, cook up and execute a scenario (e.g., one person throwing up and two people flipped over and a third paddling off into the distance), and let the leader and the group figure out what to do. Once the situation was stabilized the group convened to discuss what had gone right and what had gone wrong. The lessons learned were then, hopefully, applied during the next scenario. It was an extremely valuable learning experience.
After that there was time for one last paddle in the harbor. By now it was raining, after several days of warm, sunny weather. Luis and I packed up our wet paddling gear, which fermented on the long trip home.
While we didn't stop for a patsy on the way home, I know that Luis is counting the days until next year's GLSKS, when he can return to the land of the true empanada.