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Exactly one week ago, Lake Michigan was inflicting its last water torture as I plodded into a moderate head wind and chop from Sleeping Bear Dunes to Betsie Point and the last checkpoint before the finish. One objective stood out that Friday, and seven hours of paddling later I reached Betsie Point light. Now, a week later, my abrasions are almost healed, most of my feeling is back in my hands, and my ravenous appetite has eased.
My wooden Pygmy Osprey HP had gotten me through two prior successful attempts and one failed attempt to complete Water Tribe challenges (www.watertribe.com). The race format is an unstaged, unsupported long-distance small boat race in which each challenger is responsible for his or her food, shelter, and safety. The successful completion rate of these long distance races is about 40 percent.
I had expected to finish the 300 miles on Thursday following a Saturday morning start, but I was slowed by head winds and the infamous Great Lakes chop. Six days after the start, on Friday, from atop the 400-foot high Sleeping Bear dunes, Maura, my wife, was watching me a mile off shore. She said I looked like a speck, even through the observation binoculars from the dune lookout, but I had no feeling of being watched. I only felt a mixture of muscle tiredness, various little aches, and the ever-present pleasure of feeling the water and air as I approached the next point of land.
Throughout the event, the general weather pattern was a north to northeast wind during our northern journey up the Lake Huron shore, then a south to southwest wind during our south to southwest leg down Lake Michigan. I am convinced that Mother Nature has a wierd sense of humor. The very last day, Saturday, a light north wind, finally coming from my stern, turned rambunctious for the last hour or so, as if Mother Nature was reminding me who was boss. I took down my Spirit Sail downwind rig for the last hour just to deprive Mother Nature of any last-minute tricks. Into the final stretch, rounding the Manistee breakwater was a roller coaster experience as the mixed-up chop and boat wakes got my attention.
My overall time to finish the event was 2 1/2 days longer than the Everglades Challenge in March 2003, a race of similar distance. I did, however, get plenty of sleep as I awoke several mornings at 3 a.m. to start the day only to climb back into the sleeping bag until the weather eased. I chose not to paddle at night when winds exceeded 15 knots and seas exceeded 2 feet, as I was paddling alone and did not want to compound with darkness any problems I might have.
Several nights I paddled into the evening and continued until the weather picked up beyond my comfort level. The first night was just such an experience as I paddled towards the Middle Island navigation light. Winds and chop increased until I decided to quit for the night. Heading to shore, I landed on the rocks, dragged/carried my boat up onto the rocks, then collected my sleeping gear to find a suitable tent site. The wind picked up through the night such that I had to check the security of the boat at my desired starting time of 3 a.m. At my delayed start time of first light, winds were northeast and chop was 3 to 5 feet. I forged ahead around Presque Island and on to Checkpoint 1, by which time wind and weather had subsided to a gentle breeze.
Off-shore paddling is boring for some. For me it=s a zen experience to see the distant objective grow closer over the hours of paddling. I like to describe the distance to shores and points in magnitudes; magnitude 3 is when the shoreline is just barely in site, where the trees look like ghostly images just visible across the water; at magnitude 2 some shore features such as buildings, antennas, smokestacks become visible; magnitude 1 is when people and beaches can be seen as specs along the shoreline.
Monday at 4 a.m. I was on the water, and I looked up to see white curtains of light in the northern sky with intermittent wide flashes of light, like cloud lightning but spread over large portions of the sky. This was my first view of northern lights. As daylight took over, the calm seas let me fully appreciate the clear, Key West-green water of Lake Huron. I felt as if I could fall 30 feet down onto the rocks clearly visible below. I spotted the Mackinac Straits bridge from a distance of 30 miles as I approached Bois Blanc Island. Four miles from the bridge I pulled ashore to phone my check-in; then when I returned to the water I ran into Michael and Brian Collins in their Kruger sailing canoe. We approached the bridge and dodged the many ferries as we passed under the bridge. As night fell, I looked behind me to see the bridge span brightly lit; quite a sight.
Weather was predicted to build through the day Tuesday and continue with 15 to 20 knot winds and 4 to 6 foot seas into Tuesday afternoon and all of Wednesday. Early Tuesday morning the winds and seas were already 15 knots and 2 to 3 feet, so I hung with Michael and Brian Collins and we decided to wait out the weather at Cross Village, just south of Waugoshance Point into Lake Michigan. We were treated to the hospitality of Ray and Jan Meyer, who put us up in their travel trailer. We had a very comfortable afternoon and night, except that the weather eased, contrary to forecasts, and we lost 12 to 18 hours of good travel time. I learned a tactical key to traveling the Great Lakes. The weather is unpredictable and changes rapidly. In order to make the best time, one needs to be always ready to take advantage of favorable weather. Our stay with the Meyers, although very enjoyable and a nice break, cost us dearly.
The race course required three bay crossings; Thunder Bay on Lake Huron, Little Traverse Bay and Grand Traverse Bay on Lake Michigan. I crossed the first two under satisfactory, if not ideal, conditions. I started the Grand Traverse Bay crossing Thursday morning after leaving Charlevoix Checkpoint 3 the day before. My launch from Little Fisherman=s Island had been delayed by a 5 a.m. thunderstorm. As usual, I bucked a southerly headwind as I approached the crossing. Around 9 a.m. I committed myself to the crossing in spite of the headwinds and forecast for thunderstorms, as the western sky was perfectly clear. Headwinds of 10 to 20 knots and spilling seas of 4 to 6 feet made for slow, wet progress. My kayak crested the steep, high chops with half to 2/3 of the boat length up in the air then slammed down on the other side of the waves. About halfway across thunderstorms appeared to the northwest but past over north of me. As I got within about 2 miles of land, another thunderstorm appeared that was obviously heading directly for me. I picked up my pace and landed at Leelanau Point light about 15 minutes before the storm hit. Matt Layden was not so lucky and weathered the storm during his crossing. He commented that it could have been worse because the storm winds, from the west, did not reinforce the southerly seas. I passed the time in a picnic shelter chatting with a touring bicyclist and eating a freeze-dried meal.
Matt Layden and I arrived Thursday evening at the last checkpoint, Frankfort, around 9 p.m. within an hour of each other. With only 35 miles to go, I was wondering whether I needed to continue to secure first-place paddler and second overall or whether Matt and I could agree to a night=s sleep then depart in the morning. Since Matt had been paddling since Wednesday morning for about 36 hours, I thought he would rather sleep. I set up my tent then approached Matt and asked if he was going to get some rest. He said he would set up his tent and sleep. I said AI=ll see you in the morning,@ and Matt concurred. Nevertheless, I stuck my head out of my tent about 3 a.m to check, and I was reassured to see Matt=s tent and no activity. We both got up around 6 a.m. and hit the water around 7:00. I figured I would safely arrive before Matt since what I had lacked in long, overnight paddles I had made up for with speed. A gently northeast wind started us on our way, and I arrived in Manistee around 2 p.m., the winds having picked up through the day. I had expected Matt about 2 hours later, but with his effective sail rig he arrived only an hour after I landed at the finish. Excepting VanMan and Draco in their 21-foot Hobie, all the paddler/sailors arrived surprisingly within 6 1/2 hours of each other on Saturday, after 7 1/2 days of paddling and sailing.
Vanman and Draco (George Van Sickle and Stephanie White) exercised their well-honed skills to arrive 2 days before the rest of us. Matt Layden sailed in to the finish line on a beam reach, using his paddle for a lee board and rudder. Steve Bailey, on his second attempt at the Michigan Challenge, paddled his Nordkapp Jubilee to the finish in early evening, and Nick Hall peddled/paddled/sailed his Hobie Mirage to the finish after a harrowing bay crossing and rescue.
What=s next? Everglades Coastal Challenge, a 270-mile pleasure (?) paddle down Florida=s southwest coast, St. Petersburg to Key Largo. Watch out for Florida Bay!
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