Doug Van Doren and I arrived in Wawa Ontario midday on Friday. We stepped out of the car to view Rock Island Lodge’s panoramic view of both the Michipicoten River mouth and Lake Superior. The dappled gray rocks, with pock marks of orange lichen and moss stripe the pillowed rock formations the lodge sits upon. Those rocks serve as a small, but seemingly functional barrier to the world’s largest and often most tempestuous body of freshwater in the world.

Doug was invited as a guest instructor. Earlier this year I inquired with “Conor”: the organizer of the event about tagging along with Doug. Conor graciously agreed and I made arrangements to accompany Doug to Wawa for the Symposium. I really wanted to make a start on instructing at a few events this year other than the “WMCKA”: Symposium.

I also attended Grand Marais this year. I unfortunately did not get to teach very much there, I really only had one class. So I kind of felt wanting for some further depth in experience as an instructor.

Teaching is a funny thing. One would think the ability to clearly explain a skill, break it down, and then diagram its components is a prerequisite for someone who writes software requirements and specifications.

I’ve been watching and learning from other instructors this summer and trying to learn from them. I’d like to think I made some progress. But I think it is clear to me now that the ability to demonstrate a skill is completely separate from the ability to teach it. Hopefully my youth, skill, and enthusiasm made up for some relative inexperience in instruction.

Early on Friday Doug taught a forward stroke clinic to the Naturally Superior staff. I was surprised and enthused by the group’s high skill level. I watched as many of them demonstrated side sculls, side slips, draws, and various rudders while on the move. I can typically tell when someone is intermediate to advanced by watching how they move their blade vertically next to the boat. If they have some hesitancy or trepidation, they usually need some work on bracing or rolling in addition to the draw stroke itself. But “David Wells”: staff all demonstrated remarkable competence from what I could see. They all improved their forward stroke demonstrably within the time Doug spent with them. I also tried to absorb a lot of the material for the next day. Having been in and helped teach the class I marveled at the working blueprint of the class and how he taught it. I helped a few students learn a norsaq assisted hand roll and the reverse low brace sweep roll.

We finished up with the class and managed to squeeze out to play in the surf at the mouth of the Michipicoten River. The river is dammed in four spots and as the day progresses towards dinner, the dams are released for further current to power homes. As the current sped up, the mouth of the river near the lodge began to form noticeable standing waves and eddies. The wind was clipping in steadily at 10-12 knots. Small 2 foot waves were forming nicely near the lighthouse. The group headed out and then climbed onto the triangular wedge of current and wind to ride it in. My Silhouette easily climbed onto the small bit of greenwater. I rode the face of a series of small waves with sprinting paddle strokes until I attained, then ruddered while on the wave. As I neared the light, a slightly larger front wave held the kayak more or less in place and stern ruddering held the boat in the pocket. The pocket was so small though that once off it was hard to regain without broaching and then having to climb on from the back. We ran the triangle two or three times, and I ran it once backwards just for kicks and giggles. The staff left the water to prepare for the Friday meal.

Doug and I continued out to paddle into the wind and then back for an hour or two. Don Goss came with us and kept remarkable pace considering the company. We had a quick ride back to find the triangle had grown more through the dinner hour. I played back and forth, took pictures and then found a perfect, but small retentive spot to hang in the current. I practiced ferry gliding back and forth smiling as I remembered my trip down the Wolf River last year around this time with Alex Pak and Derrick Mayoleth. Eventually I Also found some other small waves building closer to the rocks and surfed them until I just about crashed into the rocks and then luckily shot into the eddy.

Dinner was fantastic. No two words about it. Excellent pasta, bread, and salad. Good green salads aren’t something you come by often in the great white north. “Vince”: the chef does a fine job of keeping the quality up on large meals.

An evening paddle was arranged with the participants. We saddled up and paddled out with the group towards the south end of the bay where David Wells wanted us to see some islands on the far side. We paddled in formation along with about 4-5 paddlers. After Grand Marais I was pleasantly surprised to see the skill level of the participants. The swells were coming in from the west nice and slow, but at times boats and people were disappearing on the other side. David led us through to the islands where we scooted along the mainland surfing down wind. I caught some nice rides downwind. I spotted a large set of rocks underwater at the last minute and narrowly missed them by side slipping off while underway. We whipped around back towards the north and squeezed in between some rocks. The group paddled well together with only a few halts to keep everyone together. The waves were consistent again in the river mouth. We let the participants surf through the triangle. Rob ran through several times as did Don Goss. I myself stayed a bit extra and surfed along with Conor and Vince who made it back out after dinner. I really enjoyed grabbing the front wave on the triangle and letting it hold the kayak in place.

The next morning the participants divided into groups. Robin and I took the beginners. Oddly enough I’ve done plenty of beginner instruction. But mainly it has been with young, fit, and very enthusiastic students. I do not have very many reluctant students. I’ve tended to have the reverse where people want to start with white water rapids and surfing with no training, and I am the stick in the mud who tells them they have to learn some skills. We had some newer paddlers who needed to be coaxed into learning to wet exit. Which is *very* sensible if you have a student who might panic while underwater. Robin luckily had the tact of an FBI psychologist talking a gunman out of a Bank. She really did a terrific job getting the newer students under way. I will walk away with her attention to need, patience, and deliberate approach to teaching.

We worked most of the morning simply on forward stroke and sweep strokes. I worked in my two favorite exercises for forward stroke instruction, “rock em sock em robot” and “t-rex paddling”. Torso rotation is hard concept to get because your arms frankly get in the way. So by either fully extending and locking the arms for rock em sock em robot paddling, or fully removing them where the elbow is locked in to the side with the wilted t-rex arm paddling; the student focuses on the trunk and not their arms. To boot-it’s fun to do and to watch. The afternoon we spent on more sweep strokes, turning with edging and some side sculling, draws, and a bit of ruddering.

Doug’s rolling demo, which although I have seen many, many times, went really well. I always have to marvel at his ease in his kayak when rolling. Because it is matched with an ease in rough water, speed, and efficiency on the move. I saw a lot of great rollers at Qajaq Training Camp in Michigan. But none really have his seamanship, speed, or skill with all of the other strokes that make kayaking the fluid and dynamic delight that is kayaking.

The Canadians kept passing random objects to Doug for him to roll with, such as: a rusty axe, a peg leg, (also known as the ghetto leg) a bicycle seat, and a drain pipe. All of which he managed to complete some variety of roll. The bicycle seat was my favorite as he was able to complete a forward recovery hand roll with it.

The band “Clay Rooster”: a four-piece, played a very excellent show. The four piece played a series of original tunes on guitar, lap-steel, drums, and bass. The song-writing was excellent and the execution with no amps or pa, was dead on for the small front room at the lodge. The drummer, playing barefoot, sang excellent harmonies with Dunn the guitarist and front man. Most of the songs were about Canadian place names, which I am a sucker for. To quote Tom Waits: _”I like a song that has a place name, something to eat, and some clothing, then I feel like I can move in and try it on.”_

The moon was almost full behind the band in the darkened bay windows of the lodge as they finished their set. I went outside on the rocks and watched the moon rise over the water. On that evening, just like on many others at the lodge. I felt I had visited often, but never really settled in. I wanted to move in forever, and unpack my boxes.

Sunday was the final day of instruction and the “Greenland” games. We divided the participants up into teams with the instructors as team captains. My team took an early and long lead in the portage race. Rob took off like a shot cutting of Serge like a horse on the outside of the rail. When it finally came to me, both Bonnie and Doug were hot on my heels, and I paddled like hell to keep the lead. I could hear Bonnie behind me. But when I rounded the lighthouse, I could tell she was not that close. When I reached the sand spit at the mouth of the river, I popped the tuiliq and got on land. I shouldered my Silhouette, (all 56 lbs of it). My knees buckled as I panted for breath. I quickly regained my footing and ran with the kayak on my shoulder to the water and dropped the boat, half on land, half in the water. I heard a collective “ow” from the crowd; as in wow that must have hurt your kayak. I hopped in and paddled like hell some more. I crossed the finish line well ahead of Doug and Bonnie. I sat panting for at least a minute and then Bonnie, followed closely by Doug crossed the finish line. Doug made up a lot of ground on the race, but I am still left wondering who would’ve come out on top if we’d left at the same time! Team Wikle won the portage race thanks to the quick start, and the sustained effort of Rob, and Leif, and the whole team!

The rolling contest started next. The contest was to perform as many rolls as you could in 15 seconds. Rob did a terrific job as our first roller getting four. I was our other roller. I haven’t spent a lot of time analyzing how quick certain rolls are, but I know that a norsaq assisted handroll while pinned to the backdeck is crazy fast. However, it’s so fast you become sick after 4-5. A storm roll is slower by far, but still faster than an extended roll, and you don’t get sick until around 7-8. Bonnie and I went at the same time. I saw Bonnie start with an extended paddle roll, and I was set up for my storm roll. I snapped off what seemed like 4 quick rolls when I felt my boat contact Bonnie’s. I kept rolling, as did Bonnie! I stopped after what felt like 9 rolls. And looked at the crowd. It turned out I had completed seven in the alloted time.

When I took my tuiliq hood off, people were cracking jokes about our kayaks humping. Bonnie, quickly stated that her kayak was: “on top”. I told her I didn’t mind women putting in all the effort.
Our team closed out the rolling contest in the lead as well.

The “kill the seal event” was pretty cool. The object is for a swimmer, designated as the seal to swim evade the team members in kayaks. The team will use nerf balls in kayaks to kill the seal, by hitting it three times with the nerf ball. The seal may defend themselves by tapping a kayak forcing them to roll, (if they can) or touching terra firma. I think I may suggest that as a rodeo event for next year’s WMCKA symposium. Our team got the unlucky draw of Naturally Superior’s local triathalon champion swimmer Derrick Murray. He jumped in the water and immediately dove deep, lengthening his body and eerily projecting himself towards my kayak. I chose to get in the Mega Maverick for this event, erroneously thinking my maneuverability might be an aid. I was wrong the seal tapped my kayak on the first try, so I rolled. I came up close and hit him once. My team members were collecting the balls, and furiously attempting to pelt the seal. I came in close again, and the seal swam under my boat again, eerily deep and creepily fast. I waited and waited, and then he surfaced. I hit him again, but he tapped my boat a second time. I was essentially drawing fire in my small kayak. Which helped us when one of the other paddlers got him a third time. Our kill the seal time was 1:45.

The next closest time was 1:50, so team Wikle took all three events. In recognition of our “achievement” team Wikle received a beautiful copy of the McGuffin’s photo book, “Superior, Journeys On An Inland Sea By Gary and Joanie McGuffin”:
It’s a book I’ve always wanted to own. And coincidentally makes any trip around Superior in a Kayak look tame, as they traveled in a canoe with their 3 year old daughter and a dog!.

This event is one of the best Symposiums I’ve attended thus far. The food, the instruction, and the location make this one for an annual summer retreat. the availability of rough water under somewhat controlled conditions makes it an easy primer to true sea kayaking and surfing with good bail-outs at low risk. The lodge is the coolest place on earth as far as I’m concerned. Wildlife and true wilderness are right out the backdoor for a post/pre symposium trip. I hope to be invited back next year!

Check out the Photos.


  1. Nice reading and pics:)

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  4. Nice report Keith.

  5. Good stuff keith. Sounds like a great time!