10 incoming Calvin College students had no idea what to expect when they signed up for an 8-day sea kayaking and climbing trip in Canada. We had first time paddlers, first time climbers and even first time campers! Although the students didn't have the experience they had the attitude. They were stoked for what was to come.
In fact, when I was an incoming student I went on the same trip as them, and it was this trip that changed my life course and made me who I am today. It was a transformative trip. Since my first time to the North Channel, I have now been back 8-9 times leading the same trip that I went on as a student, became the head of watersports at my college, instructed weekly rolling & technique clinics, paddled the world (Norway, Costa Rica, New Zealand and all over the States) and now work at Paddling.com as the content manager. Paddling made me who I am, and it was all because of this trip.
This year we were bringing more students paddling than ever before. 3 patrols with 10 incoming students, 2 student leaders and 1 trip director. That's 39 people total. That's 39 kayak seats. That's 39 lifejackets, skirts and group gear. It felt like we were outfitting for an army. Over 8 hours were spent just buying, rationing and repacking food. (We also had 16 students and leaders going to Kentucky to climb, 24 going to the Manitou Islands & Northern Michigan to hike and cycle, and another 30 backpacking Lake Superior Provincial Park.)
After two and half days of prep, we were finally ready to meet our students and start this amazing experience with them. What better way to start college than with 9 strangers on an 8 day wilderness expedition? We ended up with 4 guys and 6 girls from all over the US; from Silicon Valley, to Boulder, to Pittsburg, to Nashville and everywhere in-between.
The first night was spent on campus playing games, giving packing advice, answering questions about the trip having awkward silences, and eating pizza but it was cut short due to the fact we had to be up and ready to go early the next morning for the 8 hour drive from Grand Rapids to the North Channel.
After only one mishap on the drive up, which was realizing 20 minutes in that we were missing one kayak on the trailer, we made it the full 8 hours up and started to unpack and prepare for the adventure ahead. This included giving lessons on how to set up a tent, how to hold your paddle and basic paddling strokes and how to use the stoves to make coffee. Only the essentials. But unfortunately the wind was picking up and it was getting dark so we had to postpone the first paddle 'til the next morning.
After a gorgeous sunrise over the morning fog, a quick meal of granola and the students getting to wake up to one last practice wet exit, we were off. The island we were planning on camping on was around 14 miles away, so for a first day with new paddlers, we knew it was going to be a little of a longer day. Thats a good distance! But mother nature thought she might add some excitement. Building wind and waves throughout the morning meant we were paddling head on into a 15-20 knot wind with 2-3 footers. We had one moment of imbalance and one student went for a swim but after a quick H-rescue we were back on the go. Luckily our route for the day was paddling up and around a peninsula so our morning struggles was our afternoon entertainment. Everyone was getting some good surfs in, even our tandems! After miles of following seas we cut into a bay and went from the waves to glass. After 4 or 5 more miles of cutting in and out of coves, taking shallow shortcuts, seeing dozens of beaver dams and island hoping we made it to our island. A long granite tongue came off the island which resembled a beach. We spent the afternoon and night taking naps on the warm rocks, eating spaghetti and star gazing. Even with a couple bouts of adversity throughout the day, the group was stoked and excited for what what was to come. (7 photos)
After a good night sleep, oatmeal and some morning yoga we head out for our next adventure; rock climbing. we arrive at a 65ft granite face that drops straight into the water. We tied up the boats, grabbed our gear and headed to the top. Because this face ends in the water we run a top-belayed camp on 5 different routes. The next 5 hours were spent climbing, rappelling, rock jumping (off of a near rock, not the 65fter) and eating lunch in the sun. For many of the students this was either their first ever climbing experience or their first time climbing outdoors on real rock and I'm not going to lie, and I've climbed all over the US, this might be one of the best climbing locations. It over looks islands, you can see for miles, and although the climbs are not very difficult they nothing can compare. (7 photos)
Although we had already had a long day, it was nowhere near over. We had a 14 mile paddle ahead of ourselves. We packed up and headed back down to the boats, untied and headed off across the channel. Because we had a decent southwest wind we opted out of paddling the south side of a long island although it was the "prettier" side. So instead we stayed on the lee side and paddled glass compared to the 2-3 ft beam seas that turned us off of the other side. For the next couple hours we paddled, talked and laughed our way through islands, outcroppings and reed fields. But soon we found ourselves running out of steam so a snack break was required. 1 giant bag of GORP and 2 bags of jerky later we were back on the water ready to rip! Only a couple more miles to camp, or so we thought. Upon floating up to the site we wanted to use, there was another group using it. Originally this group was supposed to be staying on an island further down the chain but early afternoon waves forced them to stop and settle into this site. So after a quick conversation with the other guides, the students and sussing out the conditions, we let the students vote on what they wanted. (Mind you that we have been up since 7am, paddled 2-3 miles to the climbing site, climbed in the sun for hours and paddled another 14 miles to where we are now) But with an unanimous vote, our group wanted to keep pushing to another island. So off we went head on into 2-3fters. The wind had died down so we were just pushing through these waves with every few rolling over your bow al the way to our skirts. This paddle was one of the most memorable paddles I have aver had in my years paddling the channel. No one was speaking to each other but everyone was yipping, hollering and laughing because they were having such a good time. And although we did many cool things on the last night when we were debriefing the trip, the majority of the students said that this paddle was their favorite part of the entire trip! So after 3 more miles plowing through the waves we arrived late afternoon at our island for the night (We call this island Spider Island, well because there are pretty big spiders everywhere.) We set up our tents, guyed them out and all headed down to our kitchen. At this point the sun just set and it was already dark. We were all whipped out after our 12 hour day of activity. We made extra mack & cheese but it was still no where near enough. All the food was inhaled, so we brought out our extra food bag and got creative. Who said tortillas covered in peanut butter, peanuts, jelly & nutella isn't a nutritious second dinner? We skipped our nightly meeting for our beds instead. We deserved it! (7 photos)
A good night sleep is exactly what we needed. We knew coming into the trip that the day before was going to be the crux. So after 12 hours of exertion, we only had a 4 mile paddle ahead of us on this day. So we celebrating by sleeping in, and making an elaborate breakfast of dehydrated egg, sausage, hash brown, cheese, peppers and loads of hot sauce breakfast burritos. It was a great morning, overcast, dry and not too cool but not too hot. We decompressed from our past adventures and eventually in the early afternoon broke down camp and started the paddle to our next island. Almost immediately after hopping in the boats a light drizzle started. That entire paddle that day was in the rain, but no one was cold. It was a serene, quiet paddle through islands and reed fields. After an hour or so we reached our destination and once we touched land the rain stopped. It was perfect. The rest of the afternoon was spent setting up a more permanent camp because we were going to spend a couple days here. The night air was filled with laughter as we played games and discussed their upcoming transition into college life late into the night. (4 photos)
Today was our play day. We had nothing planned coming into the day other than laying in the sun and finding some rocks to jump off of. Luckily this day was our best weather of the trip. It was so hot and sunny. We started the day with breakfast then we sent off the students to do a solo. For the next 4-5 hours everyone was with only themselves in the wilderness. It was a time for reading, meditation and for some, a nice nap. Once we all came back together it was time to take a swim. For the remainder of the day we were in and out of the water, snacking, laughing and hanging out in our tarp bungalow (Side note: I don't think I have laughed ever as much as on this trip). (8 photos)
After a relaxing previous day, this was our last full day on the channel so we had to make the most of it. Today we were going to move camp to a new island to be more protected from potential storms as we had to make our shuttle early in the next AM, so the closer we were to that pick-up point the higher success rate of us making it there. So we packed up camp and loaded our boats, but because of location for this nights camp was only a few miles away we decided to paddle the scenic route. We paddled through small island and circumnavigated large ones all the while being in awe of the rolling granite islands and calm blue water that surrounded us. Today we even paddled past my favorite rock.. yes, I have a favorite rock and found some more rocks to jump off of. After a few hours of exploring nearby terrain we made it to our campsite. This afternoon we taught the students who wanted to learn to roll. They killed it. We had 5 of the 10 students get at least a full-role with some even learning and pulling off back-deck rolls and hand rolls. After hours spent getting everyone waterlogged being upside down in their boats and the other students swimming around helping brace the others so they could get rolls, it was dinner time. Our last dinner of the trip together was spent under an amazing sunset. This dinner turned into our trip debrief under the stars and orange moon making it an unforgettable moment for me and hopefully some of the students as well. We talked well into night while watching a thunderstorm slowly roll in from miles and miles away. The lightning was continuous and mesmerizing. Before it actually hit us we went to bed under our tarps, although we did get a little wet, it made for a night I know none of the students will ever forget. (7 photos)
The last day began at 5am with a breakfast of just coffee and granola bars. With our headlamps on we paddled off into the darkness. Over the next hour paddle the sunrise gave us amazing light (sunrises after a big storm are always the best). We arrived at our take out and after an hour or so of sorting wet gear from the night before we were in the vans heading back to Grand Rapids after an obligatory stop at Tim Hortons for a much needed doughnut.
The students moved into the dorms to start their college experience the next day with an already tight knit group of friends. Every trip I have ever led up on those waters has led to friendships that last, that's what paddling together does. Just this month I was standing in a wedding of a friend that I went on this trip with as an incoming freshman.
And just like that another year of the North Channel was done, now all we have to do is wait til next year.