The annual fall gathering of the West Michigan Coastal Kayakers Association in the Hodenpyl Dam Backwaters features three days of paddling and socializing. The boats paddled by WMCKA members range from small recreational kayaks  to long sleek sea kayaks to canoes. PHOTO BY DAVE FOLEY
The annual fall gathering of the West Michigan Coastal Kayakers Association in the Hodenpyl Dam Backwaters features three days of paddling and socializing. The boats paddled by WMCKA members range from small recreational kayaks to long sleek sea kayaks to canoes. PHOTO BY DAVE FOLEY
It rained all night. But when the precipitation slowed to a drizzle, the park came to life. Folks emerged from tents and trailers and began unloading kayaks, pulling on paddle jackets and gathering on the lakeshore for the day’s trip.
 
Despite the forecast of rain, 50 members of the West Michigan Coastal Kayakers Association headed north to the Hodenpyl Dam backwaters near the village of Mesick for their annual fall rendezvous. There would be plenty of kayaking and, later, if the rain would let up, an evening spent around the campfire. And you can be sure no one would be late for the Saturday night meal. This year it was a soup fest, but in years past turkeys and pigs have been roasted.  

The color was peaking. Though somewhat muted on this overcast day, the trees along the shoreline leafed out in shades of red, yellow and orange and had us reaching for our cameras and phones. Up where the impoundment narrowed to a river, we stopped for lunch. Whatever grace we had as kayak paddlers evaporated when we drew up against the riverbank and struggled to extricate ourselves from our boats onto the land.

While munching sandwiches and trail mix, there was talk about the recent paddle trip up the Platte River where kayaks shared the water with hundreds of spawning salmon. Conversation, however, wasn’t dominated  by longtime WMCKA members. I noted that a special effort had been made to welcome newcomers. If folks didn’t know you, they came forward and introduced themselves. The WMCKA’s 125 members, which include 43 family memberships, run the gamut from the hardcore surf riders of the Great Lakes and folks that do Eskimo rolls as easily as you snap your fingers, to neophytes who are just learning to kayak. 

An hour and a half of paddling back down the reservoir returned us to camp where it wasn’t long until we gathered under the canopies for coffee and cocoa. Even though the weather was marginal, kids were  riding bicycles and making wet sand castles on the beach. Families make up a significant part of the WMCKA membership. 

At six we all gathered for the potluck which this year featured soup and chili of all types, as well as a good number of salads and desserts. You soon discover that WMCKA members spend as much time socializing as paddling. However, sitting around after the potluck hearing the club president, Steve Adsmond, go over the list of about a dozen events on the WMCKA schedule for 2014, I realized there would be ample opportunities to get on the water. 

During the winter there are pool sessions. The outdoor season begins in early May, often when it’s still chilly and occasionally snowy, gathering at Ludington State Park on Hamlin Lake. Once June arrives, club events occur almost every weekend through the summer. 

Even though they call themselves “coastal kayakers” and organize several paddle trips along the Lake Michigan shoreline, they also have events dedicated to paddling rivers, like the Kalamazoo, Platte and the Manistee, as well as visits to inland waters like Hardy Dam Pond, Gun Lake and the Interlochen’s Green and Duck Lakes. Last year a group headed north, launching from the village of Raber in the Upper Peninsula, and traveling over to a newly created state park on Lime Island in the St. Mary’s River, where freighters could be seen passing by the campsites.
 
Club president Adsmond was quick to point out that while many of WMCKA’s activities revolve around paddling outings, a major goal is to provide opportunities to introduce people to kayaking as well as help novice paddlers improve their skills.

Every summer WMCKA members host Paddle for Light, where club volunteers gather at a lake site near Kalamazoo to work with the blind at nearby camps. “It’s remarkable how quickly they learn to handle a kayak,” Adsmond said.  
WMCKA’s biggest undertaking is their annual symposium (set for May 23-26, this year’s will be the 25th) on Big Blue Lake north of Muskegon, Michigan, over Memorial Day Weekend. Geared toward beginner to intermediate paddlers, 60 staff and instructors are on hand to work with the 100 to 150 paddlers that usually attend. 

“We  try to have at least a two-to-one ratio of paddlers to staff so we can attend to everyone’s needs and no one has to wait around,” Adsmond said. “One of our objectives is to make families feel welcome, and our kids’ program helps to achieve that.” 

The club has purchased 13 Wilderness Systems Tsunami SP kayaks. The “SP” stands for “small person” as these boats are designed to feel like you’re in a small-scale sea kayak. Kids at the symposium have their own classes and instructors and are guided by instructors and camp counselors, Adsmond said.

The West Michigan Coastal Kayakers Association’s goal is to offer something for everyone. So while some activities feature long tours down the coast or explorations of rivers with fast water, most club events provide options that will satisfy the range from beginners to experts.   

To learn more about club, go to www.wmcka.org
              
Dave Foley has been a WMCKA member for 10 years and never misses the fall rendezvous in the Hodenpyl Dam Backwaters.