by Kate Branum • photography by Elyse Wild
Some choose to weather a raging river while others idle contentedly on a calm lake, but all kayakers have one thing in common: a yearning for adventure. The West Michigan Kayaking Club (WMKC), founded in 2010 by a group of friends bound by a passion for paddling, was created to unite the kayaking community. What began as a word-of-mouth club quickly developed into a full-fledged organization with the use of MeetUp, a social networking portal that facilitates group meetings and allows members to find and join groups based on a common interest.
Through the online platform, the WMKC has gained upwards of 1,560 interested followers and more than 100 active members. The club’s core leadership team consists of 34 experienced kayakers, including main organizer for the Great Lakes Hiking, Biking and Kayaking group Victoria Fanning and main organizer for the WMKC Kristina Begley.
Begley was spontaneously introduced to kayaking eight years ago while she was filling up her car at the gas station.
“A (man) pulled in with two kayaks on the top of his truck,” Begley recalled. “I said, ‘That looks like fun!’ and he told me that I should come kayaking with (him and his group), and that I needed a paddle, a vest and a life jacket.”
Though she didn’t have any of the necessary supplies, the man assured Begley that she would be able to borrow from others in the group, and she agreed to tag along. She was stunned at the generosity of the close-knit group and how exhilarating the experience was. In 2011, shortly after her unplanned adventure, Begley joined the WMKC.
If someone had told Fanning two years ago that she would become an avid kayaker, she wouldn’t have believed it; the idea of kayaking made her uneasy. As a photographer, she was always on the lookout for beautiful landscapes, and after coming across a photo of the Pictured Rocks in Munising, Fanning knew she had to photograph them herself; however, she discovered the only way to do so would be to kayak under them. She was introduced to kayaking by a close friend who was a long-time member of the WMKC, and has since conquered her fear and crossed the Pictured Rocks off of her bucket list. In fact, Fanning now considers herself a thrill-seeker.
“The first time I kayaked with the club, I was like ‘I’m in!’,” Fanning expressed.
The WMKC organizes dozens of events each year. In the past, various groups have paddled different sections of the Boardman River in Traverse City, traveled the Pine River, which flows through Manistee National Forest, navigated the rough waters of the Manistee River in Ellsworth Township and caravanned down the Pigeon River in Huron County.
The most anticipated events of the year for many kayakers in the club are the annual summer camping trips to Interlochen State Park in Traverse City in June, July and August. Each weekend is packed with camping, kayaking, hiking, biking and socializing, offering a chance for new members to get to know others in the group and seasoned members to spend time together.
“When we go up to Traverse City for our big weekends at Interlochen State Park, we always do a Friday night sunset cruise on the Platte river, which feeds right into Lake Michigan at Sleeping Bear Dunes,” Fanning shared. “It’s just gorgeous, and it’s a great paddle for new people who want to join in, make friends and learn a bit more about kayaking,”
The club also plans on traveling to the Upper Peninsula for a weekend of hiking, kayaking and biking in Marquette and Munising, visiting the Ausable River in Grayling, paddling the Sturgeon and Jordan Rivers by Mackinac and taking a trip to the East Race Waterway in Indiana.
The West Michigan Kayaking Club accommodates members of all skill levels, from novice to expert. Begley and other leaders in the group facilitate regular informational sessions for beginners to teach them the basics of kayaking, including how to get in and out of the boat, how to paddle, which gear to purchase and how to choose the right kayak.
“At our events, (members) from the group will bring their kayaks for other people to try out, so if it’s a new person or someone looking for a different type of kayak than they currently have, then they can try different kayaks.” Begley said.
When choosing the right kayak, there are various factors to consider, such as your body size, the types of rivers you’ll be paddling and amount of storage space the vessel offers. Fanning and Begley recommend doing extensive research before settling on a kayak.
“I quickly found out that there are different types of rivers,” Fanning explained. “There are slow rivers that just kind of go straight, and then there are some that twist around with trees that you have to dodge. You use completely different boats for each river.”
Though the club encourages its members to take on new challenges and enjoy themselves, it promotes safety and organization above all else. Before each outing, the leaders of the group go over safety tips and precautions, ensuring that all paddlers feel comfortable and confident before heading down the river. The number one rule of the club is: no one is left behind.
“There’s usually someone in front leading the group down the river, making sure there are no trees down, and then there’s a sweeper in the back who is trained in rescue and makes sure everyone is safe,” Fanning said.
Fanning and Begley are happy to have found kayaking, and revel in the benefits and happiness it brings them. They have discovered that the WMKC is much more than an organization; it’s a safe haven filled with caring and considerate people that they now consider family.
“It was unexpected for me–just how close you become with these people,” Fanning said. “We don’t just kayak together, we do other social things together, like game nights, bike rides and hiking. We’ve even spent some holidays together.”
To find out how you can get it on the fun, search for the West Michigan Kayaking Club on meetup.com.