Seniors on Superior: Kayaking and Canoeing the Great Lakes in the Golden Years
Mississippi River Day Trip – Photo Credit: Wilderness Inquiry
A long-time paddler, I started dodging life’s knuckleballs about fifteen years ago. First came cancer, then a heart attack, and finally, a divorce. At some point, I mothballed my canoe and sold my kayak. Ten years passed before I lowered the canoe from the garage rafters to my SUV. At the Minnesota River, carrying it to the water’s edge on my 70-year-old shoulders, I discovered that while the canoe hadn’t aged noticeably in the interim; I had.
Maybe I was having one of those “bad days,” but the other paddlers I saw didn’t help my mood. They all looked to be under 30, the epitome of fitness and youthful vigor. My paddling skills returned quickly, but wrestling that 16-foot, 55-pound canoe back on the SUV made it all too clear that I was out-of-shape and out-of-my-prime.
Determined to restore my self-image of being a buff paddler, I started heading out to nearby lakes and rivers. In the beginning, I saw relatively few “seniors” at the waterfront. Over coffee with a friend one day, I commented on the lack of paddlers our age. “Somebody’s getting them out on the water,” he said, explaining that he’d heard about a group of seniors kayaking on Lake Superior.
And he was right. A little digging revealed droves of “seniors,” not only on Lake Superior, but venturing into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, the Yukon, the coastal waters of northern California, the New York Harbor, the bayous of south Florida’s mangrove swamps, and all points in between. Their stories and advice are worth hearing, even if you’ve never embarked in anything smaller than a cruise ship.
Eden Landing Ecological Reserve, CA - Photo Credit: Judy Irving © Pelican Media
Take, for example, Richard Silberman, an 80-year-old Wisconsin cardiologist. Once a martial arts competitor, marathon runner, and sailboat enthusiast, Silberman ended up with a chipped spinal disc and a partially paralyzed left leg. After months of idleness, one day he drifted into Canoecopia, an annual canoe and kayak exposition outside Milwaukee. At 55, he dipped his toes into the kayaking water, so to speak, and eleven years later, he became a certified instructor. He regularly teaches young and old, the able-bodied and those needing accommodations, how to kayak.
Dr. Silberman’s advice for anyone interested in taking up the sport:
Check with your MD before engaging in any vigorous activity.
Buy and wear a good, comfortable life jacket (PFD). Don't trust your life to a $9.99 special from the local hardware store.
Wear sunscreen, polarized glasses, and appropriate clothing.
Take lessons - it's easier to develop good habits than to break bad ones.
Learn to carry your kayak or canoe properly. Carts can save you a lot of grief; so can a friend.
Speaking of friends, don't go out on the water alone. If you must, be certain people know your plans.
Trust your gut when it comes to weather. If it looks too windy or rough, it probably is. If you hear thunder, get off the water immediately.
Buying the right paddle is as important as buying the right kayak or canoe. You are going to lift that paddle hundreds or even thousands of times in a day. Carbon fiber and other new materials are both lightweight and durable.
Greg Simmons, a 63-year-old paddler who loves rivers, offered additional advice. He, and many others, recommend people try various size and style boats until they find one that is truly comfortable for them. “Unfortunately,” he said, “people immediately are attracted to the long sleek sea-kayaks, the ones that have a ‘bling-factor.’ But the longer and narrower a boat is, the more ‘tippy’ it gets. I’ve seen people scared away because they got into a tippy boat before they had a good feel for what I call ‘boating balance.’ It’s better to start with a more stable boat first. Let that sense of balance and your basic skills develop, then move into a different boat.” Simmons also emphasized the role of paddle sport retailers. “Most are very good about steering people into the right kayak or canoe, one that suits their skills and their needs. They can also provide information on lessons, and help new paddlers make connections.”
Apostle Islands, Lake Superior: Bayfield, WI - Photo Credit: Wilderness Inquiry
Like Robert Silberman, Vern Fish from Waterloo, Iowa, is another example of someone whose youthful athleticism took a toll on his body. A former coach and track and field competitor, his body forced Fish into low-impact sports like swimming and paddling by the time he hit his thirties. Now 69, he has taken his canoe all over the United States and Canada, including multiple lakes and rivers in the “far north,” the Rio Grande, and the Everglades, among others. Fish loves wilderness tripping and claims the excitement and fulfillment of each trip he takes drives him to plan another, and the planning drives him to maintain his physical skills and health.
Asked about his favorite paddling, Fish named Ontario’s Wabakimi Wilderness, an enormous Provincial Park in western Ontario that typically sees fewer than 700 visitors per year. Currently serving as President of The Friends of Wabakimi, Fish and “The Friends” (many of them over 55) clear portages, document canoe routes, and advocate for the natural, cultural, and historical resources in the Wabakimi Area.
There are plenty of “senior” women out on the water as well. Julie Guth’s driver’s license says she is 72, but in her mind, “I’m still 28.” Guth paddles every chance she gets, has built two kayaks, and is currently crafting an Aleutian-style kayak paddle. Guth discovered kayaking when teaching in Alaska fifty years ago. Since then, she’s paddled dozens of Minnesota lakes, several of the Great Lakes, the waters off Maui, and the Norwegian fjords. Guth makes no concession to age, other than having moved to lighter kayaks and, since she barely squeaks past five feet tall, using a Thule Hullavator to help load her boats.
Thule’s Hullavator and various “assistive” devices made by Yakima and other companies can help an individual, regardless of age, load canoes and kayaks on vehicles. And speaking of assistive devices: kayak and canoe ramps, along with various lift mechanisms, exist in many areas to help get people into their boats and into the water.
Bear Paulson, the General Manager of Northstar Canoes, notes that “the industry is changing dramatically. Much of that change is being driven by population demographics – older paddlers want equipment they can handle. Advances in materials have allowed us to respond by building lighter craft and to expand access to a broader age-range.” As Silberman noted, new materials have also led to lighter paddles, further opening the sport to older individuals.
Santa Barbara, CA – Photo Credit: Peter MacMillan for Wilderness Inquiry
Stephen Ochoa, a man in his mid-sixties from the San Francisco Bay Area, is one of many paddlers who mentioned how they, individually or as club members, have played a role in introducing people to the sport. “There’s nothing like seeing the smile on someone’s face when they first glide onto the water. It’s a newfound joy, a sense of independence and mastery, even for beginners. “And,” he added, “when they return from an outing, there is a tremendous sense of accomplishment. Another big smile!”
Ochoa’s club, Western Sea Kayakers, counts over 130 members - at least a third of whom are over sixty. Spokesperson for the club, Mark Hollar, extolled the benefits of joining clubs like his. They invariably provide moral support to newcomers, and many clubs offer lessons and rent or share kayaks for people to try. The opportunity to meet new friends may be the greatest benefit gained from connecting with paddling clubs. Less formal groups, like those you can find through Meetup, Facebook, and other social media platforms, can also connect you with others with common interests. “Paddling automatically creates some social distance,” Hollar said. “With clubs like ours, people talk, laugh, and learn from each other, even from a distance.”
David Jeremiason, one of the founding members of central Minnesota kayaking club Paddlefolk, agrees. His club “specifically encourages people-powered activity, so our focus is on health and exercise. Everyone benefits from the social comradery we have.” With over 200 people on their mailing list, and an average of 70 active members at any given time, Paddlefolk organizes an annual trip to Lake Superior’s Apostle Islands. They also schedule weekly outings of 15-20 people kayaking and then going out for dinner together on their return.
“Clubs give you an immediate resource of skills, experience, and equipment you can draw on,” offered Renee Dufresne, a long-time instructor and “older woman,” who delights in doing rolls, rescue training, and rough-water paddling. “As much as I love doing them, rolls aren’t where beginners start. Many people never attempt rolls. Strangers to the sport see videos of people doing rolls; they say, ‘if that’s what I have to do, kayaking isn’t for me.’ I want people to know they don’t have to roll to enjoy kayaking safely.”
Sleepy Eye Lake, Sleepy Eye, MN - Photo Credit: Angela Banks for Wilderness Inquiry
Besides clubs, there are other organizations that can introduce you to the sport. Wilderness Inquiry, for example, has been organizing “adventure trips” in the US, Canada, and several other countries for over 40 years. They’ve worked with AARP and many state and local organizations to introduce people to the outdoors, and to help them develop skills to enhance their experience. Paddling is their centerpiece, and they have a large inventory of canoes. For certain outings, and for public events, they have 24-foot Voyageur canoes that hold ten people. Their clientele represent many cultural and ethnic backgrounds, and range in age from children to folks in their 80’s.
Wilderness Inquiry is proud of their Universal Program Participation Model, which promotes the inclusion of people from all walks of life. They find a successful outdoor experience depends far more on a positive attitude than experience or ability. The participation model also prompts them to plan their trips carefully, accommodating the skill and experience level of every participant, paying great respect to individual differences. The non-profit has hosted people with many types of abilities and disabilities. They include personal care attendants when needed, and on one particular excursion staff members carried a quadriplegic over portages to ensure he could take part in the full experience.
Local community education programs often have paddling classes, and many organizations like Outward Bound, REI, and Road Scholar (Elderhostel) offer everything from basic instruction to international travel. Outfitters everywhere can provide equipment, maps, and everything else you could want for a day or more on the water. Some, like Greg Weiss of Lost Creek Adventures, which serves the Apostle Islands and other northern Wisconsin waters, organize classes and trips. When he heard I was writing about seniors and paddle sports, Weiss said he would “be happy to organize instruction and logistics” for any group of seniors who might be interested. Weiss pointed out that like most National Parks and Lakeshores, the Apostle Islands have approved vendors, so paddlers should familiarize themselves with park regulations, particularly if they intend to use private services.
Washington, DC – Photo Credit: Christine Rettler for Wilderness Inquiry
Trek & Trail, another Wisconsin outfitter which focuses on Lake Superior kayaking, serves many retired travelers and multi-generational family groups who want to explore the Apostle Islands. But whether you’re in Minnesota, Maine, Maui, Monterey Bay, or Moose Creek, Alaska, you can find a paddling club, organization, or outfitter ready, willing and able to introduce you to the world of paddling.
In closing, I offer two different perspectives on the sport. The first from Sigurd Olson, who died while snowshoeing at age 83. A long-time resident of Ely, Minnesota (often called the Canoe Capital of the US), Olson spent many years as a canoe guide and outdoor writer. In The Singing Wilderness, he wrote “There is magic in the feel of a paddle and the movement of a canoe, a magic compounded of distance, adventure, solitude, and peace.”
More ebullient was the 89-year-old man who joined one of Paddlefolk’s annual excursions to Lake Superior’s Apostle Islands. While folks were settling into their boats to leave the Islands, two 3-foot waves slammed into the senior’s kayak. Paddlefolk founder Jeremiason rushed to make sure the oldest of his charges was all right, only to be met with a huge grin and an exuberant, “Damn, I love this shit!”
Why would an 89-year-old love being pummeled by the waves?
For the adventure, to be sure.
But, I think there’s more. Water grounds us, connects us to our primal origins. Even in rough weather, I find solitude and peace on the water, as did Olson. And I can attest that it is magical, every single time. Every. Single. Time.
David Born is a freelance writer based in Minnesota who has published articles on a wide range of topics ranging from falconry to hypothermia, from cattle rustling to fishing. He loves canoeing, exploring wilderness areas, and tinkering with his typewriter collection. He can be contacted at email@example.com
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