As a child born and raised in the 80’s with the everpopular skateboard as a daily activity, you would think that now, almost 30 years-old, I would be able to hop on a Stand Up Paddle Board in Lake Michigan with no problem.
Never heard of Stand Up Paddle Boarding (SUP)? I hadn’t either. Only my friends who are into yoga and have core strength had heard of it (common misconception that only super fit people can have fun with this sport). SUP has been a popular water sport since 2010 and is much like kayaking; canoeing, or one could go as far to say, surfing.
All that consists of this water sport is a wide surfboard, a one-blade paddle, and an ankle bracelet, in case you fall off. Oh, and you, standing up.
What was I thinking? After researching this “sport” I wondered why I did not chose to take on an adventure much more suitable for my personality…like happy hour. Maybe an “extreme” happy hour in a kiddy pool?
I went for it anyway. I found a little surf shop in Grand Haven called Wet Mitten Surf Shop that has been open for just over a year and teaches SUP lessons. I booked a lesson and found myself driving to one of my favorite Michigan cities to meet with Wet Mitten Surf Shop co-owner, Ben McNeil and his girlfriend, Carly.
The shop sits on the main road to the Grand Haven City Beach (next to the ice cream shop, Temptations) that offers all kinds of water sports that revolve around surfboards and offers a lot of hip surfer garb.
My water enthusiast instructors were ready and waiting when I arrived, with 3 SUP boards, and three paddles on top of their Volkswagen, ready to get into the Lake Michigan water.
Me on the other hand, not as enthused. We are talking May in Michigan, lake water clocking in at a frigid 44 degrees, no wet suites, and no reason that I wouldn’t fall off this tippy board and sink myself in ice-cold water. I had thoughts of wearing a winter coat.
Remember those skateboards I was telling you about? Well, let’s just say I never went more than 5 feet without wobbling off into the grass!
One year at summer camp when I was a kid, my camp counselor actually awarded me a certificate at our endof-summer bonfire that read, “The most ‘GRACEFUL’ swamp walk participant”. That counselor never saw me crying in the bathroom as I washed swamp muck from my shoes and jeans in the community sink.
Now I am about to hop on a board in Lake Michigan and watch it happen all over again. This time I was determined to not let my height and small sense of balance take me down into that frigid Titanic-resembling water.
Stepping into one foot of water to get on the board, I knew it was time to concentrate and make myself the sturdiest, most flat-footed woman I had ever been.
I started on my knees as most beginners do to gain confidence with the waves and the board. Then with a push from my instructor Ben, and
a shout, “just let the board do the work, it is sturdier than you think!” I was on my way.
Kneeling and gripping my bare feet to the tact on the board, I was shaking with paddle in hand.
The tiny waves with a 5 mile-an-hour wind seemed like surfing in Hawaii to me at first. But soon after, I stood up straight and paddled with ease from my left side to my right, gently bumping into waves and cruising along the lakeshore. Ben and Carly joined me and we chatted while paddling, enjoying the sunset taking place in front of us.
For the first time in my life, I saw my whole reflection on the rippled sand beneath the chilly water. Never in the kayaking, canoeing or boating that I have done, had I felt so connected to the water.
“That’s why some people call paddle boards, ‘Jesus Boards’, laughed Ben, owner of Wet Mitten Surf Shop. “You feel like you are walking on water”.
Surfing on Lake Michigan was no news to Ben as he had grown up surfing in Grand Haven, his hometown.
“I learned from my dad who was also a Lake Michigan surfer,” shared Ben. “He started surfing in the lake back in the 1960’s when surfing was
introduced to the world”.
Since his early trainings in Grand Haven, Ben has surfed in all the hot spots: California, Costa Rica and Hawaii.
“My real lifelong dream was to be a rock star,” laughed the 20-something McNeil. “This was the second dream”.
After reaching the shore safely with my legs shaking from fear, adrenalin, and fatigue, I couldn’t believe how the time had pasted. I found my mind relaxed and calmed. I finally understood why Ben was doing this for a living.
My greatest feat for the day was proving to myself that I could be graceful. After avoiding the frigid water, I drove away from the Grand Haven City Beach smiling as I remembered that kid at summer camp who cried after pulling herself out of waist-deep swamp muck.
SUP Rentals: $30/half day and $50/full day
Ben McNeil co-owns Wet Mitten Surf Shop with
his brother who runs their newest location in
Traverse City, Michigan.
Jenny Luth is a public relations associate at Clark
Communications. You will probably see Jenny: A. Eating local
food. B. Drinking local beer. C. Supporting local bands. D.
Smiling. Connect with Jenny on Twitter: @GRJenny