Branching Out

From fresh-air excursions to challenges leading to a new grip on life, outdoor adventure clubs across the state are bringing members of varying ages and goals together.
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Team APEX Biking
Photography Team Apex Multisport

Challenges that arise during adventurous endeavors are always more tolerable in the company of friends. That’s why many people look to outdoor adventure clubs. Good humor is essential when mosquitoes are thick and hungry and friendly faces are uplifting when the going gets tough.

Matt Schmuker has learned of such benefits. He completed his first triathlon last summer, a swimming, running and cycling event. Five years ago, he fretted about finishing a 10-mile mountain bike race. This summer, the 36-year-old Ada landscape designer and cyclist signed up for a 200-mile gravel road race called “The Dirty Kanza.” His progression resulted from a decision to get healthier — and support from members of Team Apex Multisport, a Grand Rapids club he founded in 2010.

“The support helps everyone raise their game,” Schmuker explains. “We have a lot of conversations about gear, equipment, bikes and nutrition. During the run (last summer) I was falling apart. It was tough to make my legs move. But when I came up to the finish, four or five of my teammates gave me a high-five. Then I saw my wife and twin sons clapping. I totally got into it. It gave me a boost.”

My husband and I are all-out — we might bike for 150 miles. But, we also join those who just want to rent a canoe, paddle to town and have an ice-cream cone.
— Jennifer McWilliams

Team Apex is one of a growing number of adventure clubs found on the Internet and social media. That expansion mirrors the increasing diversity of groups formed by enthusiasts looking to connect with like-minded people. Team Apex members compete in cycling races, triathlons and adventure races. Other clubs are as focused on backpacking, paddling, climbing and camping.

“It’s a good way to get healthy,” promotes Schmuker. “I’ve changed the way I eat and have become healthier. Before, I might (just) play golf every couple of weeks. I’ve lost 25 to 30 pounds and my cholesterol has come down.”

Studies show that psychological and emotional benefits are realized from group outdoor adventures. Being outdoors also provides direct health benefits. A 2010 Harvard Medical School Letter reports improved concentration, mood elevation, improved health through exercise and a potential to bounce back more quickly from disease or injury.

SOLAR Activities
Photography Courtesy of School for Outdoor Leadership

“The appeal for me is I get away from everything: no cell, no computer. I just deal with what’s going on,” shares 43-year-old Jennifer McWilliams, a nurse at Henry Ford Woman’s Health Clinic in Dearborn, who also serves as president of the southeast Michigan School for Outdoor Leadership, Adventure and Recreation (SOLAR).

McWilliams and her husband, Jeff, discovered SOLAR in 2007, having done some car camping. Looking to expand their skills and knowledge, they joined the group.

“They were holding adventure race classes and basic backpacking,” notes McWilliams, who is slated to teach a “Women in the Woods” class this fall. “We took the backpacking class together, and have since taken search and rescue classes. We’ve been to the Adirondacks backpacking, to the Wind River Range in Wyoming and now do one big trip every year with smaller trips in between.”

SOLAR Hiking
Photography Courtesy of School for Outdoor Leadership

SOLAR was founded in 1975 by 4-H Challenge leaders who wanted to continue their own adventures. It has grown to 450 members who enjoy the social life, skills classes and shared adventures. McWilliams adds that adventure clubs help people network. The clubs brings experienced and inexperienced outdoor adventurers together.

“Most our members don’t have a base of friends who like going outside — they’re all couch potatoes,” McWilliams says with good humor. “They are looking for others to go outside with and play. My husband and I are all-out — we go for the crazy longer adventures. We might bike for 150 miles. But, we also join those who just want to rent a canoe, paddle to town and have an ice-cream cone.”

Discovering the Wild Side

Steve Adsmond and his wife, Brenda, also share a fondness for adventuring. The Fremont couple married in 1995 and honeymooned on the Maine coast where they rented kayaks. Until then, they had only canoed. They paddled out to an island and a storm came up as they returned.

It’s what the group is founded on — pushing our limits. We’re a leadership development program that uses wilderness to develop people’s skills.
— Dave Hayden

“I saw Brenda was extremely comfortable paddling back through the whitecaps,” Adsmond reflects. “I thought, this is way better than canoeing. We decided we needed to get into kayaking.”

The Admonds went looking for information about kayaks and touring. They found it at a sea kayaking symposium hosted by the West Michigan Coastal Kayakers Association (WMCKA), a group they joined. The Admonds have since paddled in the Gulf of Mexico, toured parts of Lake Michigan and ventured with their two young daughters across nearly three miles of water to Lime Island in the St. Mary’s River. That’s where they met other WMCKA members for a three-day camp-out.

Adsmond, a 49-year-old nutrition consultant to dairy farms, has since become the association president.

Fortune Bay Expedition Agawa Rock
Photography Courtesy of Fortune Bay Expedition Team

“Many of our trips just originate around the campfire; people are sitting around and talking about what they want to do,” he says. “A lot of people join WMCKA for the social aspects. Others take really big-time adventures.”

Joining the club led to an invitation to paddle with other members off St. George Island, near the Florida Panhandle. The 28-mile-long barrier island is part of the island chain that forms Apalachicola Bay on the Gulf of Mexico. The thought of that trip still brings a smile to Admond’s face.

“That was an adventure I will always remember,” he declares. “One morning we were out paddling around and saw two dolphins out ahead. They disappeared and suddenly popped out of the water right at the edge of my paddle. That scared the heck out of me.”

Fortune Bay Expedition Waterfall Climbing
Photography courtesy Fortune Bay Expedition Team

Pushing Personal Limits

Having fun with friends is reason enough for most that join adventure clubs, but professional leadership training is also a draw. Dave Hayden, the 43-year-old founder of the Lowell-based Fortune Bay Expedition Team, said many club members join for that reason.

Last August, while sweating in 85-degree heat, Hayden sat high up on a 2,000 foot rock precipice in Ontario. He played his harmonica while waiting for the others. The group was struggling below, searching for a route to the top.

Hayden, a 43-year-old investment manager who goes by the nickname “Pathfinder,” had gone ahead while the others were resting. He hoped to make radio contact with a second group coming from another direction. The two groups were to meet at a spot on their maps, well off the beaten path in the rugged Canadian Shield landscape.

Hayden’s group had already hiked seven difficult miles to Agawa Falls, a scenic attraction on the Towab Trail in Lake Superior Provincial Park. The route is rated “very challenging.” Most take two days to hike in and back. But Hayden had other plans for the group. Some of his 14 hikers were being evaluated for their expedition leadership skills. Once they all reached the top, they had another eight miles to go.

“It was a terrible climb, and most (participants) were at wits end,” Hayden says. “They were miserable, but they didn’t complain. It’s what the group is founded on — pushing our limits. We’re a leadership development program that uses wilderness to develop people’s skills.”

Hayden, who volunteers as the training coordinator for Kent County Search and Rescue, founded the club in 1996. Fortune Bay has 450 members. Approximately 50 aspire to become professional expedition leaders.

Fortune Bay Expedition Hiking
Photography courtesy Fortune Bay Expedition Team

“The Outward Bound program and National Outdoor Leadership School was the vision I had in mind at the time, but I wanted to do that on more local basis,” Hayden explains. “We’ve done everything from three to four-mile day hikes on the North Country Trail, to kayaking through the Sault St. Marie locks and winter camping in the Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness.”

Ken Nesbitt was appreciative of the helping hand he got from a Great Lakes Adventure Club member last winter. Dave Geelhoed had assisted Nesbitt by hauling his loaded sled part way back to the car after a winter camping trip.

Nesbitt is the club’s 73-year-old chairman. The pair had gone out during the coldest and snowiest Michigan winter in decades. The trail at the Gourdneck State Game Area, near Portage, was covered with 30-inch-deep snow. It was tough going even on snowshoes. Both carried full packs and dragged loaded sleds. Nesbitt struggled on the way out. He decided to leave the sled and return for it, making a second trip. Geelhoed, who had gone ahead, dumped his gear and returned for Nesbitt’s sled.

“What I like about (winter camping) is that it’s a chance to get outdoors,” shares Nesbitt, a Lawton business consultant. “The air is fresh and invigorating and you may be exhausted at the end, but you feel great and have a new grip on life.”

Initially founded as a climbing club in 1977, the Kalamazoo-area group grew and broadened its activities over time. Its 150 members largely consist of adventurers and empty nesters age 50-something who encourage each other to try different things. That’s a major draw, according to Nesbitt. Weekend outings can involve cycling, paddling, hiking or even scuba diving.

“Three years ago we did a trip to Yosemite (National Park),” he says. “There were three groups of members involved. One was hardcore; they were into rock climbing. A second group was into backpack camping. A third wanted to stay at cabins and do day hikes. We have some (members) who do minimal activities and others who train hard.

“One of the stronger reasons they join is that people support each other: If I encourage you — and you encourage me — we can make it happen.”

Learn more at teamapexmultisport.com; solaroutdoors.org; wmcka.org; fortunebay.org and greatlakesadventureclub.com.


Award-winning writer Howard Meyerson resides in Grand Rapids.

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