When Sharon Clark bought her first kayak in 1999, she was disappointed that her “one and done” friends lost interest after just a single outing on the Huron River.
So she was happy to find a classified newspaper ad for a southeast Michigan-based canoe and kayak club, Great Lakes Paddlers. Soon after, she attended a meeting in Ann Arbor. Clark was looking for paddling partners — active, outdoorsy folks who shared her enthusiasm for enjoying the fresh air and wildlife along Michigan’s waterways.
Several years later, yellow kayak in hand, Tom Brandau showed up at the club’s annual New Year’s Day Paddle at Lower Huron Metropark in Belleville. He was looking for others who enjoyed cold-weather kayaking.
The club not only provided Brandau and Clark with the paddling pals they were seeking, but, as an unexpected bonus, the couple soon fell into a romance made on the water. “It’s been a great community for me,” says Clark, citing numerous lifelong friendships forged with club members in addition to her long-term domestic partnership with Brandau.
Great Lakes Paddlers celebrated its 30th anniversary this summer with a membership that numbers 65, and includes both canoers and kayakers from three states and Canada.
Upcoming annual events include the Day After Thanksgiving Paddle, which typically takes place in Milford, and the New Year’s Day Paddle, with a location that will be determined by weather conditions.
On tap next year are a St. Patrick’s Day Paddle, which often takes place at Island Lake State Park in Brighton; an Ice-Out Paddle at Bass Lake, near Hamburg, in late spring; and the Zukey Lake Paddle in May, with lunch at Zukey Lake Tavern in Pinckney.
Great Lakes Paddlers owns several canoes and kayaks that members and guests can borrow. Personal flotation devices are required for all events.
“We’ve had to turn paddlers away who come to our events with no PFD and a six-pack,” says Tom Gochenour of Waterford.
Sandie Schulze of Chelsea founded the club in 1992 because, she says, it was often a challenge to find a paddling partner. “I will not go alone, ever,” she says, and adds that the club once recruited an American Canoe Association instructor to teach safety skills. “You should always paddle with someone else — there’s safety in numbers.”
Vicki Schroeder, of Livonia, is a passionate paddler who says she often went kayaking on her own before joining Great Lakes Paddlers. She credits the club for getting her “to places I wouldn’t have gone on my own.”
Schroeder also appreciates club members sharing safety and clothing tips (think paddling boots and hand-warming pogies), and has become an advocate regarding the importance of wearing PFDs and keeping a change of clothes in a dry bag. “Our club insists on that,” she says.
Sometimes the club adds other activities, like bicycling or hiking, to paddling events. Cross-country ski outings and camping getaways also are popular, such as last summer’s trip to Port Austin to paddle around Lake Huron’s Turnip Rock.
Last June, Brandau and Clark, who recently moved to west Michigan, organized a leisurely two-day Flat River paddle near Grand Rapids. The trip covered 11 miles from Greenville to Belding, and six miles from Belding to Lowell, complete with two covered bridges.
The trip was a treat for Sondra Willobee and her husband, Ed, of Pinckney, who canoed the Au Sable River on their honeymoon 47 years ago, did white-water paddling for a time, and joined Great Lakes Paddlers six years ago for the activities and camaraderie.
“We liked how remote it felt, a small piece of seeming wilderness downstate,” says Sondra, a retired Methodist minister. “We saw deer fording the river, three eagles circling overhead, several great blue herons, an osprey, and a raccoon scratching in the mud along the bank.”
Some members camped overnight at a county park and one stayed in her camper at an RV park. After the paddle, they went to Hop Hog Backyard Brewpub in Greenville.
“Hydration breaks,” as club members call them, are a favorite part of business meetings, which are held the second Tuesday of each month. That’s when club members gather to discuss future plans and leave their paddles home. The club meets at a variety of taverns — good beer lists are required — in Wayne, Washtenaw, and Oakland counties.
In addition to official events, individual members often schedule informal paddles after work on inland lakes such as Cass, Wolverine, or Middle Straits, where no shuttles are necessary to transport paddlers to put-in and take-out sites. Guests are welcome.
Finding a paddling club was a top priority for Pat Slaven a few years ago when she moved to Ann Arbor from Yonkers, N.Y., where she was the commodore of a paddling club. “I was here literally two weeks and hadn’t even unpacked yet,” says the veteran paddler, who has kayaked major chunks of the Mississippi, Hudson, and Green (Utah) rivers — and even built several of her own kayaks. Now she’s happily exploring her new paddling playground with the Great Lakes Paddlers.
“I’m just in love with the Huron River and these chains of lakes,” says the retired Consumer Reports magazine engineer, citing the fun of navigating through culverts and canals and under bridges. “All this is sort of magical stuff.”
Newcomers may test the GLP waters by attending two events per year before they’re asked to join the club. As several members explain, “It’s the most fun you can have for $15 per year” ($20/couple). The club contributes a portion of its annual dues to nonprofit organizations that protect several regional watersheds. Visit greatlakespaddlers.com.