I first discovered Grand Marais back in the late 80s on a family vacation. At the time, I was a teenager who was not interested (*at all*) in taking a family vacation, much less one to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. But my parents decided I was too young to stay home alone, so they dragged me along, much to my disdain. For much of the trip, I sat in the back of our van, with my sponge headphones on, cranking out the punk rock on my cassette Walkman and wishing I were skateboarding with my buddies back in the Lower Peninsula.

About midway through the two-week vacation, we set up tent camp at Twelve-mile Beach in the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. We were lucky enough to secure a campsite that was on the waterside, so we had an amazing view of Lake Superior from atop a sand dune. My Dad and I shared a tent and my sister and mom were in the other tent. My Dad and I had placed our tent as close to the edge of the bluff as possible, so we could take in the amazing horizon of Lake Superior. Later on, in the middle of the night, some tempestuous weather was rolling in and I could feel the tent lift up beneath me. I woke my Dad up and we unzipped the tent to see an amazing storm rolling across the lake, along with a fantastic display of lightning. As we sat watching, the wind built up to the point where we felt like it was going to carry us away, tent and all, if we did not take action. We proceeded to get out of tent, which immediately resulted in both of us holding a giant windsock and struggling to pull in what remained of the tent. Meanwhile, we are standing in what has now become a torrential downpour. Soaking wet, we grabbed the tent and scrambled into the van and dried off, trembling from the excitement and more than a little freaked out.

This was my first taste of the amazing force that is Lake Superior and its *amazing* power made for a humbling experience for me as a “know-it-all”-“seen-it-all” teenager. The next day, after a night of sleeping soaking wet in the family van, we consulted the map to find out where the nearest town was located. Soon after we took off down H-58 towards that nearest town, only to find out the “road”, which was really just a washed out 2-track back in those days, was full of ruts and potholes. It was so rough on the family van that we were collectively afraid we would never again see civilization. It felt like we driving further into the backcountry rather than heading anywhere promising! After what seemed like hours of driving in a rainstorm on this semblance of a road, we emerged in the town of Grand Marais, which had previously been only a small dot on our map.

In Grand Marais, we were able to find food, restock supplies and even get ice cream(!). It was a true oasis in what had been a rough and humbling experience for my brash teenage self. I was mesmerized with this small town. It had everything you needed to get by, but not too much. There were no chain stores or fast food restaurants, not even a stoplight in town. Grand Marais – I was taken by this place at an age when you are really not charmed or taken by anything.

Years later when I started kayaking, I made it up to my first GLSKS in 2005. I was pleasantly surprised to learn it was in Grand Marais, which I did not recognize by name. However, I had a weird shot of déjà vu as I pulled into town, down the hill and gazed out at the blue horizon of Lake Superior. With my 17-foot sea kayak on the roof of my Jeep, I was ready to test my mettle on the one they call Gitche Gummee… but wait, was this the same small town oasis on the big lake that I had been so taken to nearly 20 years earlier? I couldn’t miss it – very little had changed since I first rolled into town as a soaking wet (and very humbled) teenage boy.

After a couple of years of being a participant, I started coaching at GLSKS in 2007. I witnessed it change over to Down Wind Sports in 2010 and get a new jolt of enthusiasm. In 2014, I started helping to organize the curriculum and coaching staff, alongside Kelly Blades and Jeremy Vore, two great friends who I also met at GLSKS. Having worked with The Power of Water crew for several years, I am pleased to once again be on-board as a co-organizer for GLSKS 2017.

But the real kicker was when I met the love of my life, Lisa, in Grand Marais in 2012. Anyone who has spent time in Grand Marais knows that odds of finding true love there are not exactly stellar, so I have to think there was some odd force at work for me. We married after an intense few years that included a flurry of kayaking trips and adventures. Then in the midst of a UP-style snow storm in January 2015, Lisa and I were staying at the home of Jeremy Vore (and family) in Marquette, when our son Alexander decided he needed to be a bona fide “soil birth” Yooper. We are now the proud parents of another enthusiastic young paddler.

A lot can change and happen in short order, but in Grand Marais many things stay the same and this is one of its many appeals. As you can see, I ain’t telling fishin’ tales when I invoke the tagline of GLSKS, “This Place Will Change Your Life”. Come on up and see for yourself.

alexander neal age 1 1/2 holding a SUP paddle at great lakes sea kayak symposium