Caption: The author taking a surfing lesson from Sleeping Bear Surf & Kayak on Lake Michigan. (Jordan Browne)
By Drew YoungeDyke
Great Lakes drownings are on the rise along with increased participation in outdoor recreation. As people unfamiliar with the dangerous conditions that the Great Lakes can harbor walk piers on high wave days or swim unaware of rip currents, 109 people drowned in the Great Lakes last year, including 56 in Lake Michigan. Already in 2021, 34 people have drowned in the Great Lakes.
It's a serious issue and action should be taken to reduce these incidents. Unfortunately, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR)'s proposed action to ban all water entry on "red flag" days misses the mark by needlessly - and likely inadvertently - restricting surfing, which has never accounted for a drowning incident since the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project began tracking Great Lakes drownings in 2010.
The Michigan DNR has proposed a Land Use Order intended to reduce Great Lakes drownings at its state parks and recreation areas by adopting a rule that a person may not "Exit the state managed beach area for the purpose of entry into the water when entry is prohibited by signage and/or communication by a department employee or their designee."
Its rationale is explained in the background section of the proposed order:
"Recently, safety rescues at Great Lake beaches have occurred at times when the “Red Flag” is flying indicating that wave height is 3-5 feet, or higher, lake conditions are high risk and dangerous. Meaning people are not adhering to the water safety measures and education provided by the Department and are still entering the water. Even more alarming is the observations of people entering the water during these dangerous conditions while a water rescue is occurring."
This is happening despite the department taking preventative steps such as: "buoyed swimming areas, flag warning systems, throw rings and vast amounts of education on water safety."
What this list does not include is hiring and training lifeguards to monitor beaches and provide real-time warnings to beachgoers about dangerous conditions and response in case of distressed swimmers. The DNR is not proposing to hire lifeguards, either. Instead, they will restrict water entry from state park and state recreation beaches on red flag days, described as when waves reach 3-5 feet. However, that's often the minimum wave height needed for Great Lakes surfers to catch and ride waves. By restricting "entering the water" on those days - instead of just restricting "swimming" or "wading" - the DNR will be effectively prohibiting surfing at state parks and recreation areas on the only days with surfable waves.
I'm pretty new to surfing, even though I've been swimming in the Great Lakes my whole life, so I'm still learning about the conditions necessary for surfing the Great Lakes. What I've learned so far, though, from more experienced surfers, is that the best days to surf the Great Lakes are often the worst days for swimming. I can get paddling and stand-up sequence practice as a beginner in smaller waves and flat water, but that's all practice for actually riding bigger waves. The Great Lakes don't have a tide, so all waves are generated by the wind. Wind direction, timing, and fetch all must come together for waves to be big enough to ride, and it's often best when the weather is the worst - like on red flag days.
However, since the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project began tracking Great Lakes drownings in 2010, not a single one of the more than 980 drownings has been related to surfing. This may seem counterintuitive until you realize what goes into trying to surf the Great Lakes. Even as a beginner, I've had to learn about rip currents, fetch, and the bathometry of the lakes. To stay warm and afloat, my equipment includes a 5/4/3 hooded wetsuit with 7mm booties and mitts, and a 10-foot soft-top surfboard to which I'm tethered by an ankle leash.
More experienced surfers usually ride smaller boards, but they are also tethered to a floating object in wetsuits which keep them warm, and they have an even better understanding of both the conditions which generate waves and the dangers they create. Rather than needing rescue, they're frequently the ones rescuing swimmers caught by rip currents or pier walkers swept off by waves. Since the DNR isn't proposing to hire lifeguards, having surfers in the water on those days would be much more likely to prevent drownings than cause any.
In analyzing the drownings that have occurred so far this year and last year in Michigan, as documented by the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, the DNR order as written would only address a fraction of the situations that have led to drownings (which could be better addressed with lifeguards) while effectively prohibiting an activity - surfing - which has not led to any drownings.
In the five Great Lakes drownings that have occurred in Michigan this year, none were from swimming during red flag days. One was from ice fishing, two were pier wash-offs or falls, one was a boater, and one was a body found. In the 26 Great Lakes drownings that occurred in Michigan last year, 5 were described pier wash-offs/jumping off pier, one was a missing person who washed ashore, one was unstable ice, one from swimming off a boat, one from kayaking, and 16 from swimming. 8 of the swimmers were described by the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project as swimming on either red flag days or in high waves/dangerous currents, and it noted that no lifeguard was on duty for 7 of them, with no mention of a lifeguard on the other.
Eight of the drownings could have been prevented had swimmers not gone into the water on days with high waves, dangerous currents, or with red flags posted. An order such as the one the DNR is proposing may have prevented them, but so too could lifeguards have prevented them with a real-time warning, observation of the swimmers before they got into trouble, and possibly rescue after. The DNR's proposed order would not have prevented the pier wash-offs, or swimmers going too far out or too deep on calmer days. Lifeguards could have.
I do not take any of the drownings lightly, and I think all that we can do to educate people about the Great Lakes conditions and place trained lifeguards on beaches should be done. I was almost a drowning victim when I was twelve years old and camping with my aunts and cousins on Lake Superior. I was caught by a rip current and carried out from shore, struggling to get back. My older cousin swam out and helped me back, swimming flat on the surface of the water. It was terrifying. I support the goal of the DNR to prevent this experience from happening to others.
Good policy is narrowly tailored to address the problem to be solved with minimal collateral impacts. As currently worded, the DNR's proposed land use order might prevent a fraction of the drownings that occur while inadvertently prohibiting surfing at state parks and recreation areas, denying an opportunity for Michiganders to pursue a sport that provides a deep connection to the Great Lakes, requires intricate knowledge of its conditions, and a strong respect for its dangers.
The proposed order could be improved to prevent more drownings without prohibiting surfing by explicitly exempting surfing from the order. There is precedent for this in other places which have enacted red flag ordinances to protect swimmers from themselves. For instance, Destin and Panama City Beach, Florida exempt surfing from their city ordinances against entering the water during double red flag days. Panama City Beach requires surfers to be tethered to their boards for the exemption:
"Recognizing the important role surfers play in aiding distressed swimmers, the City Council exempted surfers attached by a leash to a surfboard. However, rubber rafts, floats, belly boards, skim boards and boogie boards are not considered surf boards."
Similar exemptions for leashed surfers exist in the Outer Banks, North Carolina. Chicago allows surfing at specific beaches on Lake Michigan "at your own risk," recognizing that "conditions that may be “ideal” for surfing may be deemed “red flag days” for swimming. This means that the water is not safe for swimming because it is dangerous."
The DNR could prevent even more drownings, provide a safer experience for beachgoers, and boost local employment opportunities by training and hiring lifeguards at state park and recreation area beaches. However, if that is not currently on the table, they can follow the lead of ocean municipalities with red flag ordinances for swimmers already on the books which have long exempted surfing in recognition of both the nature of the sport, the ability of its participants, and especially in preventing drownings, which is the goal for all of us.
By Drew YoungeDyke (Originally published in the May 2021 issue of Woods-n-Waters News)
On vacation on Kauai a few years ago, I took a surf lesson on Hanalei Bay from Titus Kinemaka’s Hawaiian School of Surfing. As a souvenir, I bought a ballcap from the surf shop with his name and the words “Kai Kane” on it, meaning “waterman.” I’ve seen the term waterman used often since then as I’ve read more about surfing, referring to someone who makes a living from the water like lifeguards, guides, and surfing instructors, and is well-rounded in water sports like surfing, stand-up paddling, paddling kayaks and canoes, fishing, diving, sailing, and swimming. I’ve wondered often how the concept of a waterman – or waterwoman – would translate to Michigan’s Great Lakes and inland waters.
Waterman seems to be a term that is more than the sum of its definitions. It’s a term of reverence. It’s used for people like Duke Kahanamoku – the “Father of Surfing” – who won several Olympic gold medals for the United States and set world records in swimming in the early Twentieth Century, popularized surfing around the world, and once rescued 24 people from an overturned boat off the California coast. Or Eddie Aikau, a big-wave surfer and the first lifeguard at Hawaii’s famed Waimea Bay, who rescued hundreds as a lifeguard and died himself while paddling his surfboard for help to rescue his crew of an overturned replica of an ancient catamaran in 1978. More recently, the term is used for people like Kai Lenny, a champion surfer and kiteboarder from Hawaii who once kiteboarded across Lake Michigan.
As best I can tell, waterman is an aspirational concept that you can’t really just call yourself. It’s not like saying “I hunt and fish, so I’m an outdoorsman.” It seems to be more like when all the other hunters and anglers say, “we all hunt and fish, but old so-and-so is a true outdoorsman.” It’s not just reserved for men, either – it’s one of those terms that isn’t gender-specific in common usage even though it literally is written as such. A waterman seems to be someone inextricably connected with the water. With 3,288 miles of Great Lakes coastline, over 51,000 river miles, and over 11,000 inland lakes, I know there are some men and women in Michigan for whom waterman might be an apt descriptor. I asked a few folks who I know and think embody that term what it means to them in a Michigan context.
Brian Kozminski is a fly-fishing guide and the owner of True North Trout in Boyne City, a sales rep for Temple Fork Outfitters, and a river rafting guide for Jordan Valley Outfitters:
“I am not a waterman in the aspect of being a lifeguard or surfer, unless you dig deeper into the definition of life guard - I protect and look out for the well-being of my inland lakes and rivers, the voice or the guardian of these sacred places that carry so much vitality. The rhythms of the waves or the flow of a river are a part of me, they are my serenity and it is near the water that I feel connected to life and being alive. So I guess in that sense, I am a surfer, with my children as we seek out adventure along the Great Lakes in a canoe or SUP, or in a stream where we turn over a rock to inspect the macroinvertebrate life that resides in these hallowed spaces. These rivers and lakes give me purpose and fulfill my soul - thereby, I am a waterman.”
Brian’s answer gave me a lot to think about. There’s an inescapable element of conservation in it. I’ve fished with Brian and, drifting down the Manistee River, he knew every eddy, every current, every cut bank. He understands the water and what’s happening in it. And he lives it, from recreation to conservation. He’s active in several conservation organizations like Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, Trout Unlimited, the Great Lakes Business Network, and the National Wildlife Federation. In addition to guiding anglers from his drift boat, I’ve seen him fishing from a stand-up paddleboard and you can watch him drifting a motorboat backwards down a river on Season 2 of MeatEater’s Das Boat series.
Another person I thought of was Tom Werkman, owner and guide at Werkman Outfitters on the Grand River. I asked him what it would mean to be a waterman in Michigan.
“It means I intimately have a connection to the river on which I guide, the Grand River. It means I have a responsibility, as a guide, to educate my clients on the history of the Grand, that it’s one of ruin to recovery. It means, I need to get my clients on fish so they can make a connection to the Grand. If all of this happens, it means, for me, that I have done my job of showing my clients that the Grand River is a viable urban fishing corridor worthy of protection.”
Tom, too, has an unmistakable conservation message in his definition: conserving his waters, being connected to them, and connecting others to them. I’ve also fished with Tom, and like Brian, his connection to and knowledge of his waters and their history is paramount. Tom is also a member of the Great Lakes Business Network, several conservation organizations, and has used his platform to speak up for Michigan’s public lands and against dredging the Grand River. And in addition to guiding anglers from a drift boat, he also surfs and competes in triathlons.
What does it mean to be a waterman in Michigan? While I can ponder it, it’s not up to me to define it. From two people I respect who make a living on our waters by connecting other people to them and spending their free time conserving them, though, I suspect it involves a genuine visceral connection to the water, making a living or spending a great deal of time on the water, understanding it deeply, connecting other people to it, advocating and volunteering for its conservation, and being well-rounded in water-based sports and modes of transportation.
I think there’s an element of water safety to it, too. The Great Lakes can be deadly. 30 years later, I still remember the fear of being caught in a Lake Superior rip current swimming when I was 11 or 12. I’m learning more about that and Great Lakes currents while learning about freshwater surfing. I think about that when I read about the increase in Great Lakes drownings the past few years, often people swimming out too far or being swept off piers. The great Hawaiian watermen were revered not just for their skill in water sports, but for their heroism in saving others and their deep understanding of how to safely move in the water to be able to make those rescues.
The point of this exercise is not to label people, though, as waterman or not; that’s not my call to make. It’s to think about qualities that all of us who spend time around and on the Great Lakes and Michigan’s inland lakes and rivers can strive to emulate. If we fish a river, we can learn a little more about its history and ecology. If we participate in water sports, we can learn more about water safety, both for ourselves and to help others. We can learn and improve our skills at new water sports and modes of transportation so that we can be out there more often in more diverse conditions. If we spend time on the Great Lakes, we can learn more about its cycles, currents, aquatic life, and waves. We can leverage our own existing connections to the water to introduce new people to them. And we can all put more of our time, effort, and attention into conserving and protecting our waters.
By Drew YoungeDyke (Originally published in the Spring 2021 issue of Michigan Out-of-Doors)
The drive up US 23 along the Lake Huron shoreline is like a trip back in time to the glory days of northern Michigan lakeside cottages and motels for working-class Michiganders with extra money and time to spend. A faded mural proclaims Oscoda, Michigan, as “Paddletown, U.S.A.,” a town where the Au Sable River exits the Huron-Manistee National Forest and flows into Lake Huron. A town where you can boat in the Great Lakes, fly-fish the Au Sable, or swim in idyllic inland Van Etten Lake.
It’s also a town which once supported an air base, Wurtsmith Air Force Base, which operated from 1923 to 1993. The air base had a fire training area and used firefighting foam both to put out fires and for training. In recent decades, the dangers of these firefighting foams have become more widely studied as they contained a group of chemicals known as PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) – nicknamed the “forever chemicals” due to their failure to break down in the environment over time – and linked to a range of human health effects including cancers and reproductive harms.
The former air base – and its fire-training area – abut the Huron-Manistee National Forest and a wetland complex within it called Clark’s Marsh. Clark’s Marsh includes three ponds improved by Ducks Unlimited projects and boasts excellent wildlife habitat for waterfowl, birds, and deer, as well as warmwater fish like bluegills and pumpkinseeds. However, the PFAS contained in the firefighting foam used at Wurtsmith Air Force Base leached into the soil, where it continues to leach into Clark’s Marsh and through it to the Au Sable River, just to the other side of it.
PFAS testing has resulted in consumption advisories not just for the fish in the ponds and the Au Sable River in that area, but also for white-tailed deer within a five-mile radius around Clark’s Marsh, after a single deer was found to have high levels of PFOA (perfluorooctane sulfonic acid), one of the chemicals in the PFAS family, in 2018.
Tess Nelkie is an avid fly angler, a board member of Anglers of the Au Sable, a retired teacher, and owns the Nordic Sports shop in East Tawas, which sells fishing clothing, paddling gear, and rents cross-country ski equipment. I joined her and her husband on the Au Sable River, just outside of Oscoda, in March to hear how PFAS contamination and both fish and deer consumption advisories have impacted both the community and the outdoor recreation that draws people to it.
“If you were to start at the headwaters, you’ve got a narrow trout stream with wild brook trout and as you come down here we have steelhead and Atlantic salmon, and soon to have Coho,” she tells me, as we’re standing thigh-deep in a beautiful stretch of the Au Sable within the Huron-Manistee National Forest.
“PFAS came here from the former Wurtsmith Air Force base. When they were putting out fires they used firefighting foam which had PFAS. It went into the ground, which went into the groundwater, and now those plumes in the groundwater are moving around the area. They moved into an area called Clark’s Marsh that directly flows into the Au Sable River. And then there’s another plume which directly touches the Au Sable. And through PFAS, we now have ‘Do Not Eat’ mandates for certain resident fish because they are contaminated with PFAS and it’s unhealthy for human consumption.”
Almost on queue, a patch of foam floated past us on the river. PFAS accumulates in foam on the water, though not every patch of foam is PFAS. In waters near the base, though, foam accumulates at the waters edge wherever the wind blows it: in the fallen cedars at the edges of the ponds in Clark’s Marsh; along riverbank lunker bunkers in the Au Sable; on the public park beach at Van Etten Lake, looking apocalyptic amid the foreground of empty children’s swingsets and a public water drinking fountain next to a warning sign about the foam.
The Air Force recently proposed an interim remedial action to install additional filters to catch some of the PFAS leaving the base in the direction of Clark’s Marsh, but community members content that this proposed action doesn’t address the full scope of the PFAS contamination leaving the former base and that the Air Force didn’t include community input through a Resource Advisory Board in formulating its plans. Additionally, representatives from the Air Force recently stated that they did not have to design the remedial measures to comply with Michigan’s more protective standard of PFAS clean-up. It’s left a bitter taste in the mouth of the community which once embraced the base.
“The difficult thing is that people don’t even know – at a scientific level – what the Air Force is presenting,” Nelkie said. “It seems like they’re trying to get out of prolonged, any kind of clean-up here. Recently, they released a remedial plan, and the remedial plan said it did not have to meet the Michigan standards for PFAS and PFOA.”
Gov. Whitmer sent the Air Force a letter at the end of March invoking her authority under the federal National Defense Authorization Act to require adherence to Michigan’s stronger PFAS remediation standard through an amendment in the 2019 bill sponsored by Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.).
“The communities around Oscoda, that have been knowingly exposed to toxic PFAS from the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base for over a decade, deserve assurance that clean-up will meet the highest standards and the Governor invoking this authority is a critical step in that process.” said Mike Shriberg, Great Lakes Regional Executive Director for the National Wildlife Federation, in a statement. “This added layer of accountability for the Air Force is a critical step in helping to restore trust and transparency in the clean-up process and ensure that people, wildlife, our land and water are the priority.”
Beyond the administrative wrangling, the plans, the agencies, and the laws, it still comes down to the water. The community wants clean water and the natural resources that go with it. That’s what Tess Nelkie wants to see.
“Make it so people can eat fish again. Make it so people can eat deer here. Make it so people don’t have to worry here that when they shoot a duck or if they’re hunting that they have to worry if they’re poisoning themselves by eating the wildlife.”
By Drew YoungeDyke (Originally published in the April 2021 issue of Woods-N-Water News)
The swish of waves on the beach, the crackle of a campfire, and the zip of a tent door; I started imagining the sounds of a Fresh Coast summer as soon as the snow began melting in March. Camping on the Great Lakes is one of my favorite things about living in Michigan, opening access to a diverse range of outdoor recreation opportunities like trail running, hiking, surfing, kayaking, fishing, or just enjoying the sun on a beach towel. The twin abilities to plan well while remaining flexible enough to change your plans will help make the most of your Great Lakes camping trip.
Planning ahead is a must for camping on the Great Lakes in Michigan, both due to the pandemic and the resulting surge of interest in outdoor recreation. Last summer, even weekdays saw campgrounds as full as most weekends. This year, competition for state park campground reservations online is already in full swing. Planning ahead goes beyond booking a campground reservation online, though. Thinking through your gear and what you want out of your Great Lakes camping vacation can help you avoid crowds and get the most out of your trip. At the same time, being adaptable to changing conditions can help you salvage your trip when things don’t go according to plan.
Last summer, for instance, I road-tripped along northern Michigan’s Lake Michigan coast from my home in Ann Arbor up to Empire, Frankfort, Traverse City, Eastport, Central Lake, and Northport, camping out at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and Antrim County’s Barnes Park. I was shooting scenes for a film about the threat of invasive carp - “Against the Current” - with Jordan Browne of Michigan Out-of-Doors TV for the National Wildlife Federation, where I work. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, our staff travel was restricted without an approved travel plan meeting strict social distancing requirements. My detailed plan included camping out instead of staying in hotels (which I’d rather do anyway), eating only takeout, outside, or what I brought in a cooler, wearing a mask at all times I had to be indoors at all or couldn’t keep six feet of distance from others, and keeping and using hand sanitizer from Mammoth Distilling in the car at all times.
To have the best chance of booking campground reservations, I also planned to film all the scenes during the weekday so that I was avoiding weekend crowds. Even so, there were few campsites available. I accidentally booked my first campsite at the D.H. Day Campground at Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore for the wrong day, which I didn’t realize until I’d made the four-hour drive from Ann Arbor to find the campsite occupied. Time for Plan B. I used my iPhone and the wifi signal from the ranger’s office parking area to check availability and book a walk-in site at the Platte River Campground – about twelve miles away - where my wife and I had camped a few years ago. I drove to the new campground, stuffed my camping gear in a backpack and hiked the short trail to my campsite in the dark by the light of my headlamp. The gentle sound of waves from the beach down the hill through woods in the night calmed all my frayed nerves from finding a place to pitch my tent.
The next morning, I drove to the beach in Empire to meet Ella Skrocki from Sleeping Bear Surf & Kayak, whom I was interviewing about the potential impact of invasive carp to outdoor recreation businesses like hers if they were to invade the Great Lakes. The predawn waves and were beautiful but not big enough to surf. With a rainstorm on the horizon, though, Ella suggested we try the beach at Frankfort, so I drove there through the rainstorm and met her, her sister Annabel, and Jordan Browne. The rain passed and the waves were perfect. Jordan captured great footage of Ella and Annabel riding waves and me wiping out, along with my interview of Ella for the film.
Both of these changes of plan highlighted the importance of being adaptable for a Great Lakes camping excursion. While we can plan the vacation time we take off, we can’t plan the weather for the days we took. Planning to catch some sun on the beach? What if it’s cloudy and windy? Might be a perfect day to take a surfing lesson from Sleeping Bear Surf & Kayak or a distillery tour at Mammoth Distilling. Planning to surf? What if it’s sunny, calm, and waveless? Might be a perfect day to rent a stand-up paddleboard, go for a trail run, or just take a nap in a hammock. And while you might not make my mistake of booking a campsite on the wrong day, what if the campsite double-booked it, or it got flooded, or the generator and giant RV on the campsite next to yours is too loud? Knowing about some of the other campgrounds in the area can save you from a night sleeping in your car, calling motels, or feeling like you’re camping in a shopping center parking lot instead of a Great Lakes campground.
The gear you pack is just as important as your pre-trip planning. I had fairly limited space last summer in my office’s hybrid Toyota Camry, but having packed a backpack, headlamp, and raingear – even though I’d planned to car camp – I was able to carry my gear into the alternative hike-in campsite at Sleeping Bear. Don’t just pack for the conditions you expect; pack for the full range of possible conditions. After last summer’s adventure, and plenty before it, I’m planning some Fresh Coast camping for this summer for the family. As my gear list takes shape, it will include the surfboard I bought from Sleeping Bear after the interview, but also trail running shoes and a float tube and fishing rods for calm conditions (and a recently-purchased used Toyota Tacoma pickup to haul it all). I’ll be ready for calm days and windy ones, sunny afternoons or rainy mornings, so that Michigan’s famously fickle weather doesn’t ruin my plans. Rather, I’ll be prepared to let the adventure take shape.
Living in Michigan, we’re never more than a couple hours from a Great Lake and a campground nearby. After the year we’ve had and a typically inconsistent winter, there’s nothing I’m looking forward to more than Lake Michigan beaches, waves, and campfires. With a little planning and the flexibility to change those plans, a Fresh Coast camping adventure awaits.
By Drew YoungeDyke (Originally published in the March 2021 issue of Woods-N-Water News)
If you’ve tried to buy new outdoor gear in the past year, you’ve likely experienced frustration at the lack of stock. As the pandemic has required people to keep social distance, a boom in outdoor recreation participation has occurred packing trails and campgrounds and emptying inventories of everything from kayaks to cross-country skis. You don’t need the newest gear to have fun outside, though.
As I’ve seen the “out of stock” notifications on the websites for my favorite manufacturers, though, I’ve also realized how much of my outdoor recreation is reliant on old gear that still works. For those who are looking to use their socially distant time to try new outdoor sports, this also means that you don’t have to let a lack of new inventory hold you back. Gear found at second-hand stores, garage sales, or internet resale marketplaces can get you outdoors enjoying Michigan’s woods, waters, and wildlife, if it’s still in working condition. Some of my favorite gear to still use was either handed down, found at a garage sale, or purchased decades ago.
For instance, I’ve spent all winter cross-country skiing almost every weekend and most lunch breaks (when there was enough snow) on Karhu Classic Touring skis that I’ve had since college and that my dad first purchased in the 1980’s. As waxless skis, they require little upkeep – until this winter I had last waxed them at least a decade ago – but they still give me a good glide and decent traction uphill. I even use them to get my two-year-old son out in the snow by either towing his sled or carrying him in a backpack carrier while I ski. I’ve been looking at upgrading to new skis but the ones I want are out of stock, even online. Thankfully my old Karhu’s continue to work well even after three decades.
Garage sales can be great places to find working outdoor gear. My parents enjoy shopping at garage and estate sales in the summer, so I have them keep an eye out for outdoor gear for me. A few years ago, my dad found a pair of Yukon Charlie Backcountry snowshoes with a broken decking, but with a little duct tape they’ve carried me on multiple winter backpacking trips over the years.
My only current hunting bow also came from a garage sale. Shortly after I bought my first compound bow a decade ago (at a Wyoming pawn shop) I expressed an interest to learn to shoot a traditional bow. My dad called me from a garage sale a few years ago and said that there was a recurve bow for sale for $10. I asked if there was any apparent limb twist or cracking, and he said he didn’t think so. I figured for that price, though, it was worth the shot. It turned out to be a Shakespeare Super Necadah, made in Kalamazoo in the late 60’s or early 70’s, and it shoots great.
My most prized outdoor gear was handed down from my grandpa, who instilled my passion for fishing and conservation, and mentored me along with my dad in hunting. One of these items is a Marlin Model 1892 lever-action .22 rifle. This century-old rifle is my favorite squirrel gun, loaded with copper .22LR ammunition. When he was still alive and I was in college, we fished together often on summer weekends in his boat on Lake Skegamog, Elk Lake, Torch Lake, and other inland lakes in the northwest Lower Peninsula for northern pike and smallmouth bass. Along with sage advice and lifetime memories, he gave me his Fenwick Voyageur 4-piece fiberglass spinning rod. To this day, even 16 years after he died, it’s the only spinning rod I use.
I mostly fly fish now, and while I’ve bought some newer Orvis rods for bass and pike, the Cortland rod and reel package I got for Christmas in college is still what I use for trout and panfish. This past year, with more time to fish and less opportunity to do much else, I caught more panfish than ever mostly on my 17-year-old 5-wt Cortland starter package (with newer Scientific Anglers line and mostly flies I tied myself). And no fish have ever meant more to me than the bluegills and pumpkinseeds I caught on that rod with my son in a backpack on Father’s Day last summer.
And while new kayaks were flying off of outdoor retailer shelves last summer, there’s no watercraft I’d rather fish out of than the aluminum rowboat at my family’s Upper Peninsula lake cottage. It’s older than me (and I just turned 41!) but it floats and catches fish. I repainted the oars last summer and my dad and brother replaced the rotten transom a few years ago. Replacing the cracked wood bench seats is next on my list. Watching the MeatEater series “Das Boat” on YouTube – much of it filmed in Michigan last summer – has given me an endless list of future ideas for it, as well. And as the tagline for that series says, “Whatever floats.”
I’m as much of a gear junkie as anyone, and I appreciate the technological advances in materials and construction that outdoor gear and clothing manufacturers are continually putting into their products. And I certainly buy my fair share of new outdoor gear when my budget allows, but I also rely on gear that has withstood decades of use and still gets me outdoors. Some of it has sentimental value, but some of it was just a good deal.
Whether you’re looking to learn a new outdoor sport or whether finances are just tough, as they are for many right now, don’t let a lack of funds keep you from enjoying outdoor recreation. A new fishing rod may be nice, but an old one can still cast a lure. New skis may go faster, but old ones will still glide. New snowshoes may not require duct tape, but old ones will still keep you from post-holing. And while every fly angler may dream of new drift boats or every bass angler may dream of new sparkle boats, the only real requirement for catching fish is that it floats and you do the rest.
And no matter what gear you see others using out in the woods, on the water, or on Instagram, the only gear you need is the gear that gets you out there. Whether you’re using old gear to learn a new skill, because it’s the gear you could afford, because it’s the gear you trust, or because it’s the gear your grandpa used, you belong out there. Get whatever gear you can get your hands on, get outside, and have some fun. Whatever floats.
Drew YoungeDyke is an award-winning freelance outdoor writer and a Director of Conservation Partnerships for the National Wildlife Federation, a board member for 2% for Conservation, a member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America, the Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers, and the Michigan Outdoor Writers Association, and a state-appointed member of the Pigeon River Country State Forest Advisory Council.
All posts at Michigan Outside are independent and do not necessarily reflect the views of NWF, OWAA, AGLOW, MOWA, the PRCAC, or any other entity.