By Drew YoungeDyke (Originally published as "Why you should try new outdoor sports" in the September 2020 issue of Woods-N-Water News)
Lake Michigan was colder than recent days but I warmed up quickly. Sitting on my 10-foot foamie surfboard as the waves rolled toward the beach in Frankfort, I looked back for the wave I wanted, or rather, that my instructor wanted for me.
“This is it,” she said, “start paddling.”
I felt the wave lift the back of the board under me. I pushed up, brought my left knee to my chest, stood up in an athletic position, and coasted toward shore somehow able to find my balance after dozens of wipeouts. I saw Jordan Browne on the pier – we had been filming a scene for an upcoming documentary – and threw him two “hang loose” signs. It was the highlight of the session, which I followed with a series of spills, faceplants, and flying boards. It was enough to hook me on a new way to appreciate our state’s natural resources, though, and that’s something we could use more of these days.
As outdoor recreationists, we often fall into a rut of doing the same activities season after season, year after year. There’s definitely something to be said for picking a certain way to hunt, or species to fish, and specializing in it to improve your craft and success. When I hunt deer, for instance, I almost always still hunt and have since I first started deer hunting. And I have a hard time picking up a spinning rod when I’ve been practicing my fly cast and tying flies all year, even when the situation calls for it. However, that focus can lead to stagnation. By regularly trying new outdoor sports, we can continually grow our knowledge and appreciation of the outdoors and, importantly, have fun doing it.
There are endless ways to participate in Michigan’s out-of-doors, and while I certainly can’t do all of them – and especially do all of them well – I want to continue to expand the range of activities I participate in. Call it “cross-training” for the outdoors. CrossFit describes “regularly learn and play new sports” as part of its definition of fitness because it forces your body to learn different ways of moving and learning different physical skills. The same could be applied to becoming a complete outdoorsman or outdoorswoman.
Surfing on the Great Lakes had been at the back of my mind since I’d taken a surf lesson on vacation a couple years ago in Kauai and spent the week falling off a rented board. This summer, Jordan Browne of Michigan Out-of-Doors TV and I were filming a scene with Ella Skrocki of Sleeping Bear Surf & Kayak for an upcoming documentary from the National Wildlife Federation Great Lakes Regional Center on Asian carp, both their impacts in southern waters and potential impacts here in the Great Lakes on our fisheries, outdoor recreation, tourism, and businesses like hers. Since we were there, though, I asked Ella to bring a beginner board for me.
When we were done filming, she gave me some pointers for staying upright, which I was able to do a couple times. Mostly I fell off in spectacular and comical ways, but even that was more fun than almost anything else I’ve done in the outdoors. I was so stoked after that session that I bought the board, a used 10-foot SurfTech Learn2Surf model that had been through a season of their lessons. While most surfboards are shorter and made of fiberglass with a foam core, this larger foam-topped board is more buoyant for beginners like me, though not as thick and buoyant as a stand-up paddle board. To become even minimally okay at surfing, though, I’ll have to dramatically improve my core strength, balance, and agility, which will also serve me well in other outdoor pursuits as I get older.
Picking up a new outdoor sport doesn’t come without some trade-offs, though. To make up for buying the surfboard, I sold a shotgun I’d won in a raffle the year before. Which is okay, because I’ll have less time to hunt since Great Lakes waves tend to start picking up in October. I’m going to have to give up a couple weekends of hunting in the fall if I’m going to take my board up the Lake Michigan coast for a few days of trying to surf. I’ll need to buy a wetsuit for those colder waters, and that comes out of the same budget I use for hunting and fishing gear. I’m willing to make that trade-off, though, because it’s just that fun. It also gives me another motivation for keeping Asian carp out of the Great Lakes; as hard as it is to stay upright on a surfboard, it would be almost impossible with 30-pound silver carp launching out of the waves.
It will probably take me a long time to feel comfortable on a surfboard riding Great Lakes waves, just as it took me a long time to get close to deer while still hunting or a long time to occasionally catch fish on a fly line. I wouldn’t have derived the joy that I get from those pursuits if I was afraid to fail at something new, though, so I’m not afraid to look comically inept while surfing for a while. As my dad always says, “when in doubt, go for it.”
Whatever you’re already doing in the outdoors, don’t be afraid to fail at something new. Hunt turkeys if you only hunt deer. Hunt deer if you only hunt ducks. Fish for pike if you only fish for bass. Use a spinning rod if you only fly fish. Go for a trail run if you only hike. Fish from a kayak or paddle board or on the ice if you only fish from a boat. Go backpacking if you’ve only camped in an RV, or in the winter if you’ve only camped in the summer. Try rock-climbing, backpacking, surfing, birding, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, or mountain biking, if you never have before. And if you have, teach someone new.
You’re probably going to be terrible at it when you start, but so what? Everyone was a beginner at some point and outdoor recreation is fun whether you’re an expert or a beginner; it just gets even more fun as you improve. We have an unparalleled natural playground in Michigan encompassing four Great Lakes, two peninsulas, and over 10,000 inland lakes, and I’m going to get outside and enjoy them in every imaginable way that I can, even if it means faceplanting into three-foot Lake Michigan chop. Especially if it means that.
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.
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