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More and more, the summer season paddles in on a kayak

Upward trend goes beyond cheap gear into confidence and comfort

BRIMLEY, Mich. – Peter and Lisa Wright were up from downstate Warren visiting the Sault. It was such a nice day on Wednesday, July 13, that he and his wife deployed a portable kayak from Rotary Park for a bit of island exploration.

“Just a two-hour break on the water to enjoy things from another perspective,” said Peter.

They were not alone. In the space of 15 minutes around noontime, no fewer than 12 kayaks launched from the park’s dedicated dock. A quick glance of the adjoining parking lot revealed cars from Ohio, Illinois, not to mention Michigan. One local parent took his daughter out on a two-person new kayak for the first time.

There seems to be a kayak explosion underway.

“This year, people coming out of Covid are reembracing the outdoors” said Ken Hopper, who owns Bird’s Eye Café and Outfitters in Sault Ste. Marie, along with his wife, Wilda. “Self-quarantining indoors left many people stir crazy and driven to experience the opposite.”

Hopper thinks that workers reshuffled productivity and free time during lockdown. What came out of the disruption of Covid was a reprioritizing time for recreation, particularly getting outdoors.

“People are looking to lifestyle outfitters on how to best enjoy free time,” said Hopper, who not only offers kayak rentals, but lessons on how to use them as well. “They want to take full advantage of an area where they can do these things. After Covid and this gas shock settle down, we’re going to see a higher percentage of outdoor activities than in the past.”

Another factor in kayaking’s growing popularity is that starter packages are so affordable and available everywhere.

“Most people want to dip a toe in the water and see if they like it,” Hopper pointed out. “Ten years ago, who would’ve expected to see kayak starter packages at Dunham’s, Walmart, or Tractor Supply?”

This bargain-priced doorway opens even wider if people sell gear after finding out kayaking isn’t something they enjoy. Used prices can slash a financial commitment by at least half for the newcomer. More dabbling paddlers mean a greater chance that the kayaking bug – and lifestyle – sinks in. 

That’s where Hopper steps in.

“What’s stopping people from committing is not having the knowledge or comfort,” said Hopper. “People get trained and realize there’s more than just paddling. They say, Oh my God I didn’t realize what I didn’t know!”

So that is what Hopper and Bird’s Eye see as a mission – to offer the confidence and accessories that make an outdoor hobby like kayaking more comfortable and therefore less likely to walk away from.

“You can buy kayaks almost anywhere,” Hopper said. “But if you want to go farther and faster with greater confidence and comfort, then you invest in better gear and lessons.”

Bird’s Eye offers certified trainers on demand for two-hour lessons.

Since the business started six years ago, the Hoppers have also been tireless advocates of kayak destinations, such as Voyager Island some 15 minutes’ paddle time from Rotary Park. Bird’s Eye keeps the funnel open by offering 20 kayaks for rent at Rotary Park.

Which brings the story back to those out-of-state license plates in Rotary Park. Word seems about the Sault as an outdoor destination seems to be getting out.

“Travelers make a decision after crossing the Mackinac Bridge,” said Hopper. “Hang a left to go west on US 2 to points west or stay on I-75 for another 45 minutes to explore 75 miles of a huge river that touches all three Great Lakes.”

A break on the water becomes a gateway to the Upper Peninsula.

John Shibley

About the Author: John Shibley

John Shibley is a veteran writer, editor and photographer whose work has appeared locally and, via the Associated Press, in publications such as the New York Times
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