Getting It Right at the Finish

Looking right I see Dave a long ways away paddling in a path off mine. I look at my GPS and check my old-school compass. Why he is heading so far south? All things are going right but I have zero band width for navigation errors. I yell my concern and he stops paddling long enough to say he was wondering where I was going.


There is an edge to our dialogue. I pride myself on navigating and generally think I’m right. We haven’t paddled a mile more than our point-to-point mileage. So what the f#@k was he doing paddling south? In a matter of seconds my fuse is near its end. I want NOTHING to do with a delay or additional mileage because Dave can’t get it right.

He doesn’t deviate from his course and is pulling away from me. I shout that I am coming over – we need to figure it out. As I near my voice carries a tone of accusation, ‘where are you going – even my compass bearing has me going on the right path’. He states the waves are pushing us north so my navigation is wrong. Again I tell him he is wrong because my GPS is tracking correctly.


And he is right, I am wrong. I’m lucky to be paddling with him. He is competent, experienced, and level headed in a way that is assuring even if things got really tricky. It is a rare combination of skill and personality. …and he is patient!

Land in the distance.

Land in the distance.

The last few rest stops I watch our position on my GPS as I lazily bob through 3-foot swells. I wonder if Dave notices we are drifting 2-3/10ths of a mile during each stop – in the correct direction. A light breeze is to our backs and waves are pushing us to our destination from the southwest. I can’t believe our good fortune and at the same time I refuse to verbalize it for fear of jinxing it. Dave, too, has said nothing.

I had hoped to see shore at about 15 miles out. There has been a steady layer of humidity over the water and even at mile 50 all there is haze. I’m significantly less wigged about being on the open water. The swells are bigger than mid-day but have nominal weirdness. Boats of all sizes begin to appear, and I begin to worry about wakes from freighters. Momentarily I panic because my course looks to intersect with one on our left. I glance at Dave and realize I have again drifted significantly off course. Fatigue is beginning to show its effects.

The finish at Ludington, MI.

The finish at Ludington, MI.

Though I had hoped for it even before starting, we were suddenly almost finished. It felt like a split second switch going from not wanting to jinx its conclusion with conversation to a panic that it was over. I could see my parents, family and friends running along the pier, cheering us home.

Dave might not have been used to all the hub-bub that comes with my family. I had nephews wading in to help us dock and my Mom rushed in for a congratulatory kiss. Dave got one too!!

Pulling up to a warm Michigan welcome.

Pulling up to a warm Michigan welcome.

I had trouble getting out of my boat and almost fell into the shallow water. My 51-year-old body had been a great sport through the whole trip – no cramps or muscular lock-ups. Standing turned out to be a little trick. As soon as I found my balance I looked at Dave and said, ’Can you believe that tail wind!!’

Looking at my GPS it recorded 16:32 hours covering 62 miles. I had planned for 20-30 hours. What a deal!!

Walking to the car with my first load I wondered what had just happened. For some reason I was confused and even found myself questioning why I did it. Really weird. It was great to involve my parent, family and friends – I was also grateful things did not go wrong with everyone occupying a front row seat. Maybe it will get clearer on the drive back home to Utah.


The Middle Passage: Sun and Sky

Dawn on Lake Michigan from Outdoor Labs on Vimeo.

When the sun came up the miles covered in the dark lose their sting. Starting a trip in the dark makes the dark section feel disconnected from the trip. It had worked well on past climbs, bike rides and hikes, but it wan’t working out as well in my boat. It felt incredibly grounding to be able to see the horizon line, but waypoint mile 30 (midway) is still in our future. I’m completely out of reserve energy: it was consumed by anxiety and the ineffective paddling of my ‘dark’ strategy.

“The last 30 miles are the hardest”, says Dave as my GPS chimes we have finally crossed the halfway point. Unbelievable. I’m struggling to wrap my head around the idea that I feel fully tapped. All the experience I have suffering in my past makes me wonder what I am currently made of. I’ve not seen the edge in several years and now it looms as undeniable and undefined as the horizon.

When my friends, the ones that have accompanied me in other adventures, quizzed me on this trip I explained why I was drawn to the idea and how I thought I was qualified. I’m talking about the guys that have seen the edge with me and were fortunate enough to return on the safe side of it. From hypothermia, to dropped ice axes, to awful bike crashes, to avalanches, these are not people who blow smoke or are interested in hype. They understand the drive and commitment. They measure my objectives with experience and first hand knowledge. Their questions are for knowledge and not judgement.

When explaining my qualifications, I explain that I am fit enough to paddle the distance, and I’m a reasonable navigator. I am lacking in depth and range of paddling skills, BUT I am level headed in trying situations and have a low RPM, high torque motor. I’m a metaphorical American-made truck form the 80’s.


Sun and sky reflect off the water in every direction, as far as I can see. There is nothing man-made, anywhere, 360 degrees, except our boats. Incredibly the waves diminish and the wind is light and to our backs.  It reminds me of early morning light on the summit of the Mont Blanc. It soothes me, and my fear of the water disappears.

Still, I am worried about paddling to our destination. Dave has gotten his pace back, and I can’t keep up. We’ve agreed to my analytically driven plan to rest at every 5-mile waypoint with a short rest in between. I have done the math and that is only 12 segments. I’m not sure I can go non-stop for 40 minutes.

As my mind wonders, I trouble shoot why I’m feeling flat and what I could do to better my odds. As obvious as it seems, I finally realize I haven’t been eating enough. At the next break I dig out one of the burritos I made for the trip.  In my mom’s kitchen it tasted great: sausage, eggs, cheese, potatoes and salsa.. Now it was a matter of forcing it down with hopes of it not returning or prompting another dip in the lake.

Refueling accomplished, I hit my caffeinated gels in hopes of staying awake. I drink coffee but am not a fan of 5-Hour Energy drinks – until now. Can’t say I’d recommend it for everyday consumption, but if your paddling across Lake Michigan, it sure helps.

The more I paddle the less I am afraid about our outcome. Dave still outpaces me, but surprisingly when I glance at my GPS it says my speed is a consistent 5.5 mph. Maybe I am hallucinating. Weirder things have happened, and I’m kinda giddy from the caffeine spree.

Time and effort is slipping into a non-linear experience. My paddle stroke has miraculously morphed into the core-centered effort necessary for big days. Already I can barely remember details of being on the bouncy water in the dark. Tendonitis in my shoulders and forearms has been kept at bay with Vitamin I (ibuprophen). I see the red arrow on my GPS nearing a waypoint…mile 45. Though it is not showing on my GPS, we may see land on the horizon soon.

Dave at dawn...still smiling.

Dave at dawn…still smiling.

Reaching Dawn: Long Paddle or Epic Slog?

By David Schipper

Dawn at last!

Dawn at last!

August 16

I’ve not had a send-off like this in a very long time. It’s usually a variation of driving to the airport and meeting my team at basecamp. Today it is my parents and sister’s family helping me load our boats onto the ferry and driving me around. I feel almost famous. My brother-in-law, Roger, will join us on the ferry to help us get started.


The family send-off.

I’m nervous. The lake represents a terrain that offers no options to hunker down or to wait out a storm. Once we launch it is either paddle to our own destiny or get rescued. It weighs heavy on me and I try not to burn through my energy reserves worrying.

Dave, from the start, has said weather forecasting on the lake is consistent and accurate. I’ve never thought to question it, but the expanse of water in front of me has me questioning everything. The difference between 2’ and 4’ waves, headwind or a tailwind, and rollers verses whitecaps bode our trip as a long paddle or an epic endurance slog. I’m simultaneously impatient and dreading the start.

Attempting sleep on the deck of the SS Badger.

Attempting sleep on the deck of the SS Badger.

In another scenario the ferry ride would be wonderfully relaxing. The passengers enjoying the trip crowd the bow deck to watch our departure. Dave and I organized our sleeping bags on the deck chairs and tried to sleep through the 4-hour cruise. I may have slept but not much. I was obsessed with trying to feel wave height and conditions through the ride of our 6650 ton, 410’ ferry – then trying not to!! The ride felt smooth and when I looked at the water it looked good – from 5 stories above.

Our launch is 200’ from the ferry dock. Ferry porters carried our boats to a small beach full of shells, still in the harbor. I practiced and rehearsed rigging my boat a dozen times to be sure I would be fast and not forget a thing. Dave was done and waiting in the water as we finally started at 12:15 AM, Wisconsin time.


Dave readying his boat for launch with Roger’s assistance.

I feel solid in my boat in the smooth of the harbor. I have a GPS mounted to the deck in front of my cockpit and a traditional compass near the bow. Food, rescue gear, and extra clothing is stowed thoughtfully around me so I can reach it in all conditions. I know I am rested but have only speculation on what the next 24 hours holds for me.

At the end of the harbor pier the waves show themselves as more than the ‘less than one foot’ forecasted. They are not tricky or abrupt but far from the smooth paddling conditions I had envisioned.

Dave took off quickly. I’m a slow starter with an option for a strong finish. Many of my friends sprint out of the gate and settle into a pace a ways out, turns out Dave does too. The black water, rolling waves, and paddling away from shore has me fully sketched. I am scared and scold Dave to stay close to me, not to paddle too far ahead.

Dave checking in.

Dave checking in.

In January, Dave told me I needed 100 hours of paddling to be ready, have a solid kayak roll, and to be able to exit and enter my boat in open water. One and three I achieved but a roll was only 80% in perfect conditions. I was strong enough but only fooling myself when I weighed the consequences of being kicked out of my boat.

Consuming fear subsided as I realized we were making almost 4 mph in these challenging waves. Just after passing the 5-mile waypoint Dave asks me if I am feeling seasick. No, I was fine. Still running through my mental reserves at too rapid a pace from apprehension but nothing on the seasick front. Then I asked – Are you? Yes.

I’ve never been seasick. I didn’t know if this was a minor inconvenience or debilitating. I figured Dave would tell me. His pace drops and I wonder what I am doing here. I’m confident even if things got weird 5 miles from shore was not too crazy. It didn’t make sense and certainly wasn’t founded in reality.  But for some reason I was not additionally scared about the seasick development.

My mind is fully engaged in panic management. Logically everything is fine. I’m feeling and paddling strong. The waves are not devious. Laughing nervously I remember I am actually afraid of the dark. I hate being in the woods in the dark and quite possible live in the desert to avoid shadows. Everything I do is focused on the time and space I am in. I have not yet made any thoughts about turning around.

Navigating by GPS in the dark.

Navigating by GPS in the dark.

Our ferry has snuck up behind us on it early morning return to Ludington. I have been petrified its wake would roll me out of my boat with rouge 6’ waves. Instead its lighted presence brings comfort and I wish it would slow down. We use it as a navigational beacon for the hour we can see it steam away from us.

Mile 10 waypoint has me wondering when it will get light. Three hours in and 3 more hours til dawn. Dave is clearly struggling with something but communicates little. We have both taken Dramamine. He now stops every few minutes to rest. I am quiet and getting very sleepy. Eventually we talk about his seasickness and he admits things are very grim. He is much more experienced than I in open water so I follow his lead.

Before mile 15 waypoint I lose cell phone reception to RJ, our spotter in Ludington. I am getting weirdly sleepy and my stomach is feeling wave weary. Dave is struggling big time but I lose track of his dilemma as mine surfaces. My arms are barely moving and I struggle to stay awake. As if I am looking at a bad dream from above I wonder how long I can stay upright in my boat. Maybe if I can keep my arms moving I will not fall out of my boat. Then my whole digestive tract throws me a curve and insists I respond by exiting my boat or finishing my paddle in stench. I want NOTHING to do with getting into the dark water.

Sequential time with its equally sized minutes ceases to exist. When my guts are twisted minutes are infinite, when I am wondering how long I will stay awake they pass instantly. I’m in survival mode without a real crisis but there is nothing to temper my experience. Then I get seasick and have no energy.

Sunrise over Lake Michigan

Sunrise over Lake Michigan

Finally, light shows on the eastern sky. It is an hour earlier than my expectation, and I am overwhelmed. Dave didn’t seem to be suffering quite as much but I still couldn’t shake my lack of energy. If something didn’t change I was out of the game. There was no way I could finish in this condition. At 15 miles out retreat sounded pretty bad as well. I finally dared to jump out of my boat.

I stayed in the water for several minutes and after climbing back into my boat was relieved to find I had left all my ailments in the lake. My anxiety and seasickness had distracted me from properly keeping up with food and liquids so I forced myself to catch up. The waves settled to almost calm. We were one third of the way.

Midnight Launch from Manitowoc Harbor

Thursday August 15

11:30pm, Manitowoc, MI

It was a smooth four hour ferry ride to Wisconsin. Dave and David took advantage of a nap in their sleeping bags on deck chairs on the bow of the boat. After unloading their boats in Manitowoc, they are ready to disembark. “It’s mighty dark and mighty calm. I’m glad for one and not so glad for the other,” Dave said.

ferry deck

The deck of the SS Badger.

From Dave Schipper’s initial log: “We each have enough food and fuel for 24+ hours of paddling. About a month ago we did two 30 mile days back-to-back in Lake Powell. Our average ‘moving’ pace was about 4.5 mph. Our overall pace, with stops was about 3.8 mph. So at 2.5 mph our crossing will be 24 hours, 3 mph=20 hours, and 4 mph=15 hours…David tells me there will be a significant part of the trip without any sight of land.”

Manitowoc Harbor, the ferry landing, doubles as the boat launch.

Manitowoc Harbor, the ferry landing, doubles as the boat launch.

Friday August 16

1:15am, On the water

Message from the family: Dave and David just got on the water and every thing was going great! Dave sounded really exited and enthusiastic.

Disembarking from the harbor.

Disembarking from the harbor.

2:30am, Checkpoint 1

DS: We are at check point one, 5 miles in. ” Here is a word from our sponsor and fearless leader” Dave Dejong: “Hey”. How is that for a deep meaning?

Check points are every five miles for the span of the lake. GPS will help keep the paddlers on course.

4:15am, Checkpoint 2

This is David S speaking: “All is well. Mile marker 10. Waves are a little more interesting than we hoped but still very workable and paddlable.  Next one will be mile marker 15.”

waypoint map

GPS coordinates define the route.

Bon Voyage: The Ferry Ride to Manitowoc

From Dave Schipper’s initial log: “David DeJong has done this [paddle] already three times, so I listen closely to what he says…and doesn’t say. We have given ourselves about ten days to pick the best weather day. As it stands, we plan to load our kayaks aboard the Badger ferry that will take us from Ludington, MI to Manitowoc, WI. Its last sailing each day is the late afternoon arriving in Wisconsin around midnight. We’ll gear up and hope to be paddling within the hour.”

After a long wait for good weather and optimal conditions, Friday is a go.

The paddling route from Wisconsin to Michigan.

The paddling route from Wisconsin to Michigan.

The months of training and weeks of waiting for an open window will finally pay off.  Conditions are promising, spirits are high, and the paddling trip officially commences at the ferry in Ludington, Michigan:

The ferry promotes, “The four-hour, 60-mile cruise between Manitowoc, Wisconsin and Ludington, Michigan has all the comforts of home and more. The 410′ S.S. Badger carries up to 620 passengers and 180 cars, tour buses, RVs, and semi-trucks”…and two kayaks.

The Daves with their kayaks in front of the ferry.

The Daves with their kayaks in front of the ferry.

Paddle gear...just add kayak and determination.

Paddle gear…just add kayak and determination.

Surveying Dave’s gear, it doesn’t quite contain all the comforts of home, but the right stuff for the 60 mile paddle across Lake Michigan:

David Schipper, Age 51, 200 lbs, blonde hair, caucasion. Red Prijon Kodiak kayak.
David DeJong, Age 50, 170 lbs, blonde hair, caucasion. White Prijon Seayak kayak.

  • Both boats will have legal navigaConal lights.
  • 3 GPS carried between 2 paddlers.
  • Portable VHF Marine radio enabled with GPS. I will idenCfy myself as ‘RED KAYAK’.
  • 2x flares each.
  • One strobe light each.
  • Plenty of food and water.

No expedition succeeds, or is truely relevant, without support of family and friends along the way. In the waning hours of Thursday evening, the family saw Dave and David off at the ferry.

The family helping the Dave's carry the boats to the ferry.

Johnny Masselink (bow) and David Masselink (stern) helping the Daves carry the boats to the ferry.

A bit of Fatherly advice before launch.

A bit of Fatherly advice before launch. Dave with Mom and Dad just before leaving on the ferry.

Weather Report:

Manitowac clear sky. Half moon. The waves in Two Rivers (near Manitowoc on the shore of Lake Michigan) are 3 feet high. The wind is out of the west blowing at 1.9 knots. Ludington also clear sky with a wave height of 1.6 feet and a wind out of the south south east at 3.9 knots.

The SS Badger sailing to Manitowoc, WI.

The SS Badger sailing to Manitowoc, WI.