As a group of 10 novice kayakers huddled together in shelter on the beach at Gary’s Wells Street, Lake Michigan showed its dangerous dark side of angry, choppy waves amid a torrent of rain. The scene looked forbidding at best.
Yet in just an hour on Wednesday, the Great Lake went from bubbling white caps to serene waters, sparkling in the sun.
The lake’s diversity provided a graphic backdrop for Northwest Indiana Paddling Association instructor Dan Plath, who taught this beginner’s water safety course coordinated by nonprofit Friends of Marquette Park, based to Garry.
Plath spoke at length about kayak equipment and features, clothing, technique, and most importantly, safety.
“Know your ability. People call them tub boats, but they’re the best for learning,” he said in reference to the larger, more common kayaks on lakes and rivers.
Narrower sea kayaks, used by group members, are for larger bodies of water like Lake Michigan or an ocean.
Plath, a longtime outdoorsman and head of resource management at Indiana Dunes National Park, detailed the parts of the class’ kayaks and proper paddling technique to avoid sore shoulders.
“When you paddle, a lot of it is rotation,” he demonstrated with a paddle.
A good lightweight graphics paddle can cost around $400, but it saves you the hassle, he said.
Clothing should be nylon and polyester, never cotton or jeans, Plath said.
“Cotton does not dry out and can lead to hyperthermia,” he said.
As the rain stopped and the waters calmed down, class members wearing life jackets carried kayaks to the lake.
For many, this was their first time kayaking on the mighty and vast Lake Michigan.
“I was afraid to do it myself,” said Katie Sirko of Chesterton. “I wanted a little knowledge first.”
Once all the kayakers were in their boats, Plath told them to paddle to a lake buoy about 50 feet from shore. Some were wobbly at first as they struggled through tight spaces, but soon everyone was paddling towards the buoy.
Plath continued the lesson from there as they sat and listened.
Mark Woodson of New Carlisle said he started kayaking in the spring after his daughter introduced the family to the sport.
“This is my first time on Lake Michigan,” he said.
Typically, he said they were paddling in Hudson Lake in LaPorte County.
Carrie Anderson of Lake Village bought her first kayak three years ago.
“I needed one with room for my 80-pound dog and me,” she said.
Her family owns a 9-acre pond that she paddles on and she lives near the Kankakee River where she took her kayak.
Mary Ann Best, who leads the Friends of the Shoreline committee at Marquette Park, brought kayaks for herself and her 11-year-old granddaughter, Ellie Carter, who took the course last year.
Best said she hopes people enjoy Lake Michigan safely, while understanding its dangers and benefits.
“We want to promote water safety for people who come to enjoy the lake,” she said.
Carole Carlson is a freelance journalist for the Post-Tribune.