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Great Lakes Shred Camp | Sleeping Bear Dunes

September 06, 2018 12 min read

Great Lakes Shred Camp | Sleeping Bear Dunes

When I set my alarm for 4:15am, I was not a happy girl. Hours later when I snuck to the top of the ferry and saw the sun rising over Lake Michigan, I was beyond happy and any lingering sense of exhaustion was thrown overboard. That was my good omen. I knew I’d made the right call, and the smooth sail to the Eastern mitten state basically flew by. I was on my way to Great Lakes Shred Camp, something I’d only signed up for a few weeks earlier. After my proclamation of More Heart, Less Hustle, I knew I wanted to send out summer with something totally and completely for me.

As soon as we docked in Muskegon and cars unloaded, I started my slow drive north, taking M-31 until it hits M-22 which hugs the lake all the way from Manistee, around the Leelanau Peninsula, and then ends in Traverse City . I didn’t have to report to Shred Camp until early evening, which meant I had all the time in the world to explore and see sites I’d only been crushing on via Instagram. Having lived in Michigan in my early 20s (gulp, years ago), and exploring sporadically over the past few years, I feel like I have a pretty good handle on the geography, but there is something about the sights of Michigan's lakeshores that blow me away.

I stopped first in Manistee, hungry and starting to feel a bit weird from exhaustion. I hammered out some emails at a cafe, strolled the riverwalk back to my car, and was on my way shortly because I knew I needed to get to my next stop as soon as possible. Manistee is darling. The riverwalk is darling. And I knew there was more to see and do, but like, my next stop was calling me...

The Arcadia Bluffs Golf Club is known for it’s insane views of the lake, and obviously a lot of golf things that I didn’t even pretend to know about, and despite looking a little worse for wear, I found myself seated in a big white adirondack overlooking a green with the amazing lake beyond in a matter of moments, with a HUGE bloody mary in hand. The bartender who made this was majorly into the situation, not uncommon considering that’s the general reaction whenever I order a bloody and mention I’m from Milwaukee. Just because you’re now curious, yes, the bloody was delicious, but it was so, SO secondary to the view that I hardly cared. The crisp temp, deep blue water + fog reminded me so much of Northern California. Was I in Half Moon Bay? San Francisco’s Sunset? Mendocino? I didn’t care. It felt great, and the stress melted away, just like every bloody mary with a view achieves...

After closing my tab, oh wait, said bartender comped that, I was back on the road. As I wound my way back along the shore, I stopped at Inspiration Point and Point Betsie Light, quick stops to take in the magnificent blues of the lake. 80, sunny, no complaints other than the fact that I was ready to stop moving, for once. But I was still too early to report for camp, so I landed just north of my final destination in Glen Arbor. Glen Lake is WILDLY beautiful and I spent the next two hours downtown enjoying a beer, the sun, and a mad Zillow sesh trying to plan out just where I could settle in the area. Turns out nowhere, but a girl can dream. After a few strolls around the CHARMING downtown, I pulled up the surf camp email of directions. It included a note about no cell service and the fact that Maps probably wouldn’t be able to find the address, so I was prepared to get lost. Turns out I did NOT get lost and thank you Lord, because heaven was just a few miles off the beaten path.

Camp was held at a magical spot near Empire, MI and the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. I probably said this no less than a dozen times over the next four days, but I couldn’t stop myself and my dumb awestruck face, “I can’t actually believe I get to be here…”

Camp co-host was Ella Skrocki (shop manager and all around wonderful human) and her family owns Sleeping Bear Surf and Kayak (you’re going to want to watch this). The health of the dunes and the park and the lakeshore, as well as getting people to fall in love with the beauty and adventure here, are crucial to the success of their business, and this was obvious in the way we lived over the course of the weekend.

Our other co-host was Leda, who began surfing Lake Michigan in the early 2000s and now owns her own retreat company, yoga teacher trainings, SUP and SUP yoga classes, etc. Not every yoga instructor takes their position to affect thought so seriously, and maybe she doesn’t take it “seriously” but it just comes naturally, but in any case, more than any yoga or teacher I’ve had, Leda very quickly got through to me and helped me drop a whole bunch of bullshit mental stories in a quick amount of time. The other two “staff” were soul-sisters of Ella and Leda, Lindsay Simmons & Beth (Beth Price Photography) who also have a deep love affair with the dunes and the Great Lakes surf scene in general. They’re lake-lovers through and through, who knew they’d only help to intensify our (and their) love of the water by being a part of the weekend. I’m so glad they did. They were golden humans who only brought more magic.

There are a million “mottos” that could have represented camp, but for me the motto could actually be something like, “humble pie served daily.” No matter what we did, I felt my preconceptions and ego slip away. I was constantly reminded that I am not an expert, not reminded by anyone in particular, but instead by falling and watching my body NOT actually be capable of the things I was attempting. I liked letting myself off the hook and allowing myself to be what I was. What was I? Not particularly skilled in any area that we were taking on from yoga, SUP yoga, SUP, surfing, etc. What I am is someone willing to show up and fail. Which is what I did. Which is what everyone did. It felt so good (like, SO good) to stop trying to be the best and instead just show up giving what I could. “Do your best” is hammered into us since childhood. At camp was I always giving my best? Nope. Did I feel guilty about it? No. Sometimes I just allowed myself to take it easy. Sometimes you save your energy for something that matters more to you. So if it’s going to be a rough paddle in the morning but we’re surfing in the afternoon, there’s no shame in saving your arms for what you’ll need them for later. Balance, I suppose.

And there’s really no way to do it justice in my words or photos, but if you haven’t explored this coastline, you need to. It’s magnificent in any weather, any time of year. I’d sneak away during activities to meander the beach, to look for Petoskey stones, to let the waves hit my toes, to just find a few moments of quiet for myself. To do my best to recharge my introverted self in a highly people-heavy experience. That said, as an introvert I was actually surprised by how, despite the high level of activity and socializing, I was recharged and ok on Monday. That never happens after a big weekend. There are healing powers in the water, y’all.

Ok, enough about humble pie, here are other highlights:

  • I stayed in “Treetops” which was a loft space adjacent to the main house where 5 of us “bunked” in a shared space. The main house had private rooms but I was loving our situation. Sorry we left it full of sand.

  • When we had to be transported anywhere else in the area, we piled in the back of a turquoise pickup named Jenny. Jenny took us to North Bar Lake for calmer paddling on days when Lake Michigan was a bit too rough for paddling skills. Jenny took us through the main drag of Sleeping Bear Dunes Park where we (pausing between camp songs) noticed insane views and that the tops of trees were switching to gold (fall? Is that you?). Jenny was a trooper and I’m still impressed by her strength, and the staff’s ability to back her up, hitch her to the trailer, and basically handle all the boards and paddles and things like they were weightless. Number of times I felt weak and said “I can’t hang.”: 7 million

  • Prior to launching ourselves down the dunes (in an approved area) and then walking the beach back to the house (our “counselors” climbed back up however), we did a camp-style pyramid where we made some unsuspecting young boy take our picture. He seemed terrified.

  • It felt like the weather changed every 5 minutes. We had basically every season (except winter) throughout the weekend, and it reminded me to really LIVE in the sunshine. AKA be present in the moment but also take advantage of conditions when they’re favorable. At the same time, when you’re in the water, it doesn’t matter if it’s raining. Don’t complain about it. And actually, no one did. I don’t think I heard any complaints at all over the course of the weekend.

Swimming a LOT. Wetsuits weren’t necessary for surfing, but obviously it just makes the whole experience a bit less painful and stops the shakes. BUT, swimming in this “crisp” water felt SO good. I should preface this with the fact that cool water isn’t something that really bothers me too much. My apartment building rarely has hot water anyway, so I’m used to a solid 30 seconds of acclimation before simply enjoying the invigoration. Well, Lake Michigan was that and then some. And there was something about the wild views, the smooth bottom, the perfect skies, the ever-changing weather, the conversations and the solitude when paired with a temp that took your breath away if you let it, that made the swimming something so healing. Lymphs = flushed. Skin = smooth. Inflammation? What inflammation. SO GOOD.

Yoga. I’ve ignored yoga for so long because, to be honest, I’m generally looking for a super intense workout that I can’t get on my own, youtube-style in my apartment. Daily or twice daily yoga at camp changed this. In general, the past few months have been a collective season of trying to soften and be gentler on myself. Feminine energy, where you at? In my world of hustle and forcing, I don’t make a ton of space for slow movement. But, the week before camp I dropped out of training for a marathon and shifted my energy to just going easy, for once. At camp, there was a learning to both go easy on my body, conserve energy, and push where i needed.

So, let’s talk about headstands. There is the concept of pushing up to a headstand vs. just an upwards flail without any real strategy. While I couldn’t nail this on the paddleboard, I brought this concept to my mat on solid ground, and now I’m doing it daily. I’ve been trying to nail headstands and inversions for my entire yoga “career” but I just chalked my inability up to not being strong enough. This was probably untrue, and for once I let my mind stay open and listened to someone other than my ego. Just because you’ve tried something before and failed doesn’t mean you are done. Try again. Try a new approach. Surprise yourself.

Simple is ok. Simple is usually better. On the second night, there were storms during the day and when we started to get ready for dinner, we realized we’d lost power. A few bazillion candles and a switch to using the grill instead, and it was as if nothing had even happened. In fact, once the power company switched it all back on, we turned all the lights back off because it really was the ultimate ambience with the soft lighting. What else was simple? The power of conversation and good quality humans.

People all came as they were and for different reasons. Happily married, working through divorce, getting through a rough patch, simply working on technical paddling skills. But I like to think that by the end, everyone was pretty much relieved of whatever they came to “fix”. Healed by a lot of laughter (and all that humble pie). They invested in themselves. They showed up for themselves. They opened and shared and supported and laughed and smiled. Of course the core four “counselors” were saints. They held space and spoiled us and pushed us all at the same time. Outside of them, Ella’s dad (and probably her entire family) Frank deserves a major shoutout. He prepared most of our meals at the house (mostly vegan, almost entirely locally-sourced) taking the time out of his schedule to share his fun energy with us and allow us to stay focused on the itinerary. And the world proved to be so small all over again. My friend Mae (a wonderful human I met last spring as we did a shoot in the dunes and have since had the pleasure of hanging with via Lee of the Fieldguide Farmhouse) is friends with Ella, stopped by one of the nights, and was actually a contributor to the swag bag. Her Letters to Lake Michigan will make you cry. Or maybe it’s just me. Beth, counselor and photographer of the trip, was also someone I’d met at the Fieldguide Farmhouse last winter for our Northern Women mixer. It’s a big yet small world we live in, but this community of lake lovers on the sunset side of Lake Michigan always blows me away. OH, and one lovely camper brought a waterproof ukulele that came with her on multiple expeditions. She’d play while standing, sitting, or swimming, and we’d sing-a-long to Journey, Jason Mraz, other misc tunes. New goal: learn ukulele.

I didn’t really do any research when I signed up for camp, but had you asked me if the experience would be as soul-nourishing as it was, I probably would have thought no. Leda, Lindsay, Ella and Beth were my gurus this weekend. I did my best to stop doing anything other than what they asked of me. To stop my thoughts in their tracks and just show up willing to be present in the moment at hand. So, on the final night, a full moon rising, our campfire was actually a “full moon circle.” The aim was to release what doesn’t serve us, after s’mores made with upgraded provisions, of course. One by one, in total silence, we wrote out, read to ourselves, and dropped into the flames our individual items to surrender. Some dropped in half sheets. Some dropped in 15 little pieces. In my awkward attempt not to cry as I walked to the flame to burn my surrenderings, I broke the silence and joked, “do you have all night?” and then dropped what I wanted to surrender one by one. The reaction I imagined was some light laughter, and I got a bit of that. But what stood out and made me actually cry then, and still every time I call it to mind, was someone saying, “for you, girl, yes” and someone else, “take all the time you need”. In my attempts to rush and push and achieve, practically throughout my whole life, it’s also been an attempt to take care of myself, to not need anyone, to never impose, to take up less space, to hide from attention, to sink from view. But on this trip, in that moment and so many others, I realized I am worthy of taking up all the space I need. Instead of rushing, I need to take the time I need. I may be efficient, but is that the most pleasurable way of doing things? I may be strong, but do i need to carry it all alone? No. First, we don’t need to hold onto things that weigh us down. Second, when you let others in and are open to vulnerability, they’ll help you carry what weights you’re still holding.

Back on that note, I’ve been attempting to fill silent moments with laughs my whole life. When I’m not confident, I fill the space with a self-deprecating comment to make someone laugh, or maybe just to make myself feel less weird. When i’m insecure, I fill that space with any number of quick-fixes. I’d been doing it all camp long, and as of that moment, I was done. I’ve been done.

There were so many notes I took over the weekend and on my drive home, but really, it came back to this:

  • The universe (God or whoever or whatever you believe in) has your back.

  • Soften into the tense moments. When I was struggling and fighting the waves, I’d fall and struggle so much harder. When I softened, dropped my ego, breathed and surrendered, I knew what to do and how to save myself. Can I adopt that towards life in general? I think it’s worth a try.

  • It doesn’t matter if you catch the waves, but show up in the lineup if that’s what you want. Be willing to put yourself in less than comfortable situations and you just might surprise yourself.

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Katherine Gramann

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