Driving up the Door County peninsula was like heading to a family reunion. As we motored up Highway 57, we saw a dozen vehicles with kayaks on top, all heading to Rowleys Bay, to the 20th anniversary of the Door County Sea Kayak Symposium.
20 years. That’s a third of my life, and in those two decades I’ve experienced a lot of joy.
We were incredibly fortunate this year. Only a few sprinkles and some gusty winds affected us, and a squall line moved through with some lightning. Of course, the guides and instructors handled it masterfully. Otherwise, it was a lovely weekend with calm seas and light winds.
The thing that set the 20th anniversary apart was the overwhelming presence of paddlers new to the symposium. Well over half of the attendees were new to us, and we welcomed them with open arms into the community of paddlers. One drove from New York City (she had a great time). I spoke with a new paddler after lunch on Sunday. He said he could tell from the first five minutes that this group was different. No egos, no cliques, just paddlers.
Perfect. That’s what a community is: just a bunch of people teaching each other. And that is exactly what I want.
There’s no rank on the water. We had experts teaching, of course, but if you ask one of them if they’re an expert, they’d say no. We’re all beginners with something to learn; some have just been at it longer. I learn something every year, and most of the time it’s from a participant, not an instructor.
I spoke to the group Saturday night as we were finishing dinner. I thanked the amazing staff who run the show: Chloe, Ethan, and the rest of the Rutabaga crew hit it out of the park. Many participants and instructors, veterans of many other kayak events, told us that they had never seen things run so smoothly. I really do have the best staff.
I thanked the participants for coming and being so willing to help each other learn. I told them the story about my friend Mei, a five year-old who once asked her mother if they were going “paddling with friends, or friends we haven’t met yet.” Such is the wisdom and optimism of a child: there are no strangers, just friends we haven’t met yet.
I told them that I originally wanted to go into mental health, but ended up in paddlesports because water heals. I know I have helped more people gain access to healing that I would have ever been able to do as a clinician.
When you have 132 students and three dozen instructors from all over North America, relationships are forged, friendships are strengthened, and as a side effect, people learn. Watching the old guard mentor the newbies in a completely natural way is exhilarating. That’s the secret that I shared: the symposium isn’t about paddling as much as it is about community. Sure, we paddle, but anyone can put a group of paddlers in the same place. What we did and do is build relationships. The fact that one of our instructors met his wife at the symposium years ago speaks volumes
A few years ago, a participant bid $5,000 for a mystery box at our auction to raise money for the Door County Land Trust. I helped him bid it up, eventually letting him “win.” He turned around, knelt, opened the mystery box containing an engagement ring, and asked his girlfriend to marry him. She said yes to a standing ovation and the cheers of 200 people.
Water heals. I saw people’s lives change over the course of the long weekend. I saw love and comradeship. I saw healing. Because water heals.
Here's looking towards next year, for 2024 and the 21st year of the DCSKS!