The Rutabaga paddle shop in Madison, Wis., has discovered the perfect recipe for an irresistible sea kayak symposium: mix a slice of sunshine with plenty of enthusiasm, and toss in a heap of education.
The company's Door County Sea Kayak Symposium drew 174 people who paddled Rowley's Bay on Lake Michigan from July 9-11. The participants, ranging from 8years old to 70, traveled from all over the Midwest (the farthest came from Nebraska) to take their paddling skills to the next level.
"When Rutabaga decided to do the event, that was the vision," Nancy Saulsbury, director of outdoor programs at Rutabaga, said. "We wanted to help turn the casual person into an enthusiast. Our focus was on beginnersâ€¦and creating a welcoming environment. That was the guiding principle. It was welcoming people in, rather than showing stuff off."
Although there are other sea kayak symposiums in the Door County area, the staff at Rutabaga felt that none of them offered a place for beginner or even intermediate paddlers.
"We felt there was a missing link," said Ken Barmore, Rutabaga's event coordinator. "We decided that we would try to put on [a symposium] that would fill a void and make a stronger, wider-based community of paddlers.â€
As it turns out, the Door County organizers were not the only ones who felt the void in the symposium universe.
"We had to turn away 50 people," said Rutabaga co-owner Darren Bush. "We got tons of phone calls from people wanting to participate. We had over 30 instructors. When they came out to greet the crowd of students, there was this gasp, like, 'Oh my gosh! This is going to be great!' People were just soaking up the energy."
"This past weekend was one of the best experiences of my life," Bruce Burkart, a participant in the symposium, said in a faxed letter to Rutabaga. "Not only did I have the opportunity to paddle areas I had previously longed to paddle, but I met a lot of wonderful people."
Among the classes offered were kayaking basics, boat control, navigation, safety, cooking and boat packing. A women's clinic divided participants into small groups according to interest. Tours gave students a chance to get out on the water and dealing with real decisions about safety and navigation. The final classes of the weekend were set up buffet-style, so people could choose how to wrap up their weekend, perhaps sticking to basic paddling, or perfecting a roll.
"We focused on fundamentals," Bush said. "The classes were all safety focused, even if
they were about technique. The rescue clinics were booked solid. The students were in the water over and over again."
One of the main goals of the symposium organizers was to create a more robust network of kayakers.
"This symposium was non-threatening," Bush said. "This is the place to come and learn and develop a community, not a place to come and show everybody how to do off-side rolls."
"The last day of the symposium a woman came to me who had been there all weekend," Barmore said. "She told me, 'I need the names of a couple of other people who were here cause we're gonna start a paddling club in Milwaukee.' It's so wonderfully exciting that Rutabaga as a whole is pushing the envelope and the water sports community to a different level. We're working really hard to create a community of paddlers and getting young people out and paddling. Hopefully, as they get older, they will get out and do it, rather than staying home and playing video games."
Of the 174 participants, 20 were kids who came with their parents. Most of them had never been in a kayak before.
"We had two instructors and two junior instructors (teenagers) with kayaking experience for the kids," Bush said. "They were doing wet exits and everything. It was great for the kids and the parents. We got to say, 'Okay, we're through the hard part of raising kids, the dirty diapers and all that, and now let's have some fun with 'em.' "
This year's symposium was so successful that Rutabaga has reserved space at the same resort location on Rowley's Bay for the next two years.
"Next year we're going to up the amount of participants and instructors," Bush said. "We'll cap registration at 250. It's still going to be for beginners, but people who came last year will have progression, more complex classes. It's still going to be focused on people who paddle rather than paddlers, because it's not an ego thing, it's just something we enjoy doing. This is not about proving anything. You come ready to learn."
According to Bush, any retailer can pull off a successful symposium. "All they have to do is commit," he said. "They just have to get a vision and execute it. We need more events like this. More people to cater to beginners and not talk down to them. Don't treat them badly because they show up with a plastic boat. That's wrong. We hit on something here that no one else is doing. We're targeting people who really want to get into paddling,
but don't have an avenue to do it yet."
Barmore said to be successful, event organizers must choose the right location and generate the right energy. "Setting the energy level early on is important," he said. "From the time you're taking registrations, letting them know what to expect, who the symposium is for and how much fun it's gonna be."
"It's more about creating enthusiasm than skills," Saulsbury said. "Skills come if you flame the passion."
SNEWSÂ® View: We agree with Darren Bush when he says it's important to pay attention to beginners. Everyone has to start somewhere, and the easier a sport is to enter, and the more support beginners have, the more likely they will keep coming back for more. One of Rutabaga's challenges will be to maintain its focus on beginners. As symposium participants garner more skills, the gap between novices and experts will grow, and it might be more difficult to tailor things to everyone's needs. But if they keep up the energy they generated this year and continue to listen to their customers (the most important thing, after all), it should be smooth sailingâ€¦um paddlingâ€¦from now on.Â