Standing Up for the Great Lakes – and Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary
By Alexander Dacy
The sun peeks above the horizon, and Kwin Morris is aching and sleep-deprived, with no land in sight. Suddenly, Morris is underwater, splashing into the cold abyss off of his paddleboard after his friend, Joe Lorenz, accidentally rammed into him. Morris springs up and back onto his board, shocked and wide-awake after the plunge. No harm done, Morris, along with Lorenz and Jeff Guy, break into laughter. They then continue their grueling journey, the monotony and pain of the last 24 hours shattered with one aquatic fender-bender.
In June, the three buddies from Michigan undertook an epic paddleboarding expedition, traveling almost 90 miles across Lake Huron to raise awareness and money for Great Lakes protection and Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Located in northwestern Lake Huron, the sanctuary protects one of America's best-preserved and nationally-significant collections of shipwrecks.
Even if the scope of their journey might indicate otherwise, the trio describe themselves as everyday people who lead distinct lives outside their passion for paddling. Morris is a physical education teacher in the Elk Rapids School District and a stand-up paddleboard and yoga instructor. Lorenz is a personal trainer in Traverse City, and Guy is a financial advisor and owner of a stand-up paddleboard and kayak rental business. Their shared love of watersports and environmentalism led them to devise a lofty and unique challenge in 2015: they would journey across Lake Michigan on stand-up paddleboards.
"By doing something out of the ordinary, by putting a tremendous toll on our body and doing – not just talking – we realized we could have a huge impact on the way people see our lakes and help protect them for future generations," Morris says.
After the success of their 2015 trip, Morris, Lorenz, and Guy established a nonprofit, Stand Up for Great Lakes, to assist Great Lakes preservation and teach younger generations about the special value of the Lakes.
"We teach [stand-up paddleboard] and water safety classes to elementary-age students, organize water and beach clean-ups, and participate in expeditions," Morris says. "Our main goal would be to someday award scholarships and grants to youth who show a potential and passion to protect and advocate for our Great Lakes."
Planning for the Lake Huron paddle began after Stephanie Gandulla, a maritime archaeologist at Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, reached out to Morris on Facebook. "I was so impressed when I saw their commitment to the Lake Michigan paddle and their commitment to protecting our Great Lakes, I thought, wouldn't it be amazing to double the distance and cross the only freshwater national marine sanctuary in the U.S.!" she remarks.
Morris said despite being avid paddlers and living just a couple hours away from Thunder Bay, none of them had ever heard of the sanctuary. "Not knowing about [the sanctuary] was shocking!" Morris says. "We quickly looked it up and saw the shipwrecks, crystal blue water, and little islands sprinkled throughout…Paddling over an area so rich with history and being a true gem of the Great Lakes was what made the paddle initially unique and super exciting."
A light breeze picked up as the sun shone brilliantly in the bright blue sky. It was shortly after 8 a.m. on June 19, and after a year-and-a-half of planning, Morris, Lorenz, and Guy stepped onto the shore in Alpena, Michigan, in specially-outfitted wetsuits, set foot in the cool, glassy lake, climbed onto their paddleboards, and began their journey.
Before taking off, Morris said he knew paddling for nearly 90 miles would be challenging and physically painful.
"But knowing your fellow paddlers are feeling the same thing, knowing that so many people are following and cheering us on, knowing that the money that is donated is going to protect this place, knowing that future generations will get to enjoy these amazing bodies of water, this makes it all worth it," he said.
The three paddlers packed a variety of snacks to keep themselves energized, pain medication to combat soreness, and water bottles that they filled with filtered fresh water from the lake. A local TV news crew documented the trip while safety boats kept them on course and remained on standby in case of an emergency.
The weather was ideal at first, a light tailwind, but things quickly changed for the worse. The lake turned rough, with three-to-four foot rolling waves and on-and-off heavy rain. Despite the choppy conditions, Morris, Lorenz, and Guy were able to maintain around a 3.5 mph pace the entire trip, while taking short breaks every hour. Along the way, they passed over a shipwreck, were gifted a stellar sunrise and sunset, a clear view of the moon and stars, and a double rainbow after one storm.
Even while moving along at a decent pace, the three faced some setbacks and, of course, pain. Early on, Guy lost his footing and fell into the lake, his wetsuit filling with water. Morris had to contend with a piercing stomach ache for a few hours, and all three battled shoulder, elbow, and joint pain, and sleep deprivation. Overnight, an intense rain squall slowed their progress, and by the time the storm ended and the sun came up, there was still no land in sight.
With less than 10 miles to go, however, their fortunes changed. They spotted land and noticed someone approaching them from the distance. It was a Canadian man who had paddled out to join Morris, Lorenz, and Guy and provide encouragement as they paddled into Fathom Five National Marine Park in Ontario.
"It was so cool meeting the Canadian and having him escort us in. It was very evident that [the Canadians] cared as much about their side of Lake Huron as we care about ours," Morris recalls. "Exchanging the [American and Canadian] flags at the end of the trip was a tear jerker."
After waiting out one last pop-up storm a few miles from shore, the paddlers pushed on and landed on the Canadian coastline shortly before 12:30 p.m., their 28-hour marathon complete.
The three men returned home to Michigan later that night to celebrate with their family, friends, and the local community. Morris said they plan to continue promoting Great Lakes preservation through charity events and other long-distance paddles, including Lake Superior in the near future.
Primarily, Morris and his friends want the world to understand the connection people have with the Great Lakes and how they can be mindful of protecting these and other bodies of water.
"We want people to think about the garbage, the invasive species, the aging pipelines, the agricultural runoff, the algae blooms," he says. "We want people to see the fishing, paddling, lighthouses, the beach fires, the Petoskey stones, sunsets, sailing, the thunderstorms, the surfing and the memories of the past. We want people to feel our passion and to walk away with the message that we love our lakes, and they're worth standing up for."
Alexander Dacy is a student at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Maryland and a communications intern at NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.