Northern Michigan Outdoors: When I first arrived at Chain Lake in St. Ignace last year for the World Ice and Snow Sailing Association (WISSA) World Championships, I didn’t pay any attention to what was happening on the ice. I was too busy tsk-tsking a young, red-eared reporter from downstate, who was wearing a thin leather jacket, no hat, and no gloves. The temperature hovered at 19 degrees, biting wind pushing even the most hardy folks inside the beer tent.
Wait—the beer tent? Next to the bonfire? The bonfire that was burning on the ice?
While I admit I wasn’t sure of what to expect when driving across the Mackinac Bridge to see my first ice and snow sailing competition, I know it wasn’t what I discovered when I surveyed the scene on Chain Lake.
“Only in the U.P., right?” a hockey dad said as he strutted past, his knee-high player waddling along beside him, a blob of pads and skates.
The day I arrived happened to coincide with the Pee Wee Pond Hockey tournament on the same lake. A combination that transformed the frozen lake into an eclectic party on ice. Beyond the hockey hoopla, a colorful line of sails and kites zigzagged across the middle of the lake. The sight felt so familiar, it seemed for a frigid moment like some inside-out summer day.
I caught up with WISSA spectators along the most windswept spots on the lake. They moved in clumps, much like at a golf match (but with more laughing), chasing the best breezes in courses set to optimize speed. Bundled in infinite layers, the small crowd was full of scarf-muffled chatter and jabs exchanged in Finnish, French, Russian, and English. Some athletes donned downhill ski boots and old school straight skis. Others fashioned skate blades onto what looked like wooden blocks. All of them gripped tightly to windsurfer or hang glider-esque sails. Each time the horn blew, they soared off, ripping down the ice, around barrels, and back again.
In an effort to infiltrate the WISSA inner-circle, I scanned spectators in hopes of finding someone to show me the ropes. It didn’t take long. A bright and bubbly blonde woman bounced between competitors, doling out water bottles, ChapStick, and sun screen like a fairy ice-mother.
Introducing herself as Kim Tuthill, wife of WISSA president William Tuthill, the friendly aficionado of the sport clued me in on basic concepts: go fast, follow the course, cross the finish line first. And above all else, have fun.
“We’re like a family,” she said with a wide smile. “The races are serious, but we all hang out together afterwards. This is a tight-knit community.”
The Tuthills, who are from the East Coast, were thrilled to see the World Championships return to the United States after 17 years abroad. Kim was quick to give me the lowdown on all her favorite competition characters, as well as the subtle differences in boots, skis, and sail types, some of which were designed by athletes themselves.
One not-so-subtle difference? The range of ages participating in the World Championships.
“We have guys in their 70s who compete, right down to my teenage daughter, Annie. That’s one of the things I love about this sport. It can be totally multi-generational. There isn’t a cutoff age where you can’t be competitive anymore.”
Canada’s Klauss Faisst—who was 76 at the 2012 event and placed fourth in the Wing Class and 11th in Wing Class Slalom—is at one end of the age spectrum, serving up wisdom like WISSA’s own Yoda. Young Annie is at the other end, soaking in advice and kindness from her fellow competitors. Most of the sail and kitewing athletes, however, are somewhere in the middle. 4
“It’s not a sport that has caught on tremendously yet with younger people,” explained Dan Hill, of Kitewing USA, a kitewing maker based in Portage, Michigan. He said much like terrain parks are dominating the next generation of ski and snowboarders, ice kiting—a cousin sport to the high-flying kiteboarders who zoom across Lake Michigan all summer—may be the youthful face of WISSA in years to come.
Watching a pair of “kiters” from Canada and France crisscross the ice with mind-numbing speed, I could instantly understand the appeal. In fact, I couldn’t help wondering how this international event—the only one bringing together wings, sails, and kites—was the first time I’d ever seen these snow sports in action.
Sure, it requires freezing cold weather and wicked winter winds. And most lakes don’t have added benefits like beer tents or a sauna (popular especially in Finland, the sauna was built by volunteers as a sign of friendship ... but, Hill added, with a very American rule of no-nakedness). Still, ice and snow sailing/kiting provide another season-extending way to love up our lakes.
Hill, too, sees the potential, which is why he fought so hard to get WISSA to St. Ignace in the first place. Since the World Championships began in 1980, the event has been held in the United States only four times, including in 2012. Far more popular in places like Russia, Quebec, Finland and Sweden, WISSA’s presence isn’t well known in America.
“Michigan is the ideal place to become home base for at least world cup kiting,” Hill said, stretching his arms out in the direction of the nearby Great Lakes bay and the Mackinac Straits, which, in one of the warmest winters on record, did not freeze in 2012.
“Normally, we have ice. We have average wind speeds of 22.3-miles per hour under the Mackinac Bridge. Plus, we have prime training grounds all summer, and we already have a huge population of kiteboarders.
“I really sold St. Ignace, telling our international competitors all about how perfect this spot is, which is why we had between 50 and 60 athletes come from other countries. We only had 14 athletes from North America. I’d like to see this change, and I think in the next few years, it just might start to explode.”
Here’s why: it’s cheap, green, and relatively easy.
“People who love to ski or snowboard really need to give this a try,” Hill said of kiting. “You can go wherever there is ice, and actually, you can even kite in a field, if there isn’t a lake nearby. There are no lift ticket costs, and you’re 100-percent powered by wind. For current kiteboarders, the conversion is such a no-brainer. It’s easier on ice because you don’t have to contend with getting up out of the water. You’re already on top of it!”
Hill is so passionate about putting Michigan on the ice kiting map, he’s started a new company, Star Kites, dedicated to selling kiting equipment. He’s also bringing the Ice and Snow Sailing Festival, which includes national championship racing, to St. Ignace in February 2013.
“It’s a great little town. Everyone is willing to go the extra mile. When we didn’t have the best ice or weather for the World Championships, St. Ignace is what saved the experience. So many little details went into the opening and closing ceremonies, and everything in between. This kind of support, with the physical perks of being situated along the Great Lakes, plus having an inland lake running alongside town, could easily make St. Ignace an epicenter for kiting in this country.”
While the WISSA Worlds move on to Finland in 2013, Hill said he is looking forward to St. Ignace hosting a festival “emphasizing fun” February 21–24.
“There will mostly be kiters, not as many kitewings or sails. It’s definitely going to be about promoting the sport, and having folks come experience kiting. We’ll have demos and races, and while we hope some of the events will be held on the big lake this year, we’ll set up camp on Chain Lake again. It will coincide with the Youth Pond Hockey Tournament (February 23), which is great. With both events on the ice, the lake turns into a giant celebration of winter. It’s a blast.”
A blast indeed.
Standing in the middle of a colorful combination of wind power and endorphin junkies last February, I couldn’t help tipping my head toward the sun, thinking about what it means to live in a place where almost everything cool happens outside. I mentioned this as I handed my extra hat to the city-dressed human popsicle of a reporter beside me. He smiled, and through chattering teeth, responded something like “it’s a little crazy, how this is what people do for fun.”
A swell of pride swept through me as I looked around at flushed faces, wind-whipped hair, and puffy-coated people wandering the frozen lake. The sheer joy of it all embodied everything we love about life Up North. In the end, Hill said, that’s exactly what won the hearts of WISSA’s international competitors.
“They came to this place and were surrounded by people who love the outdoors, and winter, and wind and ice. What could be better?”