Racing Halfway to The North Pole: 45 North Solstice Paddle Festival

About 20 degrees latitude north of the equator, you’ll find Hawaii, the epicenter of all things paddle related. However, if you keep heading north halfway to the north pole, at the 45th parallel, you’ll find that paddling is also alive and well. There is no greater evidence of this than in the northwest corner of Michigan in the greater Traverse City area.

At the risk of over-stating the laurels of the area, there is so much to see and do that you can visit dozens of times and have a different focus each time. From of course paddling, to biking, boating, wineries, the list goes on and on. Due to personal time constraints, this trip had to be a short one so I opted to explore and stay in the Leland area, in a historic area known as Fishtown. To visit Fishtown is to step back in time to one of the last remaining fishing villages on the great lakes. It’s a super authentic channel lined with shanties, smokehouses, and of course, fishing boats. Surrounded by a small village of boutique shops and amenities.

The 45 North Solstice Paddle Festival was originally scheduled to take place on the solstice, June 20th, but we all know what happened there. In a feat of scheduling gymnastics that would impress Simone Biles, the even was rescheduled for September, then moved up to July 19th when another event cancelled with just a few short weeks’ notice. The result was a relatively rare Sunday race. Participants took full advantage of unscheduled time Friday and Saturday made plans to enjoy what the area had to offer. In a stroke of fortunate luck, an incoming weather system was pushing up from the southwest, providing epic downwind conditions. Groups quickly formed and downwinders were enjoyed both Friday and Saturday.

Full set of event photos can be found HERE.

However, there was a price to be paid on race day for downwind fun. Sunday morning the alarm went off at 6:30am, but the sound of thunder was the cue to hit the snooze button. The system pushing the favorable downwind conditions had arrived and threatened the main event. The forecast showed the system as moving through the area relatively quickly, so the call was made to delay for an hour, but high winds were forecast to persist throughout the day promising a challenging race.

Photo Shannon Carr

As promised, French Valley Vineyards was an ideal picturesque race venue, with a large green manicured lawn overlooking the water, a sand beach, and on-site amenities which included on-site sleeping accommodations, on-site tasting room and full bar, and a restaurant. The event was put on by Sutton’s Bay Bikes, a local bike and paddle shop that has really taken the lead in promoting paddling in the area. There was also a big focus this race on charity partner 4the22. The organization is named for the 22 veterans who commit suicide each day in the US. Organizers Jessi and Josh Flath promote the ideal that Paddling, Surfing, and Exercise can help add balance to veteran’s lives by helping them find purpose and connection. They provide equipment and experiences to vet’s who want to get on the water, and have even had a few vet’s who have started to participate and compete in events.

Josh and Jessie Flath with Rub the wonder SUP dog. Photo Shannon Carr

The race location on Sutton’s Bay is a natural protected cove off West Grand Traverse Bay. In years past the bay has provided reliable protection for prevailing winds from the west, but as the rain cleared, the winds were 5-10 on-shore from the east, with 1 foot rollers. Experienced waterman and race organizer Keith Conway resisted the temptation to set an east-west course, accurately predicting a wind shift  from the south, and set a 2 buoy course south-to-north following the shoreline 1.5 miles to the first buoy, then north to a second buoy 100 yards past the start/finish. The 3-mile course was a single lap with the long race completing a double lap of the circuit.

Race Organizer Keith Conway. Photo Shannon Carr

Like clockwork, 15 minutes before the 3-mile race, the wind shifted as predicted, and picked up to 10-15mph, providing an upwind/downwind course. 10 Stand-ups and 1 prone paddler lined up for the 3-mile race head-long into a challenging upwind. Video of the 3-mile start can be seen here. Midwest stand-out and multi-discipline adventure paddler Dan Novak took off like a man possessed aboard his prone, taking an early but slim lead. In the end, Dan posted an impressive 41-minute time for any craft. The men’s SUP race was won by Doug Vojtko, with West Michigan native and nice guy Patrick Reeg in second. Mike ”The Machine” Bartos finished 3rd with an impressive paddle on a surf-style board. The women’s race was won by Jessi Flath, Jill Bloemendaal, and Lara Kinne rounding out the podium.

Photo Shannon Carr

The 6-mile race featured 24 entrants including 2 Outrigger canoes. Doug Vojtko, and Bernardo Isacovici lined up for their second race of the day, joined by Dan Novak on a SUP for his second race of the day. The start of the 6-mile race was much like the 3-Mile, headfirst into a choppy 10+mph wind. Once again, Dan Novak was able to quickly establish his dominance in his home waters with a considerable lead over eventual 2nd place SUP paddler Alex “The Russian” Sandler.  First-time racer Christopher Devries slotted between Dan and Alex on his OC-1. By the second lap, the wind had eased to 5-10 and shifted south-east, slowing down the north leg of the lap and providing for some moments of challenging side chop.  At the finish line, it was Dan and Alex, one and two, in the Men’s SUP with the most exciting finish of the day for third podium spot. Kevin “Alfredo” Cansiani and Karl “The Captain” Eugster battled hard throughout the race, but Kevin was able edge Karl off the podium by a 3-second margin.

Photo Shannon Carr

The women’s division was won by Kirsten Lefeldt in her second win in as many weeks. Traverse City local Susie Grace managed 2nd, with Kattie Carpenter rounding out the podium.

Christopher Devries and Paul Bunn finished 1 and 2 respectively in the OC-1 class.

Full race results can be found here.

After racing was done for the day, participants were treated to complimentary brick-oven pizza and salad on the lawn on what had become a sunny and warm day. Stories were shared, board were test-paddled. Plans were made for next race. Speaking of which, there is another race back in the Traverse City area on August 8th. Rapa Nui is a different kind of race featuring a 3-mile paddle to Power Island, a 2.5 mile run around the island, and a 3-mile paddle back to shore. Don’t miss this one!

About the Midwest Paddle League

Welcome to the Midwest Paddle League – designated for paddlers, by paddlers. If you’ve never raced before, or you race most weekends, with kids races, short races, long races, sprints and more… there is an event for YOU! Come for the challenge, stay for the camaraderie. Here in the Midwest, it’s COMMUNITY FIRST. COMPETITION SECOND.

The Midwest Paddle League is proudly sponsored by Aqua Adventures, Footstake, and Paddle Monster.

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