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No Exit & The Age of Sea Kayaking

Posted May 19 2011 11:10am
Times when the day is like a play by Sartre / When it seems a bookburning’s in perfect order
I gave the doctor my description / I’ve tried to stick to my prescription
Someday I’ll have a disappearing hairline /Someday I’ll wear pyjamas in the daytime
Afternoons will be measured out /Measured out, measured with
Coffee-spoons and T.S. Eliot –

I’m sorry I’m old.  Really.  I didn’t start out this way.  I used to be much younger but then the sun came up and went down a bunch of times and I got older.  Now I’m 45 for some reason.  I’ll be 46 in about a month.  I’m sorry for myself too. I’m sorry that there are probably fewer years ahead than behind. I’m also sorry that I’m pretty much on the young side of your average sea kayaker.  I didn’t even start in the sport until I was in my late 30s.  By then I had a business that was doing OK and the ability to buy the stuff necessary to get into sea kayaking. (Well, barely!!).  Come to think of it, I’m sorry we’re all old. What will become of us?

Personally I’m not all hung up on age really.  I feel good, better than I did when I was 20 for god’s sake. I don’t want to go back.  I’m sure many, if not all of my peers feel the same way.  We don’t want to go back, but we might like to find a holding pattern somewhere around now and not go forward either!  In today’s world, being 45 and fairly active puts you at the top of your game, and let’s face it, pretty competitive when it comes to the average person out there today.  “Active” is becoming just what we are.. “old”.  Disagree?

Well, first read this: “We Are Too Damn Old” by Brad Wentz at Pemba . (If you haven’t already)  The article led me to send out emails to all the Great Lakes regional sea kayak symposia.  I wondered (Well, I kinda knew actually..) if sea kayaking would fit into the “10 years too old” region that Brad talked about in his article.  Symposia would be interesting examples to my mind.  Attendees have to be fairly enthusiastic and willing to invest time & money in the sport beyond what your average dabbler might.  These are the folks who buy the magazines and all the expensive gear.  They also are happy to head out into the big lakes and sketchy conditions.. (Well, some are!!).  The point, or at least my supposition is that the state of symposium attendance should tell us a lot about the state of the sport.

I asked each organizer if they had numbers from the last few years that would let me extrapolate the average ages and sexes of the participants.  I wondered not just if we’re all a bunch of old guys, but if we’re all growing old together.  If I had to go by memory, it felt to me that men and women attended symposia in fairly even numbers. I should also mention that I know that overall attendance over the last few years have not been down in a way that couldn’t be explained by recent economic trends.

I received responses from Door County , WMCKA in Michigan, and Bill at Downwind Sports which represents both the Great Lakes Sea Kayak Symposium in Grand Marais, Michigan and the Ladies of the Lake Symposium (Where I’m NEVER invited by the way!!) .  I was unable to get info from Inland Sea near Bayfield, Wi., but I did ask.  The upside is that this is a diverse set of symposia.  The Great Lakes Sea Kayak Symposium because of its location, history and reputation draws in a serious crowd, (Well, serious about sea kayaking anyway!) WMCKA has a nice mix of experienced paddlers and first timers, just as Door County does.  Door brings in many new folks each year due I’m sure to the  sort of marketing it receives through Rutabaga each year.  The downside of my curiousity I found out, is that the symposia have not really been tracking this sort of information.  I hope that might change as I’m sure there would be lots of interested folks out there in ORBIZ land..

Here’s what I could find out;  According to everyone I spoke with the male-v-female issue in sea kayaking at least, is a wash.  A kayak doesn’t care if you’re male or female. It’s certainly true that sea kayaking was male dominated for a time but if you look at symposium attendance recently, the world has changed. A good thing by any measure.  On the age issue, things look worse in sea kayaking than in other outdoor sports that I have read about. Bill Thompson at Downwind Sports said he feels 90% of participants in their events are over 40.  Nancy at Door County more or less offered the same impression.  Karl Geisel at WMCKA who was the only one actually tracking these numbers, sent me charts showing a huge overload on the over 40 side as expected.  What I didn’t expect to see was that the 50-60 age group was the largest. In fact in 2010, attendees 50 to 60 years old represented 31% of the total, outnumbering the young 40 somethings by quite a bit. Scary thought if you make a living selling gear to new folks.. What if there are not enough new folks?

Most symposia in our area are engaging in some sort of children’s programs.  To some extent these programs get the kids attention, but maybe more importantly make it easier for younger parents to attend and take classes.  Still, my opinion is that symposiums are not the place to build a young following.  That has to happen at the community level.  Symposiums can be costly enough, let alone if you’re young parents with kids.   My thought is that the children at the symposiums are unique in that they are probably members of economically better off families or the children of instructors. We won’t get anywhere depending on such a small group of kids to keep the sport alive. We need families at home with well used & dented up, corroding canoes.

The take away here is that what limited info I could get generally supports the assertion that kayaking, sea kayaking even more-so, is growing old. It would be nice if the symposiums began to seriously track these numbers.  The shadowed glimpse I could get should be enough to have organizers a little concerned.  Where will the majority of our audience be in 10 years? In the 60s to 70s group? 80s? Could we find ourselves soon working harder to modifying classes for elderly attendees than to offer more skill development choices for people in their prime? Something to think about.

Personal opinion?  Well, I don’t think we’re going to “latest thing” or “hip” our way out of the issue.  The problems are deeper than simply creating a new “cool” and telling everyone they need it. Sometimes I think we try so hard to find the next thing that we just write off what is, in the search for what’s next. Sometimes we come off looking desperate as we try to push the next gimmick. Sea kayaking is sea kayaking and it’s no more or less cool than it ever was. Remember where “modern” kayaking came from.. Old wool sweaters and big rubber wellies was NEVER cool! ;) I think the reality may be much deeper than message anyway. I think that as a culture we are quickly losing touch with our human animal, that part of us that wants to run, jump, swim, hunt and forage.  (Not that we should be killing anything mind you!) Without that bit of animal nature, adrenaline is simply stress and fear, exercise is a curse and sweat is  a messy evolutionary left over.  I don’t think any particular sport is has become less “cool” per se, I think physical activity of any sort is just following the path of the heavy horse & the hand-loom. Evolution is afoot and physical activity is a sort of vestigial tail. Childhood diabetes, obesity, hypertension etc., are all the results of an environmental change which may in 10,000 years change us physically. Even if you don’t accept that, there is obviously a sea change going on around us that is having an effect. What does that effect mean for recreational sports?  Well, I don’t think we can deal with these issues internally without the help of a cultural change externally.  How we get there is anyone’s guess.  I do think it should be a major and ongoing discussion.  What do you think?

Oh, and for what it’s worth.. I take back what I said before… I’m not old and I’m not sorry at all. At 45, I’m still relevant. I live, I breath, I buy, I paddle and regardless of rumors (or wishes) to the contrary, I ain’t dead yet. :)   How ’bout you? ( I do have some reading materials & sweet jammy jams picked out for my retirement though…)

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