Up North Standup Paddleboard Classic: Midwest Paddle League Makes the Most Out of What Nature Offers Photo by Doug Vojtko

Up North Standup Paddleboard Classic: Midwest Paddle League Makes the Most Out of What Nature Offers

The Midwest Paddle League completed it’s 6th race of the season this past weekend (7/20) in the beautiful northwest corner of the lower peninsula of Michigan. Crystal Lake is a pristine, clear 22.5 square mile inland lake just south of Traverse City and Sutton’s Bay (the location of the 45th Parallel Paddle Festival just a few weeks prior).

If you have spent any time with trolls, that is people who live under the bridge in the Lower Peninsula of Michigan, eventually you will be regaled with tales of “up north”. The family cabins, boating, fishing, hiking, Michiganders have grown up enjoying all these things and more in the magical land of “up north”. However, it’s not just nostalgia talk, the northern part of Michigan is some of the most varied and beautiful country you’ll ever experience, and most first time visitors start planning their return trip by day 2.

The Up North Standup Paddleboard Classic is a fitting name for both the event and the location. Organized by Crystal Lake Adventure Sports in downtown Beulah, the shop is a just a block from the eastern shore of the massive lake. The downtown is only a couple blocks long, filled with bars, restaurants, and picturesque little shops. This is exactly what Michiganders picture when they talk about “up north”.

The weekend got off to a great start with early packet pick up and registration at the shop. It’s a well-stocked shop with all the last-minute items you could possibly need, and the was even a 20% coupon in the racer’s bag. The now traditional swag bag included literature, a visor, keychains, floats and whistles, and a high-quality water shirt with the event logo.

Up North Standup Paddleboard Classic: Midwest Paddle League Makes the Most Out of What Nature Offers Photo by Doug Vojtko

The action then moved down to the beach for a social Paddle to benefit Lockhart Field. The water was warm, clear to over 20 feet, and just about glass flat as about 20 paddlers enjoyed each other’s company, swapped equipment and stories, and talked strategy for the coming race.

Immediately following, about a dozen people hung a round for free clinic held by Brian Lefeve from Great Lakes Surf Shop. Brian is one of the top paddlers in the Midwest so far this season and is the guy to beat at any event he shows up to. The crowd was an even mix of newbies to the sport, and experienced paddlers looking for that next little tip that could help us paddle more like Brian.

Brian covered in-depth the 4 phases of the paddle stroke, and how the stroke has changed over the last few years. Brian went on to cover equipment, training philosophies, nutrition, and even getting into the right mindset. It was a well-spent 2 hours, and everyone walked away having learned a bit more about the sport and competitive paddling.

Evening meals and merriment where enjoyed by most in the multitude of restaurants and bars within just a couple blocks of the beach. To add a touch of drama to the event, a strong thunderstorm rolled in a little past midnight, significant lightning lit up the sky as a heavy rain fell.

While a thunderstorm is never reassuring, race day morning broke to overcast but drying conditions. The forecast was relatively clear in the morning, but with more thunderstorms predicted in the afternoon, threatening the downwinder portion of the event scheduled for later in the day.

The inland course was set in a three-buoy triangle with the first leg at just over a mile, the second equidistant, and a third shorter leg to the start/finish buoy. The race organizers did a great job of setting the course so the second leg was directly upwind, and the third directly downwind, leaving just the first leg in more challenging side slop conditions. All races were water-start, beach finish.

The class structure was a little different in this race compared to other races in the Midwest as there was no short course options for 14’ race boards. The three-mile single lap distance was limited to two classes, surfstyle and touring/raceboards to 12’6”. Conversely the was no long option for the surfstyle class.

With weather threatening, the 3-mile race started first promptly at 9am. 31 racers made a clean start for the most part with minimal collisions and get-offs. It was a fairly tight group through the choppy first leg, with the pack thinning as they headed into the long upwind section. Boat wake coming perpendicular to the prevailing wind gave many a challenge as they battled it out before heading downwind to the beach.

Up North Standup Paddleboard Classic: Midwest Paddle League Makes the Most Out of What Nature Offers Photo by Doug Vojtko

In the women’s surfstyle Lisa Mathews came out on top, edging Sam Griffin by just three seconds. Though to be fair, Sam’s black lab, Maverick, who rode on the front of Sam’s board may have crossed the line first. Denise Green took the checkers first in race/touring class, with Midwest regulars Laura Kinne, and Ryan Meade rounding out the podium.

In the Men’s race/touring class, Nicholas Yates took the win with a blistering 36:39 time, with Patrick Reeg, and Glen Ruczynski finishing 2nd and 3rd. The surfstyle class featured close racing as Midwest Paddle League Director Doug Vojko battled Kent Imig in a continuing grudge match from the prior week at the Midwest Paddle Festival. While Kent got the better of the match up the week prior, Doug was able to win the finishing sprint over Kent by just 21 seconds. Ben Michael Tinholt finished third and is sure to continue to push the leaders in future races.

2nd place surfstyle finisher Kent Imig:

I raced in the surf class this last weekend because I knew Mike Bartos and Doug Vojtko were going to be racing in it. Both these guys have a lot of power, with a bigger build than me, and are difficult for me to beat on the wider surf-class boards. I thought it would be fun to have another race against these two in that class because I knew it was going to be difficult to beat them, and we’re always pretty close competition for each other. As I predicted, it was difficult, and ultimately, I just couldn’t muster the strength in the last mile to pass Doug and had to settle for a close second place finish.

Conditions started to deteriorate as the 6-mile race started. The wind picked up and the sky got a little darker as 26 paddlers took of towards the first buoy. With the side chop of the first leg, boat wake, and the normal chop of a water start, a good number of competitors took their first swim of the day early. There was tight racing early between Brian Lefeve, Dan Novak, Ben Gareiss, Matt Hassenrink, and Alex Sandler as they broke away from the pack.

As the race pack turned up wind for the second leg of the first lap, thunder rolled in the distance. Race direction kept a close eye on the radar and decided to let the race continue since there were no visible lightening and apparent distance of the storm. But sky got decidedly dark, and the wind kicked up.

By the start of the second lap, conditions had deteriorated from marginal to moderate as 4-6” waves became 8-10”.

In an incredible display that has come to epitomize the Midwest Paddle League, the women’s leaders checked up halfway through the first leg of the second lap to continue the race as a group. Jen Yates:

We heard thunder. And thunder again. Wendy who was out in front said she was done and was going back in saying she’s getting off the water and not going to risk it with the storm that looked to be headed straight our way. Rachel and I agreed but weren’t sure as the race wasn’t cancelled and people were still paddling. We turned around and started headed in together the three of us. As a Susie and Nicole kept going, we realized they weren’t calling the race yet and I think we were both keen to keep going.

Speaking of the amazing nature of the women’s Midwest paddling scene, though not an official class, Melissa Camphous and Mary Radke teamed up and paddled a 14’ board tandem. They were an unbelievable team and didn’t go swimming once.

When it was all said and done, Jen Yates took top honors for the women in the 14’ class, followed by Rachel Demitrios, and Nicole Anderson. Race winner Jen Yates commented:

I was excited at the beginning in the first 3 miles to have ladies to draft with! All very strong we took turns and very rarely does that happen in the races here. Maybe two of us but not 4! Rounding the last buoy, I could see Rachel close behind, and she just continued to gain on the last straight I know giving it everything she got. I was too but was fading very quickly and didn’t have much in me for that last sprint to the finish line and just edged her out.

On the Men’s side, Brian Lefeve, Dan Novak,  and Ben Gareiss finishing 1,2,3. Brian Lefeve once again showed that he’s the guy to beat setting a 1:02 time despite conditions for a smoking 5.8mph average. Here’s what Brian had to say about the race:

I got a bad start and got piled up between 2 boards while Ben, Matt, Daniel and Tristan took off to the first buoy. Being that far back I kept my composure, if I got too upset with my start my heartbeat would be high and I would have been winded too early. I found some clean water and started the grind to the first buoy where I finally caught up to the leaders. After rounding the 1st buoy I was stoked to feel the wind pick up to 7-8 mph and the chop getting rougher. I knew my Paddle Monster training and training in rough waters would work to my advantage. I paddled up past Matt and Ben who then dropped in behind me. Daniel stayed to our right keeping right up with us. Knowing my strengths and weaknesses I kept a moderate pace with Matt and Ben drafting me. About a mile in to the next buoy I saw Matt veer to my right, slightly off my draft…….just what I was waiting for, so I made my move and went into sprint mode for 30 sec. to shake Matt and Ben off my draft. I paddled hard all the way to the finish with some nice clean bumps pushing me in the last 1/2 mile. Daniel came in just after me, followed by Ben and Matt. Unfortunately, Matt was sick the whole week leading up to the race which I was relieved to hear, as he and I always battle it out together in every race we are in. 

2nd place finisher Daniel Novak:

I did not expect to be able to hang with Ben and Matt! I enjoyed hanging out with everyone -EVERYONE at this weekend SUP race and Brian showed again the result of dedication and focus 🤙👍


Ben Gareiss:

It was a great event even with the bad weather. it’s always fun paddling with some of your best friends from around the MW. It has always been an outstanding grassroots event for SUP with one of the best locations, best swag & definitely the best burgers at the VFW. Always look forward to this one every year.

It was a stacked field in the men’s class with all the top paddlers making an appearance. Podium regulars Alex Sandler and Matt Hassenrink found themselves edged off the podium despite strong paddles. Matt reflected:

The Up North SUP Classic didn’t disappoint once again. Brian has established himself as the top paddler in the region. Dan Novak had an impressive 2nd.

The course was hot and flat for the first lap but the wind kicked up ahead of a storm halfway through. I drafted Brian on the first lap but he broke away when he saw me make a small mistake. Hats off to him.

Sometimes you win and sometimes you learn, and I’ve learned that podiums aren’t guaranteed. I’ll put in the work to be back up there in the 2nd half of the season.

The 12’6” long race class featured three entries, with Karl Eugster taking the win over Michael Kloser, and Jill Bloemendal taking home the Women’s win.

Full results can be found here.

Approximately 1:25 into the race, the sky opened for a brief deluge, soaking the remaining competitors, and sending those on shore scrambling for a drier spot to stand.

The rain quickly cleared, and as it has become a tradition in the Midwest, the final finishers in both races where honored at the finish line with “paddle arch”, honoring their commitment and resilience.

Just about everyone hung around for lunch provided by the race, but the unavoidable conversation was whether or not the scheduled 4.6-mile downwind race would go on as planned.  The downwind race is a staple of the event and gathers both the 3 and 6-mile inland competitors but also attracts the “downwind specialists”. This part of Michigan is known for its downwind conditions and those who live here or near here have built quite a bit of skill at the discipline.

In the end, the weather just wouldn’t cooperate, and the downwind had to be cancelled. But disappointment gave way to revelry, as the catered awards dinner got underway. In addition to honoring the achievements of the class winners, there were some really great raffle prizes available including an NSP board.

Up North Standup Paddleboard Classic: Midwest Paddle League Makes the Most Out of What Nature Offers Photo by Doug Vojtko

The weekend was a fantastic testament that you can have a great time even when nature doesn’t fully cooperate. It was also a showcase of the Midwest paddle community at it’s best. Friends connection and reconnecting, sharing stories and laughs and the pure joy of being outside together regardless of the weather. Race Director MIk DeBoef:

Overall, I was stoked on the turnout, many new faces and the return of a few veterans that we have not seen for a while. Although the weather was threatening all morning we were able to get the Rec race and Pro race completed before the Lightning closed us down for the day. It was a shame we could not get the kids race and Downwinder in but the competitors seemed to be happy with the race overall and with the after party and awards.

Next weekend, Saturday July 27th, is a triple-header for the Midwest Paddle League. Paddlers can chose between Paddlefest Clear Lake (Iowa), Washburn Across the Bay (Wisconsin), and the Lexington Huron SUP Challenge.

If your not from the Midwest and you’re interested in a destination race week, either of the Traverse City area races, combined with Sprint and Splash, or Lexington Huron would be great vacation week in Michigan. Or, Oconomowoc and a ferry ride across the Lake Michigan for a West Michigan or northern Michigan race would be ideal. Stay tuned for next year’s race schedule, we’d love to see you in the Midwest!

About the Midwest Paddle League

Welcome to the Midwest Paddle League – designated for SUP paddlers, by SUP 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.