Finding Calm in Chaos
Kitesurfing on Ontario’s Largest Lake
Story and photos by Darren McChristie
There is chaos everywhere I look. Breaking waves are visible in all directions—some of them taller than I am—obscuring the view of shore just over a kilometre away. It’s freezing outside; the northwest wind is fierce. But, I’m in my happy place and the intensity of the situation I put myself in is exactly what I came for. It’s late October and I’m kitesurfing on the world's 32nd largest lake with a handful of friends from the area. I can’t think of a more enjoyable way to spend an otherwise dreary October day. Lake Nipigon (Animbiigoozaaga’igan) is the largest lake located entirely within Ontario. Our group of intrepid adventurers has chosen the eastern shore of this lake after careful analysis of the predicted wind. The location on this day is perfect: a strong onshore wind from the northwest at over 25 knots, a wide sandy beach, and over 50 kms of open water allowing for clean unobstructed wind. It's the kind of wind you don’t want to open your umbrella in. Pure gold. The first sight of the breaking waves after the two-hour drive from Thunder Bay brings an immediate sense of relief. After all, wind and weather prediction is not a perfect science. Today, the forecast is accurate and we are all stoked. We have been here before and been burned with zero wind—imagine pulling into a ski resort to the sight of snowless runs. I’m feeling a lot of nervous energy, though it’s not due to inexperience. I like to think heightened anxiety is completely normal given the situation we are about to put ourselves in. I’m not sure what the others are feeling—it’s hard to tell because everyone is so pumped, even borderline giddy, with anticipation. Kitesurfing is a gearintensive sport. We each packed two or three kites (9 m², 12 m², and 14 m²), an air pump to inflate the kite, two control bars with 25-metre lines, a couple of kiteboards, a harness, wetsuit (or drysuit), neoprene booties, and gloves. After considering the strength and direction of the wind (“feels strong”) we decide to use our smallest kites. Strong winds mean we can use a smaller kite, which is quicker turning and more responsive. Wind direction is one of the most important considerations when kitesurfing. We generally don’t kite in offshore winds for obvious reasons. When shit hits the fan, we don’t want to be dragged out into the middle of the lake. The sandy beach at Poplar Point is also great for launching and landing kites, but it’s the bus-sized waves and signature big lake rollers that lures us here. My adrenal gland begins to release adrenaline into my bloodstream and I don’t feel the cold at all as I begin the process of setting up lines and pumping up my kite. It all takes all of 15 minutes, but it feels like an eternity. The hardest part of the process is squeezing into a thick wetsuit—it's like I’m putting on a straitjacket. I just want to get out there. When things go wrong in kitesurfing, they can really get ugly—we like to refer to these instances as kitemares. Oftentimes, it’s the launch where things can go awry. Sending the kite into the sky during an ill-timed gust can lead to unintentional lift off. Fortunately for me, I have a smooth launch and grab my surfboard and venture out into the breaking waves. I feel comfort as I enter the water. My wetsuit gets soaked and warmth begins to set in. The waves are breaking on shore, so getting up on the board needs to be carefully timed between breaks. Once up and riding, time seems to slow down and the waves look even bigger than they do from shore. The water is clear and I can see the sandy lake bottom as I glide across the surface. While riding, I am acutely aware of my fellow kiters— where they are and what they are doing. We all have one another's backs. Each of us kites for our own reasons. While some enjoy popping off the lip of a wave to launch themselves into the stratosphere, others like surfing the face of a breaking wave. I spend most of the session cutting upwind over the waves toward open water and then turning back toward shore when I encounter a massive roller. This is what I’ve come for: a sense of relief and calm I can only seem to find in this chaos. It’s not safe for me to think about my list of unfinished work around the house or bills I have to pay— inattention out here could mean serious trouble. I am safe, provided I stay focused. I scan the horizon looking for the largest waves and they are everywhere. It is an epic day. And then there's the adrenaline rush. I don’t like the sound of “adrenaline junkie,” but I have to admit, I crave it. Fooling my fight-or-flight response in this manner brings me a sense of euphoria—pure joy. When the kiting is good, my mind is clear and I feel a decreased sensitivity to pain, as well as improved vision, hearing, and other senses. It's extremely addictive and I know that our group of kiters shares a strong bond rooted in this compulsive desire for adventure. After a couple of hours, I begin to really feel comfortable, and the cold creeps in as a result. The adrenaline is wearing off and I know I’m getting tired—my mind is beginning to wander and some of the other kiters are starting to head to shore. Back at our trucks, we all share stories (and a few pops) while we devour snacks to replenish our energy levels. I know the days that follow will seem mundane and boring in comparison, but the mindfulness kitesurfing provided will get me through until the next windy day.