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The North Wind

The North Wind

The North Wind

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Caden Sierra
Caden Sierra
Sports Writer

Hey. My name is Caden and I'm from the Chicagoland area.  I'm currently going into my 3rd year at NMU.  I'm a multimedia production major with a double minor in journalism and criminal justice. For as...

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The North Wind is an independent student publication serving the Northern Michigan University community. It is partially funded by the Student Activity Fee. The North Wind digital paper is published daily during the fall and winter semesters except on university holidays and during exam weeks. The North Wind Board of Directors is composed of representatives of the student body, faculty, administration and area media.

Students protest against Israel-Hamas war with campus encampment
Students protest against Israel-Hamas war with campus encampment
Dallas WiertellaApril 30, 2024

NMU students help give Pictured Rock tours

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Maggie Duly/NW FUN IN THE SUN—The Uncle Ducky’s/Paddling Michigan kayak tour staff, filled with many NMU students, go out on Lake Superior each day to show visitors the incredible scenery that Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore has to offer.

The Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Munising has hosted over 828,000 visitors through the month of August 2020, on pace to become the most in history via the National Park Service. This summer, amongst the beautiful scenery and splashing waves, the lakeshore has not only been the host for many more tourists due to COVID-19, but to NMU students working as its kayaking tour guides.

Uncle Ducky’s/Paddling Michigan kayak tours center around thousands of visits from tourists each summer, with tours every day consisting of from sunrise to sun down, these Wildcat students helped visitors gear up for the ride, and guide these magical tours in gorgeous Lake Superior. 

“A joke between all the guys is that it’s more of a lifestyle and less of a job. I worked six to seven days a week for the past three and a half months so eventually you kind of just accept that this is what you do every day, and if you don’t love it, then you’re not going to survive,” junior art and design major Jack Thill said. “So you really have to get with it mentally if you want to continue to be a good guide.”

Thill has just completed his third year as a guide at Uncle Ducky’s, and as a lead guide, an important part of his job is to look after his novice coworkers.

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“It’s just because I’ve been in stranger situations you could say, a big part of the job is you learn as you go, so with the more problems you face, the better you get,” Thill said.

This is a shared sentiment from other workers at Uncle Ducky’s, including junior outdoor recreation leadership/management major Leo Lopez, who’s completed his second summer. After learning for a year, he tried to use as much knowledge as he could to pass on to others.

“There’s a lot more than I understood right off the bat, and I tried to do my best to educate and inform first year guides so that they could get the hang of things a lot quicker than maybe I did or someone who didn’t have a mentor to help them out,” Lopez said.

With the more experienced guys present, it made things easier for sophomore general business major Vaughn Rodriguez. Working as a first year employee can be intimidating, but with the help from older guides like Thill and Lopez, Rodriguez became more comfortable in a job that he entered not sure what to expect. It was a lot different than he thought it was going to be, he said. However, he was given the opportunity to do more in his first summer than he could’ve imagined. 

“I was going out by myself taking out tours, interacting with new people everyday, showing people a really great area, the natural wonder that’s Pictured Rocks, which was cool,” Rodriguez said. “But I didn’t expect to be working like six days a week with the same people, building great relationships, so that was kind of a pleasant surprise.”

The guides work long days, and sometimes seven days a week. Starting early in the morning before sunrise, there’s a lot that the workers must do that the visitors don’t see, Lopez said. The crew is up and at ’em before 7 a.m., and the crew must unload every kayak and bring them down to the beach. With the tours beginning at 9 a.m., the guides need to have the area looking good before the guests arrive, he said.

“As soon as the guests show up, they’re ready to go and we’re ready to roll. But what they don’t see behind the scenes, is that every single one of these employees, students and non-students alike, busting our buns,” Lopez said.

The student guides shuttle from Marquette to Christmas each morning where they stop to gather gear such as lifejackets, spray skirts and guide equipment. Upon arriving at Pictured Rocks, due to a usually sold out day of tours, the 112 kayaks are unloaded to the beach.

“As a lead guide, me and the other lead guides and third years are responsible for making sure that goes smoothly, so everyone has their own station,” Thill said.

Not only do the early mornings and long days take a toll physically, but being patient with visitors and having a good mindset make being prepared mentally an important task, junior outdoor recreation/leader management major Campbell Cleary said.

“It can be difficult at some points in the day, but if you truly put yourself together when you get to the warehouse, it doesn’t matter what shift you have, you have time to prep for kayak tours,” Cleary said. “Everyone’s experience is different, you just have to be patient with the people that you take out on tours. If you be yourself when you kayak with other people, nothing’s going to go wrong for you.”

When looking for something to take away from the experience of working at Uncle Ducky’s, it’s that there’s a bond between the guides.

“I would say it’s kind of like a family, I mean since we’re all stuck together for three months at a time, you get really, really close with guides,” Thill said. “It’s in between a family and a fraternity of sorts.”

To make sure that the tours are a success, the group has to work together to make that happen. From sunrise to sun down, the guides help each other through the day and have developed a relationship amongst them. Starting before the tours even begin, the team works together to give guests the best visit possible. The guides go their separate ways on the water with the guests in individual groups, but they’re all still one big team, Lopez said.

“There’s a whole lot of bonding, and students from different programs within the school. We got students in the art and design program, we got criminal justice students all throughout the school that I wouldn’t see around campus or hang out with outside of campus,” Lopez said. “But working together we really had that bond getting to know each other and working together like that.”

What has made the group’s bonding different this summer than most at Uncle Ducky’s is working through a global pandemic in COVID-19. With the season beginning almost four months ago, there wasn’t as much knowledge then as there is now about the virus, and that left the workers a bit concerned to head back. 

“It definitely affected me because there’s a lot of people out there that don’t want to follow the CDC procedures to keep themselves safe from COVID-19, I felt like we did a great job to prevent the spread from happening,” Cleary said. “There were times that I felt a little uncomfortable at work, but if you just follow what the CDC says, then everything’s going to work out.”

The staff at Uncle Ducky’s has become more comfortable to work during the pandemic with the many guidelines that are in place for the tours, not to mention the natural social distancing that occurs with kayaking on Lake Superior. To make this summer even more different due to the virus, each student agreed that this was the busiest summer that they’ve had working as a tour guide.

“There were obviously rules and regulations, sanitation and procedures we had in place, but as far as business goes it seems that we were a lot busier this year,” Lopez said. “I think everyone had the mindset and mentality where there wasn’t a whole lot to do inside, so we had a lot of traffic from Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Illinois.”

However, the leap in tourism and business has also resulted in increased cases in the Munising and Alger County area. With the U.P.’s beautiful nature and low case count, it seems like a nice place to visit for tourists. What people aren’t realizing, Rodriguez said, is that visitors come here for maybe a day, but the area feels the ramifications from it if the visitors test positive.

“I’m not going to lie, when all those [tourists] were coming up there, I was a little upset that tourism was still so high, and everybody was running up to the U.P. like it’s this paradise or oasis to forget their other lives,” Rodriguez said. 

Despite this, the staff made it work through the entirety of the summer by following the guidelines in place. COVID-19 couldn’t take away from the guides’ experience of working at Uncle Ducky’s for the summer, and that’s what has made this job worth it.

“I think it’s been a great experience for me, I’ve made a lot of friends at this job, I wouldn’t want to work anywhere else because I’m just so comfortable there,” Cleary said. “It’s nice being outside everyday seeing a national park and lakeshore. It’s been pretty great.”

Thill has three years of experience, and he has taken away more from it than making friends and earning money. Not only does he now appreciate the local nature more than before, he has found out a lot more about himself.

“It’s just a lot of social skills, a lot of on-command problem solving and critical thinking. Also just a large appreciation for nature and really pushing environmental conservation when you’re out there,” Thill said. “The ‘no trace’ policy is a huge thing, we want to leave the park better than we did before. To sum it all up, it’s probably the best job that I’ve ever had, easily, and it’s a really big learning experience.”

For a job that’s all about making sure the visitors have a great experience, the NMU students who work there sure have had great experiences of their own.

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