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Northern Michigan in Focus: Winter Paddle Boarding on the Great Lakes

Northern Michigan has no shortage of water and winter.

One man tasked with protecting our water is mixing the love for the two.

Chief photojournalist Corey Adkins takes us paddle boarding in Thunder Bay for this week’s Northern Michigan in Focus.

“I have a great job and I love the Great Lakes and love sharing them with people,” says Jeff Gray. 

It’s Friday night, January 27, 2017. Superintendent of the , Jeff Gray is at work greeting guests at their annual Thunder Bay International Film Festival in Alpena.

“It’s very much like a national park. We’re here to protect these incredible resources, but also make sure the public can get access to them, show people about them and show people different ways to enjoy them,” explains Jeff.

But it’s how he enjoys them in the winter that may surprise you.

“I started paddle boarding several years ago and I have a friend who’s a Great Lakes surfer, and I saw him surfing in the winter. So I said I’ll paddle board more in the late fall and early spring, then it turned into paddle boarding in the wintertime,” says Jeff.

With paddle board in hand Jeff hops into Thunder Bay and explores the lake he helps protect.

“The Great Lakes are beautiful four seasons round, and I try to stretch that out and find little windows when it’s not completely frozen where I can get out and spend some time on the water,” explains Jeff.

Some may think ‘what if he falls?’ or ‘how can he take that cold water?’ One of the first things he does is jump in… on purpose!

“What I do the first time every season is, I go out very shallow and I go underwater to see what it’s like to be underwater. You need to be safe. This isn’t something just to go try and ensure that you can take the cold and get back on the board and get back into shore. It’s often that the walk home or the walk to the car is the tough part," says Jeff.

Now before you call him crazy, there is a method behind this madness.

“My surfer friend told me, because they’re out there in the crazy weather, he said there’s not bad weather, just bad gear. So having the right gear is the right thing. I’m in a pretty heavy duty wet suit and it’s cold and it can be windy, but it can be absolutely beautiful. Just a week or so ago the water was crystal clear and it was like looking through glass and seeing fish and rocks and seeing some of the shipwrecks. It’s just spectacular,” explains Jeff.

Spectacular is right.

“Another thing I enjoyed is the sunrises and sunsets, and something about the winter sunrise and sunset is so spectacular. So trying to get out early, which is nicer now in the winter because it’s not as early you don’t have to get up as early for the sunrise, but getting out there for it is just phenomenal. This side of the state is a spectacular place, and being on the water is the best way to enjoy it,” says Jeff.