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Grand Marais folk school turns kids into Lake Superior sailors

Jul 30, 2019 05:42AM ● By Editor
Lucas Thomason, 11, of Lakewood, Wash., practices turning the wheel of the Hjorids before setting sail in Grand Marais. Photo: Tyler Schank / Forum News Service

By John Myers of the Forum News Service  July 27, 2019

Matthew Ecklund looked and sounded just like a salty sailing captain should, with his rolled-up watch cap, wooly vest and curly red beard.

“Ahoy there!” Ecklund greeted his six crew members as they scrambled down the dock.

On the North Shore’s most scenic harbor, on a foggy Wednesday morning, Ecklund welcomed six kids aboard the 50-foot Hjordis, the two-masted schooner owned by the North House Folk School. They would be his crew and students for two days of sailing camp.

From left: North House Folk School instructor Matthew Ecklund describes part of the Hjorids to Olya Wright and Clayton Smith in Grand Marais. Photo: Tyler Schank / Forum News Service

“All hands?” Ecklund said a question to make sure everyone was present and accounted for.

“All hands!” the kids reported back.

They were ready to sail.

For the past 22 years, North House Folk School on the Grand Marais harbor has been teaching adults various 19th century arts and crafts skills in a world surrounded by 21st century technology. Now, the school is expanding, both its harborfront physical presence and its outreach, working to include more to kids, especially local kids.

The folk school has various summer craft camps, and invites local teachers to bring their classes during the school year. Last year North House started offering a summer sailing camp — a two-day course with on-the-water training on the Hjordis (pronounced yordis) — that filled its six openings fast. This summer there was a waiting list. (U.S. Coast Guard rules limit small passenger ships to six customers at a time.)

“Kids who live on Lake Superior should have a relationship with Lake Superior,” said Greg Wright, North House executive director, noting that many kids whose parents don’t have boats have never been out on the lake looking back at their hometown. “We’re expanding what we do with local youth. And we’re training, maybe, the next generation of teachers, teachers of these traditional skills. Passing down these skills is important.”

Wright said sailing fits the school’s tradition of “northern crafts,” noting sailing includes a host of old-time skills like navigation, knots and sailmaking.

“There’s a GPS and a radar on board, but the goal is not to have to use it,” he noted.

The experience of being in control of a big vessel may sound intimidating to some kids. But these six were eating it up.

“Being a kid and being able to steer a 12-ton, 50-foot boat is pretty empowering,” said Matt Nesheim, the folk school’s operations manager and lead captain of the Hjordis.

The youth sailors ranged in age from 11 to 16, and they recited things they learned on just their first trip on the boat, a 45-minute jaunt around the harbor and even out of the breakwall into the big lake, much of it shrouded in a low-hanging fog that blew in during the trip.

“I got to steer it … and blow the horn,” said Lucas Thomason, 11, of Lakewood, Wash.

The horn was a hand-held trumpet-like device that sounded a bit like a sick goose. But the kids learned the difference between signals for the boat when it was under sail (one long blast and two short blasts every two minutes) and under engine power (one long blast every two minutes.)

It seemed most of the newbie sailors liked steering the best as they learned the difference between three turns of the helm’s wheel turning just three spokes. And between port and starboard.

Ecklund called a post-cruise meeting of the crew and asked what they had learned. “Working together,” one said, especially while furling the sail and working the halyards. Back at the dock, they worked in teams to secure the bow and stern lines.

“I really like sailing,” said Olya Wright, 13, of Grand Marais. “You really aren’t doing anything (like you are when paddling a kayak). The sails are pulling you. It’s almost like flying across the water. It’s really magical.”

As the kids disembarked the Hjordis to get lunch on shore, Ecklund gave them one last huzzah.

“Well done, sailors! A successful mission in the fog!”

Ecklund, who is a sailing educator on the East Coast when he’s not one in Grand Marais, said the North House program is perfect for young kids.

“It’s totally a hands-on experience,” Ecklund said. “And they get a chance to feel what it’s like to sail … It’s one of those things they need to do to really appreciate.”

To read more of the original story and related reporting, follow this link to the website.

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