Lake Michigan welcomed the 18th annual Grand Tour to Benefit Leader Dogs for the Blind with flat water and friendly, blue skies. Zipping along on glass after tagging the Mighty Mac with wet handprints, the perfect start lulled us all into thinking it might be an easy ride. The Lake had other plans for one rider.
We met six Leader Dog puppies and their handlers at lunch in Charlevoix. It’s hard to imagine these cuddly, cute, smart, fun puppies are being groomed to be working dogs. We pulled in to Clinch Marina ahead of schedule at the end of Day 1.
Flags waved in the south breeze as we left Traverse City at dawn on Day 2 and a few miles later met Land Support at Northport for our first radio check-in. We rode back out of the protected harbor into stiff winds and unforgiving choppy waves.
“We keep each other in sight through ride marshals,” said Mike LaBelle, Leader of the on-water portion of the Tour. “Two riders lead, two on each side, and three in the back, making a square. ‘Farmer Bob’ was in the back, and saw Nick fall off his ski.”
Nick told the rest of the story, “The waves were built up pretty good. I remember a glimpse of the black hull very close to my face as I fell. I popped up, tried to swim back to my ski and felt a sharp pain in my left foot. I rolled over and saw my foot pointing the wrong way.
“When Farmer Bob got close, I told him my ankle was broken. He helped me get on the back deck of his ski. Fred and Jerry (two other rear marshals) got on the radio. We all idled to shore and I rolled off the ski and sat at the edge of the water, keeping my feet in to keep my ankle cold. Fred phoned Land Support while Jerry hooked my ski to his.”
“There were people at a house on shore, one was a nurse. She talked to me while decisions were made about getting me to the hospital. The EMT’s helped get me to the ambulance. When I got to the hospital, Mark Hastings (Land Support) was already there, and stayed with me the whole time.”
“In many ways, the system worked,” Mike said. “The rear marshals were ready to help Nick; one stayed with him, while two others worked to contact help and take care of his ski. Our Land Support team is invaluable in any situation, but especially because they can be wherever needed quickly. What Nick didn’t know was that our recently checked radios were out of range.”
“The group rode out after the radio check,” Mike continued. “The waves were too tough for a lot of head-turning to check on those behind, which is why we have three rear marshals, they ride in a line and look forward. Once around the point, we noticed Nick and the rear marshals were missing. We waited, thinking they were riding slower in the heavy waves. Cell phones backed up the radios, bringing the news. Tom and I rode back to meet up with them, leaving the rest of the group in the care of two other ride marshals.”
Eventually, our group reunited, and we rode on. Weather reports at our Frankfort lunch stop showed rain coming. The waves and chop were around 3-to-5 feet as we left; the low pressure system “pulling up” the lake, like an angry puppeteer with marionette strings making waves. We rode in steady rain to Ludington, where Land Support was waiting to help us re-fuel the skis for Day 3. We laughed at each other as we tied-up, peeled ourselves off our seats and started the slow, jerky walk to the hotel shuttle, legs and arms shaking.
Nick refused pain meds and went to dinner with us, foot casted, crutching through the rainy streets of Ludington. We met another Leader Dog puppy raiser, happy to share her beautiful German shepherd with us; reminding us of why we ride.
Saturday’s winds were shifting ESE to SW, 8-to-12mph, gusting up to 20mph; with waves increasing in size and intensity as the day progressed. Finally, with about ten miles left, the lake relented, and the rest of the ride was relatively smooth. Our group sighed collectively as they saw the red lighthouse at the entrance to Lake Macatawa and Holland.
At our final dinner Saturday evening, another puppy raiser told her story of how grieving the loss of an older dog lead them to become puppy raisers, knowing their dogs go on to help others. We cheered at the check presentation, $13,400 going to Leader Dogs, for a Grand Tour grand total of $310,000 over 18 years.
Nick said he’s ready to ride again next year, and after about four months of rehab, he’ll ‘start training.’ Join him, and the rest of us, August 11-13, 2016 for the 19th annual Grand Tour. www.grandtour.org, www.leaderdogs.org, and find us in the Grand Tour group on Facebook.