Paddle to Sea

By Allie Brawley

Tom McKee and Terry Clark hold nine paddles launched by WTS students from Paradise in September 2019 and discovered June 2020 by Cloverland’s hydro crew.

Cloverland’s hydroelectric plant crew is conditioned to extracting debris from the canal before it passes through the turbines. In early June, they spotted nine colorful wooden “paddles” shaped as boats and painted with a message to contact Whitefish Township School (WTS) in Paradise, Michigan. The response from WTS teacher Vince Gross led to a discovery of a Paddle to Sea project with a long and adventurous history.

Pat Rowley started the project in 1984 when he taught fourth to sixth grades at WTS, where approximately 50 K-12 students come from Newberry, Engadine, Hulbert, and Paradise. Rowley later served as principal and superintendent. Upon his retirement, other teachers carried the project forward over the years. Now kindergarten through sixth-grade students participate so their paddles will hopefully be discovered during their years at WTS.

Inspiration for this experiment came from the Paddle to the Sea book by Holling Clancy Holling. Rowley used the idea from an accompanying activity book as a social studies lesson. Students used to create the paddles at home and engrave them with metal nameplates at school. There were houseboats, sailboats, speedboats, and miniature freighters. Now wooden paddles are simply painted, labeled, and varnished.

“Students are very excited and gleam with pride when their paddles are found,” says Gross. “They spent time painting and decorating the paddles themselves.” The scientific project incorporates the fine arts of designing the paddles, which are cut from blocks of treated wood donated by a local business.

The school’s secretary, Terry Clark, holds the project history in a large folder full of letters and photos sent from people who have discovered the paddles. One of the paddles discovered by Cloverland’s hydro crew belonged to Clark’s granddaughter, whose mom also participated in the project years ago.

From the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island to Greece, these are just a sample of letters from people who have discovered paddles launched in Paradise by WTS students.

“Some boats have never been found, others are found and relaunched and we’ll get a letter about that boat from someone else,” says Clark. “It’s just amazing and the kids are so excited when they get letters. Sometimes people have sent gifts.”

When asked how many paddles have been launched from Whitefish Bay, Clark estimated, “I’ll bet we’ve released over a thousand boats since 1984.”

In 1991, the farthest traveled paddle was found across Whitefish Point, 60 miles north of Sault, Ontario. Since then, boats have been discovered as far north as Canada and upstate New York through the St. Lawrence Seaway, as far south as Rogers City and as far east as Greece. It is undetermined whether someone traveled with the paddle to Greece and relaunched it, or whether the paddle traveled on its own across the Atlantic.

Just days after the hydro crew discovered nine paddles in the hydro canal, Sault Ste. Marie resident Tom Pink found a paddle in Mosquito Bay of the upper St. Mary’s River. Like the nine paddles found in the hydro canal, this paddle was also launched in 2019. As Pink posted to the student on Facebook, “we can be reasonably certain that Miss Azlynn spent the winter of 2019-2020 locked in Lake Superior ice, much like the original Paddle to the Sea did when the story was written by Holling C. Holling in 1941.”

WTS Superintendent, Tom McKee, estimates over 50% of the paddles are discovered – eventually. Some are relaunched and others end their journey. Clark’s daughter received a letter from a gentleman in Batchawana Bay, Ontario who said he was adding the boat to his mantle with other nautical memorabilia.

Another letter from Canada stated, “Found your message while kayaking in the Aux Sable River – it was caught up in some logs at the mouth of the Aux Sable and Spanish Rivers in Massey, Ontario. I put it back to sea and it's on its way to Lake Huron via Georgian Bay. Good luck with your project. I hope you receive many messages and that the board reaches some interesting places and people.”

Some paddles take years to discover – or uncover. A student who graduated in 2003 received a letter in 2011 from someone who found her paddle buried in the sand in Brimley. Clarke estimates this student launched her paddle in 1996.

After serving Whitefish Township School for 26 years as a paraprofessional and later as secretary, Clark retired this summer. In her retirement, she hopes to create a mural in the school that showcases all the letters and photographs from over the years and a map of where boats have been found.

“I walk the harbor and the point a lot and I’m always wishing I’ll find a boat!” says Clark. Perhaps she will discover paddles in her retirement.

As American author John Augustus Shedd said, “a ship in the harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.” So Cloverland’s hydro crew relaunched the nine paddles – on the other side of the hydro plant to save them a trip through the turbines – to destinations unknown. The paddles set off to sea are an experiment with the potential to continue to surprise and delight for years.