Faces of Friends: Ali and Aidan’s quest to be “kayak guides for life”

Faces of Friends title graphic - Ali and Aidan of Trek & Trail

June 7, 2024

Ali Erickson and Aidan Lee met at Bayfield kayak outfitter Trek & Trail in 2016. They worked as sea kayak guides over several summers, saying they reveled in the opportunity work outside, surrounded by beautiful water. In 2019, their love for adventure brought them to Alaska where they worked and played with the outdoor community there, but they couldn’t stop thinking about Lake Superior. Alaska was their playground, but they say the Apostle Islands were home. In 2022, they moved back to Bayfield where they now own and operate Trek & Trail and support Friends of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore as business members.

Friends Board member Neil Howk talked with Ali and Aidan about their love for the islands and for sharing the outdoors with others.

Neil: When did you learn how to kayak?

Ali: So, my family and I moved to Bayfield when I was four.  Pretty much right off the bat my parents got into sea kayaking. I don’t remember my exact age, but I have memories of being pretty young and going paddling with my family. I was so little that they would put me in the middle of a triple (kayak) with two other people, so me, my sister, and a friend would all sit in the middle of a triple and my parents would paddle at either end.  I remember going around the islands that way, and then my sister and I had our own boats and got more into it.

Ali kayaking ice caves

Ali paddling near ice-covered sea caves

Neil: How about you Adian?

Aidan: 2016 is when I started out.  Ali was there and I was a first-year guide. I’d never spent any time in a sea kayak. I got my start at Trek and Trail and ended up working there mostly because my dad was keeping a boat down at the marina and suggested that I could stay on the sailboat if I found a job. So, I spent a lot of time on the water between kayaking by day and sleeping on the sailboat by night. The catch was that I really didn’t know how to sail, so I didn’t take the boat out of the marina much, but it was enough to attract Ali… (laughter). I got really excited about paddling.

Aidan kayaking

Aidan paddling in calm conditions

Neil: So you hadn’t been in the islands before that?

Aidan: No. I was unfamiliar with them. It seemed an exotic concept to me that there could be wild islands in Wisconsin. It felt like something that couldn’t quite exist. My perception of Wisconsin was, like, farmland. Realizing what was up here was an awakening for me.

Neil: What inspired you to buy Trek and Trail?

Aidan: It was actually a running joke that some of the guides had when I was guiding that I was going to be a kayak guide for life… or own the place. We always kind of kicked it around and then it became less of a joke. The moment that it became real for us was in 2022. New Year’s 2022 we were visiting Ali’s family for the holidays. We were flying back to Alaska where we were living at the time. We were in the Detroit airport, of all places. We knew we were going to end up back in the Midwest to be closer to family. That was important for us. Ali had gotten her teaching degree. She was going to become a teacher. I needed something else to do. That’s the pragmatic approach we took. It was like, “well, it would be really great to buy Trek and Trail! That actually is a dream of mine.”  Well, we could do that. That’s something we could try to do.

We were actually flying to Wisconsin when we had this revelation. As we were coming back to Wisconsin, we had that talk, and then we pitched it to Rob and Scott and Lynn (who owned Trek & Trail at the time) at dinner around New Year’s. And to our surprise, and fear (almost), a little bit of panic set in when they took us seriously. We thought, “yeah, let’s do it.” We had a serious conversation to discuss bare bones, logistics, and time frame. The ball just kind of rolled from there. From a more intangible standpoint, it was an opportunity that we couldn’t pass up. Being part of the close to 40-year history that Trek and Trail has. It’s been a good run. It’s an opportunity that might not come up again. We were just in the right place at the right time. We feel fortunate that Rob, Scott, and Lynn took us seriously enough, because we didn’t come toting a lot of money around. They had to work with us a bit to make it a reality, and we appreciate them for that.

Trek & Trail store

Inside Trek & Trail in Bayfield

Neil: Do you agree with that Ali?

Ali: Yes. The Detroit airport… where dreams are born…

Neil: How do you hope to share your connections with the park through your business?

Ali: Well, I’m really big on community. It’s kind of a funny thing that a lot of our guests and customers are coming from other places and they’re coming to us to experience this thing that is a part of the land that we are stakeholders in and responsible for being nearby. This is a shared responsibility for our community to protect this place. There are people coming from out of town asking us to help them experience it. That’s how the business was originally set up, to take people from out of the area and show it to them. But I have realized that a lot of the people within our community are not getting to experience the park, for various reasons. So it’s been something I’ve been invested in since I started guiding, to give opportunities to locals alike, not just visitors, to be able to experience the park. That’s something I work hard at. The business takes care of that piece of sharing (the park) with visitors inherently with what we offer. But making sure that we are also offering opportunities for community members to experience (the park) is something that we have to work at, because it wasn’t necessarily set up that way. So, we brainstorm frequently about how we can make sure that people who are stakeholders in this place are able to come out and experience it and enjoy it and get to understand the area. That’s something that we are constantly evolving. 

Neil: Are you doing this through grants, or how are you doing that?

Ali: We have partnered with the (Bayfield) school as much as we can. First, it’s an easy connection because I work there. But it’s also this place where we really see the true heart of the community. The students…these kids who are growing up in this area all end up at the school. It’s this great place to get people from the community right away…as they’re in their formative years. We’ve been focusing on the school and the students and offering things like the kayaking trips when we provide an opportunity for the senior class to go and see the sea caves, which is the most popular spot. Next week is “water week”, also known as May term, so Trek and Trail is offering a free trip that this year is being funded through a grant so kids can sign up for a trip to see the sea caves or launch from Little Sand Bay, whatever the weather permits that day. But as we develop these opportunities, there have been a lot of other sponsors and people who have stepped up and said, “I want to be a part of that, we want to help fund that.” The park has also helped maintain this partnership because kayaking is such a great way to access the park… (kayaking) helps to get (visitors) to the heart of (the park) really efficiently. I think, recognizing that, the park has also, at times, made grant money available for us to help kids get out into the islands.

Neil: What are some of the good memories you’ve had of guiding folks in the park?

Aidan: We’ve both had guests who we’ve been able to impact positively…who’ve come away from their trips and they want to stay connected with the Apostle Islands. They continue to come back year after year, they continue to want to be our friends and be connected to Trek and Trail and the community that we’ve established.  Specifically, I ran a six-day trip for this group in 2022…it was kind of by accident because the guide who was supposed to lead the trip got COVID so I was the next man up. It was an amazing trip. We were able to get out into the outer islands. We didn’t get to Devils, that was our goal. We were sitting on Rocky looking at it when squalls were in the area. But I think that almost added an element to the trip that made it better because there’s something elusive about that. We were sitting there, like being just below the summit on Mt. Everest and having to turn around, in a much smaller way, but it felt that way. They were so inspired by their trip, they felt so deeply connected to the islands… we had some good weather so they would sleep out on the beach in their sleeping bags under the stars. They would wake up before me, and I was waking up at 5:30 a.m., and there they’d be ready for coffee…. They were very sweet, you could just tell that they dug the place the way that we do and were able to vibe off that. That’s really rewarding to have that kind of experience. 

Neil: Why do you think it is important to support the Friends as a business member?

Aidan: The Friends group does so much to build up and maintain some of the infrastructure in the park that we rely on to function. They are helping to upgrade things to improve the present and future of the park. We rely on the park to be there, and to be accessible to paddlers and to outfitters. I see that we are intertwined with our efforts…

Ali: We have the same visions, the same goals, the same missions together. I think that the Friends also help students get to Stockton Island for Island School. Like I was just talking about, we are motivated to help the community and so is the Friends. Just as motivated as we are to share it with people who can’t visualize the park as being in Wisconsin, we’re equally motivated to make sure that people who are in the community are able to experience it too.

Neil: You’ve just mentioned two of the Friends’ foundational pillars, accessibility, and education. I think that’s a good place to wrap this up. Thank you, Ali and Aidan.

Beached kayaks with rainbow

Trek & Trail is one of the outfitters authorized by the National Park Service to provide visitor services in the park. The Trek & Trail team offers guided mainland seacave tours, guided day trips to other park locations and guided overnight trips as well as kayaking instruction. Visit the Trek & Trail website for more information. Learn about supporting Friends of the Apostle Islands as a business member or as an individual supporter by visiting the “Support Us” page on our website. And watch for the next Faces of Friends feature in the weeks to come.

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