Aaron “Huggybear” Johnson long dreamt of SoCal surfing life.

“Their lifestyles looked absolutely epic in every way,” said Johnson, of Holland. “I desperately wanted to be just like them.

“Surfing every day seemed like the end-all-be- all to a misplaced West Coaster like myself.”

Ten years out of high school, Johnson (nicknamed Huggybear because, well, he’s a hugger) flipped through the pages of a surfing magazine in the summer of 1999. When he got to the end, the image of a man “flying through the air on a surfboard with a kite over his head” caught his eye.

“I’ll never forget that moment,” Johnson said. “At the time, I didn’t know that I was getting my first glimpse of what would become the fastest-growing watersport that the world has ever seen.”

Johnson immediately phoned his buddy, Marc Hoeksema, a fellow Mona Shores High School alumnus who lived in Huntington Beach, Calif. (aka Surf City USA), at the time.

Johnson recalled their conversation as follows:

“‘Dude, do you have the new surfer mag?’ I half shouted at him. ‘You gotta see this dude ripping on a surfboard with a kite!’ I could hear him flipping through the pages. There was a long pause followed by Marc’s casual, ‘Huh, that looks kinda cool.’

“‘Kinda cool? Dude, that looks epic!’ I said. ‘We gotta get into this!’”

Credit: Marc Hoeksema

They reached out to mutual friend Steve Negen, owner of MACkite in downtown Grand Haven. He was already an avid power-kite flier and happened to have a couple of early-model inflatable kites right for the job. Negen gave the pair his blessing to take them to the beach and give them a spin.

“There weren’t many kiteboarders to be seen, and instructions weren’t yet developed,” Johnson said. “We had no idea what we were doing, but our heads were buzzing with excitement. Marc’s Volkswagen bus couldn’t get us there fast enough.”

Over the next few hours, the two figured out how to rig, launch, fly and safely land the kites.

“That was it — we were both hooked,” Johnson said. “We could immediately see the potential to catch many more waves than we could by traditional surfing alone.

“Done deal. Kiteboarding had landed in West Michigan.”

Boarding brothers

The “O.G. crew,” as they refer to themselves, formed rather fortuitously. It had nothing to do with surfing or kiteboarding, and high school was just the start.

“Aaron and I became super close friends actually a bit later in life, rising to the ‘brother’ status partially through snowboarding as well as good times sailing and drinking our fair share of beers together,” Hoeksema said.

The two grew up in Muskegon, home of the Snurfer, the snowboard predecessor patented by the late Sherman Poppen in 1966. Hoeksema cited this history as a “major catalyst” in developing their boardsports fascination.

Johnson now works for Negen at MACkite. Hoeksema lives in Norton Shores and owns his own photography and art studio in Grand Haven, where he produces Lake Michigan waterscapes that he typically shoots following boarding sessions. Their passion for fresh-coast boarding has not waned, and the crew has increased in number since the earliest days.

Count among their ranks Tucker Vantol, of Montague, a youngster by comparison who handles MACkite’s videography and holds down the White Lake scene. He’s been boarding since he was 4 years old. Hoeksema shot photos of him when he was a kid.

Along with MACkite colleague Jake VanderZee and several others, the crew tallies up to 150 sessions per year, Hoeksema said.

“Being pulled around by the wind is quite a surreal experience whether you are on the water, ice or snow,” Hoeksema said. “It’s really amazing and something to be respected.

“Lake Michigan is amazing for kiteboarding and the sport keeps my body active as well as frees up my mind, at least for the moment, to focus on the natural element of the sport.”

A softer entry

In addition to his multimedia role, Vantol is also MACkite’s wing foiling specialist. Wing foiling is a close relative of kiteboarding but regarded by practitioners as more accessible to beginners. It involves handling a two-handed wing with a hydrofoil mounted on a short stand-up paddleboard, or SUP.

“Kiteboarding uses a larger sail and kite lines to put it high in the sky,” Vantol said. “This creates more power, but also makes it a more complicated setup, learning process, and potentially more dangerous.

“The beauty of wing foiling is the simplicity. For most riders, lessons are not required to get started. You simply pump the sail, hold on and go have fun while you learn. The location, wind quality, and beach crowd don’t matter as much, but you do need a little more wind to get riding when compared to kiteboarding.”

Wing foiler Amer Bathish
Credit: Marc Hoeksema

When first getting started, it is a killer workout, Vantol said, adding that it’s “kind of like doing planks while balancing on one foot.”

“Once you get the gist of it, it’s pretty mellow cardio-wise,” he said. “It does help to have good balance and core strength, though.

“Like windsurfing, once you get riding consistently, we recommend a harness line and waist harness to extend your ride time indefinitely.”

As far as lake vs. ocean wing foiling, there aren’t many differences, but there are distinct advantages, Vantol said. For one, freshwater is more refreshing. Two, there are no sharks, urchins or jellyfish to worry about.

“I feel like Lake Michigan is the perfect playground for wing foiling of every level,” Vantol said. “The waves we get are like a skate park, but not so overly powerful that they make riding them difficult on the hydrofoil.”

Marc Hoeksema on a hydrofoil board
Credit: Jason Goorman

Anywhere with a good breeze and access to water makes for a solid wing foiling spot. For new riders, Muskegon’s piers and Muskegon Lake provide excellent flat-water experiences that make learning easy, Vantol added.

As far as optimal learning age goes, Vantol said it’s really anywhere “from 8 to 80 years old.” “You need to be comfortable in the water and thinking clearly in critical situations,” he said. “Always plan for the worst, especially in windier conditions.

“For new riders, 17–22 knots of wind and flat water is ideal. It makes learning easy and non-threatening. Learning in too light of wind or wavy conditions makes it difficult even for experienced board riders.”

Niche goes mainstream

Throughout the years, MACkite has hosted many events, including one called King of the Great Lakes that welcomed riders from around the United States and Canada.

“MACkite quickly became a local authority on kiteboarding in West Michigan,” Johnson said. “Steve Negen’s passion for kiting and customer service led him to host an annual event known as the King of the Great Lakes.

“Somewhere around 2015, we began to think about the whole contest situation. While fun to watch, contests aren’t exactly inclusive, especially in such a niche sport. So, we flipped the script and billed the King of the Great Lakes as a kiteboarding demo event. That was a great move, and our guests appreciated the notion immediately.”

Credit: Marc Hoeksema

While the event’s status remains uncertain for 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, MACkite continues to ride a significant wave of interest, especially when it comes to wing foiling. Johnson estimated that eight out of every 10 calls the store receives is a wing foiling-related inquiry.

To get started, complete wing foiling kits start at $2,699, Vantol said.

“If you already own an SUP or windsurfer, you can add a wing for as little as $699 to get going without a hydrofoil,” he said.

MACkite offers a full selection of kiteboarding, wing foiling and electric hydrofoiling (efoiling) gear from dozens of the industry’s top brands. With its expansive product selection and focus on excellent customer service, the company’s eCommerce presence has grown from coast to coast and abroad, Johnson said.

Kiteboarder Pat Taylor
Credit: Marc Hoeksema

“Throughout the spring and summer, our guests can take advantage of West Michigan’s expansive sugar-sand beaches for our wide range of kiteboarding, wing foiling and efoiling lessons,” he said.

“We provide everything needed — just bring yourself and a smile. We’ll take care of the rest.”

Tips for beginning wing foilers

  • Be comfortable in the water. Know the area and its unique challenges.
  • Always have an exit plan. Typically plan for downwind travel. Never ride in offshore winds or near rip currents when you are learning.
  • Always use a board leash and wing leash. If separated from your board or wing, it will travel downwind faster than you can swim.
  • Ideally, learn to foil behind a boat or on an efoil before you try wing foiling. It makes learning a lot easier and more efficient. You can also baby step your way into wing foiling or wing sailing on a large SUP or windsurfer. It’s also a great way to get out on the water in less than 15 knots.

Featured image: Kiteboarder Blake Olsen

Credit: Marc Hoeksema