Women at Camp Crystal Kai relax near one of the area’s signature destinations, the Cape Lookout Lighthouse. Photo: Charli Kerns

In a sport where many camps are designed to take experienced paddlers to the next level, Camp Crystal Kai is about helping female participants of all experiences define what adventure means to them.

"To me, what really makes the spirit of the camp is our ‘come as you are’ philosophy. We are committed to making stand up paddleboarding accessible and fun to women of all shapes, sizes, ages and skill level," Anna Levesque, camp co-organizer and leader, said.

Camp Crystal Kai is the collaborative brainchild of Levesque and outdoor fitness specialist Casi Rynkowski. Rynkowski had worked at the Crystal Coast several years ago and decided the location was perfect for an all-women's camp. After connecting with Levesque at Camp Samata (another female-focused experience) in Hawaii three years ago, their bond over inspiring women on the water prompted them to start more women's paddling retreats. Between Rynkowski's knowledge of and connections with the Crystal Coast and Levesque's experience with running/teaching paddling trips for women, Camp Crystal Kai was born.

The camp brands itself as a health and wellness standup paddling retreat for women to come together and learn different aspects of the sport, from the basics, to more advanced moves, to racing. The camp is set along North Carolina's beautiful, 85-mile Crystal Coast, home to azure water so clear you can easily see the leatherback turtles gliding by your board. It is also home to the Shackleford horses.

DNA tests trace the lineage of the 150 wild horses that live along the Shackleford Banks to the horses of the Spanish Conquistadors from over 300 years ago. The horses have enjoyed the protections afforded by Cape Lookout National Seashore in cooperation with the Foundation for Shackleford horses dedicated to maintaining the animals' way of life. One of the best ways to get to their island is by private boat or ferry running from Harkers Island, Beaufort and Morehead City. Captain. George Aswald of Island Express Ferry Service will give you a quick rundown and history of the horses on the way.

Camp Crystal Kai

Slowly paddling up to the Shackleford horses. Photo credit: Charli Kers

The horses were about as uninterested in us on our boards off the shore as we were fascinated by them roaming the island. And that was just one of many stops along our paddle excursion that day. The Cape Lookout Lighthouse and Keeper's Quarters, a.k.a. “The Diamond Lady," was built in the mid-1800 's to warn passing ships of the deceivingly shallow coastal waters. It stands 163 feet tall and is painted with a unique black and white diamond pattern to distinguish the directions north and south from east and west. The lighthouse usually opens in May and runs through September.

Paddling from to beach to beach was not as easy as it looked. Many of the women had spent the full week at the camp, which can be split into half weeks as well, and felt more than ready with the support of each other. According to one participant, Sarah Mak, that was part of the point with the camp.

"Anna and Casi create a space where you feel you can achieve and learn whatever your skill level," Mak said. The participants had the opportunity to paddle in conditions that were not necessarily the calm, glassy rivers that you see in online posts or magazines. Like that day of beach hopping, the women faced the wind, waves, currents, rain, and a race. Mak concluded, "They [Levesque and Rynkowski] never doubted us, so we didn't doubt ourselves. By the end of the week, we had all grown in ability and confidence, and we had grown together."

Camp Crystal Kai

Casi Rynkowski teaching stroke technique. Photo: Charli Kerns

The whole package at Camp Crystal Kai is not only about paddling on the water but also about developing a healthy lifestyle with it. Participants spent almost as much time off the water learning about and doing other activities such as sharing meals and talking nutrition, practicing yoga and seeing some of the unique and exciting features at the Crystal Coast. The retreat ended with a supportive group paddling during the fourth annual Crystal Kai Sup Cup.

The spirit of the camp also extended beyond even the sport itself. It was also about building community and celebrating the adventurous spirit in each other.

Future Women’s Events

Lead by Anna Levesque

Lead by Casi Rynkowski