Spring Lake's Ken Steigenga grew up playing hockey with the older brother of Grand Haven native Dan Bylsma. Nearly every summer, Steigenga hosts the current Pittsburgh Penguins coach and former Stanley Cup champion aboard his charter fishing boat, Reel Pursuit.
Steigenga was just as thrilled to welcome some other special guests aboard his boat while fishing on Lake Michigan on Wednesday — a child who has fought and defeated cancer.
Nine year-old Tyler Kremer of Grand Rapids, who was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia at the age of four, hauled in an 11-pound king salmon around 8 a.m., and the smile remained on his face the rest of the morning as he reeled in two more nice kings with a little assistance from Steigenga during the ninth annual Tri-Cities Kiwanis Salmon Fishing Tournament. The event benefits St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., the premier institute in the country in treating children with cancer and other life-threatening diseases.
Kremer had to remain in isolation nearly all of last summer due to his immune system being wiped out from chemotherapy and radiation treatments to fight the disease.
"It's a lot for a kid his age to go through," said his father, Jim Kremer, an EMT with Alpine Township Fire and Rescue. "Tyler loves to swim. He's an absolute fish in the water, but he couldn't go in the pool all summer, while his older brother could. It was tough."
But Wednesday, not only did Tyler get to play hooky from a day of third grade, he reeled in some bragging rights over his brother Adam with his impressive catch of fish.
Kremer is one of the lucky ones. He has made a complete recovery since undergoing a bone marrow transplant at Helen DeVos Children's Hospital in Grand Rapids just over a year ago. Today, he's cancer free.
"It's a big blessing," Jim Kremer said.
Tyler, as well as 9 year-old Niko Span of Spring Lake, another guest on the boat, were busy bodies throughout the morning, often informing Steigenga of a "big one" on the screen of his fish finder. Kremer was able to claim the largest — a king salmon that was estimated to weigh about 13 pounds.
"I love to see kids who love to fish and carry it on with them as they get older," said Steigenga, who operates the charter with his son, Cpt. Jason Steigenga. "That's good stuff."
Reel Pursuit was one of 23 local charter boats who participated in the tournament. Around 11 a.m., the guests on board, which also included St. Jude's marketing representative Laura Thero, had eight fish in the cooler — seven kings and a steelhead.
The tournament's grand admiral, Earl O'Brien, who developed the idea of a fishing tournament nine years ago, said every boat in the tournament was sponsored by a local business, and other outside donations helped bring the total raised for St. Jude's to over $30,000. In its nine years of existence, the tournament has generated more than $300,000.
The Kiwanis Club is a huge help, O'Brien said, as their small army of volunteers ensures the tournament runs smoothly. All the guests involved are treated to plenty of perks, including donuts in the morning, hot dogs for lunch, and for the cancer survivors, numerous prizes.
Soon after he stepped out of Reel Pursuit, Kremer had an Olympic-style medal around his neck, proclaiming him as a "salmon fishing champion." Like the rest of the prizes awarded in a post-fishing ceremony, the medals were presented to the children thanks to community donation.
"You really want these kids to feel special, and that helps," O'Brien said. "Again, the community support for this is simply amazing. If you've got a good reason to raise money, the people in this community will embrace it."
For the first time, O'Brien has added a second tournament to the schedule, with the July 11 event benefiting Helen DeVos Children's Hospital.