After a great week on Lake Superior its tough to go back and revisit the tragedy that occurred in June. I've talked to a lot of folks since then including the couple that notified the authorities, the Superintendent of the park, and the Coast Guard at Great Lakes HQ in Cleveland. I hope I can help fill in some of the blanks and answer some questions in peoples minds. Here is the story as I understand it.
A couple from the Twin Cities had arrived at Meyers Beach that Friday mid morning to paddle out to the sea caves. They took a look at the lake and decided it was too rough and that seas were building and that they would hike instead. They walked up the cliff top trail approximately two miles, just past the deep cleft in the rocks about 50 yards east of the start of the caves. The time was about 12:40pm. They noticed an inflated paddle float in the water and weren't too alarmed since the husband often used his paddle float under his thighs to keep his legs from falling asleep in his boat. Then they noticed an empty blue and white kayak and a floating life jacket. It was at that point that they spotted an arm through the life jacket and panic set in. They began to yell and scream to get someones attention but no one was around. Cell phone service is non existent in that area and the husband decided to run back the two miles to the ranger at Meyers Beach. At this point they noticed the second empty kayak. The wife stayed on the cliff to keep an eye on the boats and the body and also to attempt to locate the second kayaker. As luck would have it, the Coast Guard was at the Cornucopia marina and had just gotten underway when they received the call from the NPS. They arrived at the sea caves at roughly 1:15 pm and picked up the first victim. They asked the wife if she could see anything from the cliff and she told them she thought she heard something down below among the rocks. The Coast Guard then located and picked up the second victim using a line because the reflection waves made conditions too rough to get close to the cliffs. The first victim, who had been face down in the water for approximately an hour, was airlifted to Duluth. The second victim, who was conscious but incoherent, was taken to the Ashland hospital. The first man, a fellow from Brule, WI and an experienced canoeist, was pronounced dead at the Duluth hospital. The second man, also from Brule and a guy with some kayak experience, was released from the Ashland hospital.
An accident like this tends to bring out lots of emotions and opinons. Check out Adam Bolonsky's blog which has an excellent description and analysis of a similar accident on the east coast. Especially poignant is the letter from the guy who survived when his buddy didn't make it. I spoke with Bob Krumenaker, the Superintendent of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore to get his thoughts and find out some of the comments he has heard about kayakers since the accident. First of all there is the power boaters perception of kayakers. They tend to think we are responsible for most of the campsite and dockside litter, that we try to be invisible with dark colored boats, pfd's, and jackets, and that kayakers have a holier than thou attitude about both our camping ethic and especially our mode of propulsion. There is also a not undeserved perception among the locals that we show up in the area with a twenty dollar bill and one pair of underwear and don't change either the whole time we are there. He also told me that even though there have been two fatalities in the past 3 years (pleasure boaters pointed out that there had been none in the park until the 'kayaking craze' began) there has been no move to regulate kayaking any further. He did say however, in response to my regulation question that, "We are not contemplating anything like that at this time but your instincts are good. People tend to not blame the person whose actions caused the accident but to blame us for allowing them to perform the activity in the first place". I also talked to CPO Matt Schofield, the Coast Guard PR officer at the Great Lakes HQ in Cleveland. He told me that the Commandant of the Coast Guard is lobbying for testing and licensing of ALL watercraft operators. Chief Schofield's comment was,"Learn to operate your boat. The 'it will never happen to me' burns more people every year. And wear the life jacket! You can't set foot on a USCG vessel without a life jacket on". Nothing new or earth shattering but lots of people haven't figured it out.
So, as VI Lenin asked in 1902, "What is To Be Done?". Keeping the sport safe without stupid and arbitrary regulations, coexisting with other folks using the waters, and generally behaving like reasonable human beings are all admirable goals. I think one of the keys is dialogue. I plan on talking with Mr Krumenaker again as well as the USCG guys in Bayfield to get their opinions on kayak safety. Then maybe the area clubs and outfitters can pull something together collectively. Also, when you land on an island with a dock, stroll over and talk to the power boaters and sailors. We all love the water. Don't just ignore them and look superior as thoughts of carbon footprints swirl through your politically correct brain. And pull that wallet out when you're in town. I can highly recommend a gin and tonic followed by a South Shore Brown Ale and a fresh whitefish basket at Morty's Pub in Bayfield when you come off the water. And there are lots of good supplies and eats at Ehlers Store in Cornie. You might even learn something chatting with the staff and other customers.
We not only need to paddle safe but paddle smart. Being a good ambassador of our sport can only bring postive results in the long term. Lets go for it!