Tuesday, September 11, 2007

A few weeks back I got an email from Gail Green, one of the co owners of Living Adventures, an excellent outfitter in Red Cliff, WI. I figured with the recent incident on Long Lake and Silbs encouraging a letter to the editor, that this was the perfect time to post it. This was in response to an email I'd sent asking if they were going to address the July hypothermia death in the Apostles that I'd referred to in yesterdays post. Gail and Grant sent the following letter to the Ashland Daily Press who printed it in its entirety. Its excellent stuff.


Sadness translated to frustration as we at Living Adventure became aware of details in the fatal kayaking accident that occurred at the Meyers Beach/Mawikwe Bay sea caves earlier this month.

One point of frustration is that with proper equipment, training and general awareness, it may have been preventable. Hindsight is clearly 20/20 and no one is immune to the powerful forces of nature and it’s mysterious lessons. But there is much one can do to prepare for a fantastic experience on Lake Superior by paying attention to safety issues. Another effect of sea kayaking accidents here and an additional point of frustration is that they further a bias held by some people against sea kayakers and once again all kayakers get stirred into the ‘dumb kayakers’ soup.

As a commercial sea kayaking outfitter located on the shore of Lake Superior and the Apostle Islands, we are extremely sensitive to the fact that the Lake is the boss and that Superior is not ‘just another lake up North’. In introductory remarks to guests paddling with us, we frame their experience with, “You are about to paddle on the world’s largest freshwater Lake, a National treasure; Lake Superior. The spirit and renewal gained from an adventure here are huge and conversely the consequences of not being prepared are also huge. Lake Superior is Coast Guard regulated, sailors worldwide respect the seaman who successfully navigates these waters, as much as any ocean on the planet”.

Visitors paddling with local commercial outfitters have the advantage of sharing and learning from their years of experience and judgment. Savvy non-local commercial outfitters running trips in the APIS send their highest level guides who have adequate previous experience in the Islands. Among other things, seasoned leaders are aware of basic principles of how to safely travel in groups on inter-Island crossings and how to be visible among motorized boat traffic.

As kayaking has grown in the Apostle Islands, so have the number of ‘no-kayakers’ (circle with the slash over a kayak) bumper stickers on local vehicles. Part of this attitude roots in the deep recesses of prejudice and is not the point of this writing. Another part is due to discourteous and unaware behavior from some sea kayakers. Captains, deck hands and crew of local commercial fishing boats, excursion boats and ferry boats are Living Adventure friends and neighbors and many of us have successfully navigated these waters side-by-side since the mid-eighties, when spotting a sea kayak in the Islands was a rare occurrence. We are constantly trying to bash the ‘dumb kayakers’ myth here and love it when service experts working on our facility drive in with one of these stickers, take the time to know us and check out our operation, and just might possibly be seen later in town with a notably blank spot on their bumper.

By far the greatest percentage of sea kayaking accidents here occurs from the private sector; i.e. those venturing out without guides and mostly unregulated by the Park. The Apostle Islands are now on the map as a world class destination for sea kayaking. Kayaker demographics have expanded from the occasional hard-core paddler into the general population and our sometimes ‘instant gratification culture’ where the frosting is expected without reading the directions and taking the time to prepare the cake. Certainly there are numerous very knowledgeable and highly skilled kayakers safely enjoying the Islands and marveling at this incredible place. But many other sea kayakers new to the Islands often do not have basic safety where-with-all to wear bright and appropriate clothing, paddle in tight groups in the crossings, pay close attention to weather and sea conditions, learn and practice deep water rescues and paddle sea kayaks that are designed for inland seas and oceans.


The training for our guides is rigorous and many first season guides do not achieve the level of skills, safety knowledge and leadership that we require to lead groups on our day trips to the sea caves. The Meyer’s road/Mawikwe Bay sea caves are at the same time the most heavily paddled area in the APIS and some of the most potentially dangerous paddling. Before our trips go out there we scrutinize the radar, near shore marine forecasts and regional weather.

Once guides have a certain level of proficiency, their next step is to go through a process of shadowing trips with senior guides where they work as assistants. Their education includes not only learning on-water skills and judgment but also details of the cultural and natural history of the area. Lastly, they have a final ‘check-out’ trip with a senior guide trainer who determines if they are ready to solo lead groups out there. When they have solid experience leading the day trips, they are ready to start training to lead our overnight trips into the Islands.

* Minimal safety gear a guide carries: vhf radio, cell phone, first aid kit, repair kit, hand held signal flares, sky rocket flares, whistle, mirror, extra dry clothing, extra food, spare paddle, towing belt.

* Minimal first aid certification: wilderness advanced first aid; most are wilderness first responders.

* Minimal sea kayaking instructor certification: American Canoe Association Basic Level Instructor Certification and most have additional instructor certifications.



* Anyone wishing to paddle the Meyers Road/Mawikwe Bay sea caves pays the $3 parking fee and launches out in their canoe, recreational kayak (may or may not have flotation), rubber raft, etc. with wet suits or not.

* To embark on an overnight trip into the Islands, paddlers from the private sector additionally need to go to the Park Service building and purchase a permit to camp.


In both cases of fatalities at the sea caves the paddlers were individuals from the private sector who were caught off guard by the rapid changes in weather and sea conditions. On both days, local commercial outfitters had either pulled off the Lake early in the day or not launched at all. To make the Park truly safer, the APIS needs to pay more attention to standards for the private sector and recognize and support local commercial outfitters for the service we offer them and visitors in the Park.

Gail Green / Grant Herman

Owners: Living Adventure Inc.


Ranger Bob said...

I've known Gail and Grant for years, and I am not surprised that they have written an eloquent and very perceptive analysis of the situation. I'd have no hesitation at all recommending a Living Adventures trip to my dearest family members: I know they run a top-notch operation, with client safety their first priority.

One comment which does leave me with mixed feelings, though, is "to make the Park truly safer, the APIS needs to pay more attention to standards for the private sector."

What are we talking about here? Proficiency tests? Gear inspections? Some sort of required certification for all kayakers?

Does anyone really want to see that happening?

As I have mentioned elsewhere, park rangers do not have the authority to stop visitors from venturing out on the lake, even when their experienced judgment says, "I'll be going out to rescue this guy very soon... or maybe recover his body." I personally would not want to find myself in that role, and I suspect most readers of this blog would feel the same way.

So what are we left with? Really, education is all we've got, and this has to be a joint effort, with governmental entities such as the park and the Coast Guard, fellow kayakers, the outfitters... heck, the B&B owners, all playing roles.

And still, even an intensive education program will not solve all problems. The NPS has had a ranger stationed at Meyers Beach every summer day for the last few years specifically for the purpose of promoting kayak safety, and it's my understanding that this ranger actually warned the victims in the June incident that it was unwise for them to go out, and they chose to disregard her.

That sort of thing happens all the time... like the fellow who pedaled a "water bicycle" out to Sand Island on a choppy day a week or so ago, despite strong advice against it. Sometimes people are determined to take their chances, and you can talk 'til you're blue in the face.

But Grant and Gail's larger point is quite correct. In my district ranger days, it was not the commercial outfitter trips that I worried about; it was the private parties that gave me gray hairs.

(And any biological researchers who might be on the lake, but that's a rant for another day.) ;)

DaveO said...

Standards and control are indeed the key questions. My libertarian bent would hope that 'enlightened self interest' would drive people to educate themselves enough to stay alive when they choose to attempt a new activity but that is apparently not the case. Education is the key and we need to get on the same page for that. I have some ideas to pursue after the paddle season ends but any and all feedback would be appreciated.

Iron Girl Nyhus said...

Hi. First time checking out your blog... a beginner kayaker. Very interesting post :)


DaveO said...

Its a great sport if you do it right. Two excellent clubs in the area for training, both linked to the blog. SKOAC and ISK.

Silbs said...

Wonderful letter and excellent commentary. When local yachties became angry with the behavior of (untrained) paddlers around the south shore harbor in Milwaukee, they started talking about new laws, regs and even flags on kayaks. I got myself a seat on the harbor safety commission where I was able to do what Gail is trying to do with her letter. We also got permission to post educational material on the Milwaukee Parks boards at the launch area. I agree, we have to "solve" this problem from within the paddling community.