The Apostle Island National Lakeshore recently received the Department of Interior's Safety and Health Group Achievement Award. Only one group in the park service gets this award every year and Bob Krumenaker, the superintendent of the AINL, flew out to DC for the presentation on 6 May. You might wonder what feature in the park and what kind of safety effort would inspire the Dept of the Interior to award AINL this honor. After all, the Yellowstones Anti Geyser Scalding Initiative, Glacier's Grizzly Bear Tourist Eating Abatement Program, or even Big Bend's Drug Smuggler AK-47 Reduction Plan might be some things that come to mind that would win a safety award in the NPS. That is not the case however, because the award went for the efforts to protect kayakers from themselves at Meyers Beach and the mainland sea caves, a deceptively short two mile paddle to the northeast.
Two people have died and there have been innumerable close calls at the caves. I paddled there the day after the soccer player from UWEC, my alma mater, lost his life in the caves in 2004. The weather was pretty much the same as the day before, easy launch from Meyers Beach in the lee of Squaw Point (sorry, sorry, Mawikwe Point) and the full force of the northwest wind didn't hit until the approach to the caves. We were all experienced paddlers but decided that 200 yards was about as close as we wanted to get to the malestrom of clapotis waves bouncing off the cliffs. Unfortunately a lot of people don't have the experience to decide whether or not to go or what to do if they run into trouble. After the fatality in August of 2004 a sign was erected detailing the danger, a person was stationed there during peak usage times, and other efforts with volunteers and the Friends group are in the works. We experienced kayakers need to offer our insight to folks that we run into as well. I've written about it before, but I talked to a guy in shorts and flip flops, paddling a rented 12' rec boat with no spray skirt, who planned to venture out to the caves, solo, in 2' -3' seas. He insisted he 'knew what he was doing' so I suggested that we continue our discussion while standing in the lake. While I was explaining the need for and use of a paddle float and bilge pump, his lower legs were becoming more and more numb. I suggested a paddle on Bark Bay and his brain, spurred by his frozen lower extremeties, finally processed the information I was giving him and he agreed.
The Park Service can only do so much to protect people from themselves. The other problem is that kayaking is a lot like skiing. One person's challenging run is another person's boring cruiser. Skill levels vary wildly and, as we all know, its really fun playing in big waves.....if you know what you're doing. I think we need to keep spreading the word on these safety issues and work with the park to educate paddlers about the yin and the yang of paddling the caves. We all are painted with the same brush in the eyes of the public. 95 out of 100 people who walk down to Meyers Beach and see me with my drysuit, pfd, radio, and spray skirt standing next to the guy in the shorts and flip flops see the same thing; two kayakers. And the attitude is the same in the local bars. I heard a commercial fisherman disgustingly describe coming across a kayaker at dusk with no light and dark boat, clothes, and pfd, crossing from Bear to Devil's Island. I couldn't argue with the stupidity of what he saw but tried to tell him that we aren't all like that.
Congrats to the AINL folks for the safety award. And I haven't even touched upon the effort to keep knuckeheads from drowning their whole family as they head out to see the caves on unsafe and shifting ice in the winter. All I can say is have a great Memorial Day and paddle safe.