Monday, September 27, 2010
"When the waves turned the minutes to hours"
The Ashland Daily Press published an in depth story on the kayaker that died in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore on the 10th of September. It was researched and written by Julie Buckles, who many of you may have met at the last Inland Sea Society Kayak symposium in Washburn, WI. The Ashland paper is pay for view, but the gist of the article was that the the two guys launched from Little Sand Bay in deteriorating weather, heading for Sand Island's East Bay. People tried to discourage them but they launched anyway. The fellow that perished, Allen Kachelmyer from Scandia, MN, had a sail rig on his kayak and "according to NPS findings, Kachelmyer paddled away first. The friend hollered to him to wait up but for whatever reason, Kachelmyer never turned around". When the friend arrived at Sand Island and did not find Allen at the campsite, he borrowed a radio and contacted Coast Guard Bayfield shortly after 6pm. The Coast Guard, Wisconsin DNR, and NPS responded with air and sea assets, including two helos from Traverse City and a Canadian Coast Guard C-130. The kayak was found Friday night. The NPS and DNR searched until midnight when weather conditions had deteriorated severely. The Coast Guard searched all night with a 4am crew change. Kachelmyers body was found at 7:30am in Justice Bay on Sand Island. The autopsy determined that he died of hypothermia sometime between 5:30 and 6pm Friday evening, right about the time the Coast Guard was contacted.
There was a memorial service for Allen Sunday in Duluth. A more lasting memorial would be figuring out how to avoid tragedies like this in the future and the first step in that process is always an analysis of what went wrong. The second and much harder part is communicating that info to people paddling on Lake Superior, and the damn near impossible part is having them take it to heart. Once again small and not so small errors compound until its too late to backtrack. One of the old Finlanders near our hunting camp in the western edge of Bayfield Co. gave us some great advice on dealing with the red clay out our way. When you drive on those clay roads, he told us, drive in 2 wheel drive. When you got into trouble use four wheel drive to get the hell out of it, not to go in deeper. In this case a late start, weather that was deteriorating rapidly, a sail rig on the front deck, ignoring the advice of paddlers who had just come off the water, and, most significantly, taking off and not sticking with a paddling partner was the recipe for disaster. Once the kayak capsized we can only speculate but I would have to guess a roll would be nearly impossible with a wet sail rig on the front deck and that getting back in the boat in 3'-4' seas using a paddle float would be damn near impossible, assuming he had that gear aboard. Once in the water, no radio, no strobe, a dark wetsuit, and dark life jacket made it impossible for rescuers to see a man in the water in nasty low light conditions, even if they had been summoned in time.
It always seems to come down to having the tools, both the skills and the gear, to avoid life threatening situations on the water. Practicing skills, running through risk assessments, and having the right gear to help yourself out are the keys. Three of us (another good point; the old adage, 'when at sea, the number's three') paddled on Lake Vermillion this weekend. Although it's big, its an inland lake with a decent amount of traffic, lee shores, short crossings, and relatively safe. We were looking for a lunch spot when I landed and walked up to 3 guys wrenching on an old Mercury outboard at what looked like a resort, hopefully with a bar and grill. I had on my 'Lake Superior' life jacket and one of 'em asked me, with a smile, if I was on a commando raid. I explained that I usually wore this life jacket when touring on the big lake and that the knife, radio, tow belt, whistle, shoulder light, and bearing compass had all been used in the past couple of years. Silbs had a great post the other day about routines and standard operating procedures and I guess I agree. If things are done the same every time a person will have what they need when they need it. Its that simple. Its the skills and risk evaluation that is tougher, more complex, and learned from experience. As the masthead up above says, good judgment comes from experience and experience comes from bad judgment. We can only hope we don't pay so dearly for the bad judgment. I would also hope that when we attempt to communicate what we've learned to those who are about to repeat our bad judgment, that they are able to listen critically and evaluate what we have to say without the filter of preconceived notions, inflated ideas of their own skills, artificial deadlines, or macho bullshit. All the rangers I've spoken with that work the Meyers beach launch site say the same thing. When they try to talk to the guy in the 14' rec boat, cotton jeans, and no spray skirt about paddling out to the sea caves in building seas and 50F water,they invariably get something to the effect of, "Why are you hassling me? I know what I'm doing!".
I don't have the answer and I'm sure this is not the last kayaking fatality in the Apostles. We just need to keep plugging away, one paddler at a time. Clubs need to keep offering programs, the government agencies need to keep putting out safety info, and we need to keep talking. The Coast Guard out of the Sault St.Marie HQ launched Operation Paddle Smart around Labor Day and have a great brochure available. In a perfect world, the USCGS, the National Park Service, and the area kayakiing clubs could combine to really hammer this thing next spring. We also have a symposium coming up in Washburn next year. Sounds like a great learning and PR experience to me. All I know is that I don't want to write any more posts like this one. That's my goal.