Thursday, September 30, 2010

Search and rescue. Without the search

The Apostles were not the only place on the big lake where kayakers were in trouble this month. A week after the tragedy off Sand Island, another search and rescue was performed off Michipicoten Island west of Wawa, ON. A couple in a double capsized in 6' seas near the island. The difference is that they both were successfully rescued when they activated their 406 MHz personal locator beacon.

It sounds like the same air assets that were in the AINL were deployed just a week later in very similar conditions. The Canadian Coast Guard C-130 located the two people and a US Coast Guard helicopter pulled them out of the water. Its great to see such cooperation between the two countries that border Gitchee Gumee, cooperation that's driven by the ancient law of the sea regarding mariners in distress. It would be great if we could work together as closely in the effort to keep crap out of the lake as in the effort to haul people out of the lake. It looks like the PLB was activated around 1pm and both paddlers were on the helicopter at 4pm. Water temp was about 55F.

It sounds like the folks were veteran paddlers, out on a month long trip. Having the PLB was an excellent idea and having it where it could be readily accessed in 6 foot rollers showed even more foresight and planning. An interesting side note was the items that stayed dry after being submerged for 4 days. Our friends at Naturally Superior in Wawa (a place that every Lake Superior afficianado must have on their short list) had the CD Libra double wash up on their beach. The Coast Guard doesn't give a damn about your kayak when they haul you out of the lake so it was lucky the boat showed up in a convenient spot. Every dry bag and double zip locked item was soaking wet. Only 3 containers stayed dry. An Otter box type container from Outdoor Products, a Storus dry pouch, and one of the those cheap plastic Coghlans match containers with the O ring. You can get the full report on Naturally Superiors blog here.

Its great to see that the paddlers got rescued but not so great that they were out in conditions that necessitated them being rescued. Once again that mentality of a good pool player, not just taking the easy shot but setting up to sink 3 or 4 balls, is needed when paddling on Lake Superior. Those folks were lucky. From the accounts it would seem that they were in the water for 3 hours. It doesn't say what they were wearing, but the poor fellow in the AINL perished from hypothermia in under two hours while wearing a 3mm wetsuit. The paddlers off Michipcoten made their luck however, with good preparation. As it says in the article in the Wawa paper, a PLB or EPIRB can take the search out of search and rescue.

As a side note, we're off to Duluth this weekend to help son 1stLtO get married to MsE from Pipestone, MN. Like many of us, Gitchee Gumee lured them both back from beautiful Queens, NY to get hitched on the shores of Superior. I'm anticipating a flawless weekend, although the car won't know what to do when its rolling down that long hill into Duluth without a couple boats on its roof.

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.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A quick football post

Those of you who know me well are expecting this football post to be gloating about the wonderfully inverse records of our neighboring arch rival NFL teams, an ode to the South Dakota Coyotes, or maybe some comment about Jim Thome being far and away the most popular and productive over 40 pro athlete in the state. I would never do that. Instead it's a short commentary on how much big college and pro football experiences just plain suck compared to D III. This was hamnered home once again by the annual trip to Clemens Stadium to watch St Johns play Concordia.

The sunny fall afternoon began with parking in a remote lot. We got to choose between a half mile walk through the arboretum to the stadium or a bus ride. We took the walk, over the creek and along the lake and meadow. We arrived at the stadium, which is almost as scenic as the arboretum and is the only D III stadium named to SI's top ten dream stadium list. We paid seven bucks (!?) to get in and the VOR got me a really good brat with kraut for $2.50. We had brought our folding chairs since SJU seems to realize that not everyone wants to cram their asses into a 18" wide seat next to the former high school football player that's ballooned up to 375#. We set up in the shade under some red pines and kicked back to watch the game. It went surprisingly fast. No jerk with long orange gloves on the sideline with the power to stop play by crossing his arms for a TV timeout. I wandered to the bathroom after a touchdown, made a quick pit stop, and they had kicked off and ran two plays by the time I got back. In a college division one or pro game we would have only been through 4 of the 8 commercials by then. The VOR, not a huge football fan, headed to the bookstore and manuscript library after the first quarter. She was allowed out of the stadium with no hand stamp, restrictions, or hassle of any kind and returned at half time. Then we took a walk.

Yup, we strolled down on to the field and circumnavigated the game. No security guys telling us it was restricted, no clowns walking around with those big 'special passes' around their necks acting like big shots, and no NFL style paranoia that a fan might get too close to the team. We were right on the sidelines and I was able to get those great shots like only the accredited photographers get in the big time games. The guys in the image below are just regular guys that found a great place to plop down and watch some football.

The kids in the next image are waiting for the extra point to be kicked. They catch the ball since there is no big net to keep the ball away from the riff raff, and then the lucky kid that caught it runs it back to the ref. Imagine that.

Plus I wasn't forced to listen to the innane 'cover 2', 'wildcat formation', 'empty backfield' BS that's all over any football broadcast. And no replay or replay officials! No video of some sap staring into a TV monitor with a hood over him, to see if him and his crew FU'ed on the call. The game was completed in just over two hours. I bought another dessert brat and we headed home.

The next day was another glorious fall day, a beautiful Sunday. I loaded up the boats and met the VOR and the IrishPirate on Square Lake, the clearest lake in the metro area and site of Square Lake Regional Park. Other than a group of scuba divers (yeah, its that clear) we were the only ones there. The only people at Square Lake Regional Park. One guy was fishing and a pontoon made a slow sweep as we left but that was it. I can only imagine people with their asses glued to the hard blue seats at the Metrodome or their Lazy Boy at home, 'angsting' over the Purple and their veteran quarterback that didn't need to go to training camp, as they choked against the Miami Dolphins. We paddled a bit, I tipped over a few times, and I didn't know whether to be happy that we had that beautiful lake to ourselves or sad that so many pathetic humanoids were watching pro football. I do know that I'll be heading north for a paddle trip with the VOR and the Mayor this weekend, and can only hope that the first come/first serve campsites on Lake Vermillion are typically favored by NFL fans. I really enjoy the seclusion.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Don't ignore the little stuff

We kayakers tend to look for and photograph the large, sweeping, Ansel Adams-like vistas and panoramas. I'm as guilty or maybe guiltier than most as evidenced by the photos that show up on this blog. Sometimes we just need to get down on our bellies, crank up the macro lens on the camera, and check out the tiny elements that help make up those sweeping and colorful panorama shots that we all seem to love. One of the tiny pieces of flora that add tons of color to those wide angle shots are the multiple varieties of lichen that cling to the rocky shores of the Canadian shield along the north shore of Gitchee Gumee. I was introduced to, and made more familiar with these small organisms on a kayak trip to Devils Island last season by none other than Professor Lichen himself.

Our tri state group rendezvoused in an impressively coordinated mid lake meeting between York and Bear Island. The VOR become acquainted with some of these folks from Iowa and Nebraska on a womens trip the year before. This Apostles trip had been hatched at a Chinese restaurant in Madison when we met the guys during Canoecopia. After intensive fact finding at the Crystal Corner Bar, I may add. We learned that Professor L would be joining the group and that not only would we be able to pick his brain for lichen knowledge but that a coffee table book on lichens was soon to be published.

Apparently places like Devil's Island, Isle Royale, the Susie Islands, and the small archipelago of Islands we call the Sauna Islands are cold enough for most of the year that species of lichens normally found much farther north flourish. They really are amazing when you look at them up close and these tiny organisms are able to survive what Lake Superior throws at them over the four seasons of the year.

One puzzling thing that we saw last year and again this year, was a pool of standing water on a rock where the algae or whatever it is in the water, is blood red. Last year I was accused of cleaning a lake trout in the little rock basin and I don't think my denials were believed. This year we found the same thing and never even got a whiff of a fish. An ID of the mystery algae or whatever it is, would be welcome.

Admittedly I did not gain a ton of specific knowledge. A lack of interest in Latin names, a general mental block when it comes to complex scientific relationships, and the presence of Heidi, our favorite lighthouse volunteer, resulted in only a rudimentary overview of the subject. Basically, I don't know my Xanthoria elegans from my Aspicilia vitellina. My fellow kayakers and I were amazed that, after following Heidi up to the top of the Devils Island light with its intact Frensel lens, we spotted Professor L prostrate on the rocks below, checking out a rare lichen species with his magnifying loop. Now that's focus and dedication!

Enjoy the images. While not as spectacular as the ones in Deep Nature, they are pretty representative of what a person can experience on Superiors north shore. I think a moss may have slipped in there as well, but as I said, I ain't no expert. Its amazing what you can find by spending a little time on your belly.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Another 'Annual Fall Trip'

Since 2001, I've headed out on a kayak trip with some cronies the week after Labor Day. This is the perfect week because kids are in school, most adults have resigned themselves to putting their noses to the grindstone for the next few months, the weather is still decent, and the mosquitoes and black flies have pretty much checked out for the year. This years trip, like last years, was to the island group between the US/Canadian border and Thunder Bay, ON. Also like last years trip, we did not see another kayaker on the water and only ran into people at the Wray Bay dock and sauna on the very northeast tip of Thompson Island.

It was a pretty uneventful trip, with some flat water, some big water, warm days, cold nights, and a pretty laid back itinerary. The scenery is spectacular and this year, unlike last year, Isle Royale was clearly visible and kept us company less that 20 miles to the southeast. Thompson Island is a miniature, skinny replica of Isle Royle and lies parallel to it along the Canadian coast. The lead image in the post was the end of a very large rainbow that started on the mainland and arced all the way to Isle Royale, viewed from south shore of Thompson. I've never seen anything like that and we couldn't figure out what it was until we turned around and saw the start of the giant rainbow on the mainland. We even got a nice sunset or two as well.

One very nice perk along the way was the very lovely sauna in Wray Bay. I believe its on crown land and the boaters from Thunder Bay hauled the materials out to build it, along with an ingenious dock set up for larger boats. The deal is that all can use the sauna if you pay with a bit of sweat equity. Saw some logs, split them, and pump the water buckets full. I've heard the complaint that kayakers roll in, use the wood and water, and then blissfully paddle off. We made damn sure we had the folding saw and splitting wedges, filled the water buckets, and then used the broom to sweep out the changing area. Things work really well if everyone does that and it makes we kayakers look like equal contributors to a lovely spot and fine amenity.

About the same time the tragedy in the Apostles was unfolding on Friday night, we were listening to Environment Canada tell us that rain would begin at dusk with 20-25mm (that's an inch folks) expected and winds shifting to the southeast with 25-30 knot velocity and waves 1.5 to 2 meters. The GreenThumbChef, stepping in for the VoiceOfReason as we boys fantasized about surfing to the car on 6 footers in the morning, said that packing wet gear, making breakfast in the rain, and roller coastering to the take out just didn't sound like that much fun. We menly men were a bit reluctant but when the additional concept of driving to Grand Marais, booking a cheap motel, and having a couple beers at the Gunflint was added, the idea became much more attractive. That's exactly what we did.

The next morning the rain and wind had arrived as predicted from the east south east, and the BadHatter and I went out and made sure we could roll in the wind and 2' to 4' rollers. Its always a confidence builder if you can practice a skill in the conditions the skill is likely to be used in rather than in the flat calm lake 5 miles from your house. We had the perfect bailout as well because if we screwed up we would blow right in the harbor mouth and be planted literally on the doorstep of the Gunflint, a short stroll across the street from the landing beach. It was also decent surfing as the waves curled around the breakwater and stacked a bit, making for a few nice rides. It was a very nice end to a very nice week.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Kayaker dies in the Apostles

On the drive down the north shore of Lake Superior, returning from our annual fall kayak trip, I heard about a search for missing kayaker in the Apostle Islands. I was heading to Gurney anyway to meet up with the VOR, Pod, and the Gurney Granny, and altered my route to hit Meyers Beach, Red Cliff, and Bayfield. I talked to some folks and got a bit of info on what had happened.

Two guys from Minnesota, one with his own boat and the other with a rented boat, got caught between Sand and York Islands in a stiff northeast wind. They became separated and the fellow in the rented boat reported his companion missing. The rotomolded sea kayak with all its gear in it was found and then much later, I don't know how long but the paper reported Coast Guard helicopters from Traverse City and a Canadian C-130 from Winnipeg were involved in the search, the paddlers body was found. The man was wearing a life jacket and a wetsuit and was found in Justice Bay, just north of the Sand Island sea caves.

I don't know what to say. I'm sure more info will come out. The fact that an accident like this could occur in August with warmer water temps only illustrates once again the respect that this body of water needs to be given. We pulled out of the Sauna Islands a day early due to a forecast of rain, gale force winds veering to the southeast, and waves 1.5 to 2 meters from the Canadian forecasters. I hope as more info is made available, this accident can be used for constructive learning. For now I guess its time for condolences to friends and family and thanks to the folks who participated in the search.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Kayak or canoe?

One last post before heading off on the annual week long fall kayak trip with the usual suspects. This year will be a return to the Sauna Islands, the small archipelago between the US/CAN border and Thunder Bay, ON. No amenities like picnic tables, fire rings, bear boxes, or outhouses, and that can be refreshing at times. The other refreshing thing is that no electronic devices, other than the marine band transceiver, will be in the mix. It's a good time to withdraw from the Information Society, an annual withdrawal that has had me out on Isle Royale for both Nixon's resignation and 9/11, two events which could not possibly be impacted in the least by my knowing or not knowing about their occurrence. My friend Chuck up in St Cloud, MN sent me the following excerpt, which addresses almost perfectly the change in how we deal with information since the internet tsunami hit us.

George Dyson is a futurist, historian, and kayaker. He has written a number of books including Darwin Among the Machines and Baidarka. I've not read either but have them on order, mainly beacuse the quote Chuck sent me, below, which seems to be right on the money:

In the North Pacific ocean, there were two approaches to boatbuilding.

The Aleuts (and their kayak-building relatives) lived on barren,

treeless islands and built their vessels by piecing together skeletal

frameworks from fragments of beach-combed wood. The Tlingit (and their

dugout canoe-building relatives) built their vessels by selecting entire

trees out of the rainforest and removing wood until there was nothing

left but a canoe.

The Aleut and the Tlingit achieved similar results - maximum boat /

minimum material - by opposite means. The flood of information unleashed

by the Internet has produced a similar cultural split. We used to be

kayak builders, collecting all available fragments of information to

assemble the framework that kept us afloat. Now, we have to learn to

become dugout-canoe builders, discarding unneccessary information to

reveal the shape of knowledge hidden within.

I was a hardened kayak builder, trained to collect every available

stick. I resent having to learn the new skills. But those who don't will

be left paddling logs,not canoes.

When I used to write history term papers in college, I would scour the library and talk to people in an attempt to gather as much info as I could so I could cull it down and condense it into a readable and concise document. I did the same thing when researching my dads WWII service in the 9th US Army Air Force. These days it's more like picking blueberries. We selectively search for the largest, juiciest, and most perfect berries and leave the rest. There is so much information, much of it worthless crap (with a lot of the 'fertilizer' being located on blogs, I must admit) that the main activity and effort has switched from discovery to culling.

But this week the only discovery will be through my senses and the only culling may be those very blueberries I talked about. The brain will clear, the fingers and thumbs will wrapped around a fine basswood paddle shaft rather than blundering across a keyboard, and the evenings will be spent looking at my friends rather than a screen. I'm packed and ready and I can barely wait.