Thursday, June 9, 2011

Deja Vu off Sand Island

I normally enjoy an early morning of blogging with a cup of coffee but this morning I woke up feeling like I had a 9am appointment at the dentist for a root canal. Another death has occurred involving people attempting to paddle from Little Sand Bay to Sand Island. When a friend up north sent me the early reports yesterday morning I sat at my desk feeling sick to my stomach. Four young college age guys from southern Minnesota attempted to cross from LSB to Sand in building seas and icy cold Lake Superior water. A lack of awareness, improper and inadequate equipment, and once again bad decisions that build upon one another cost a young guy his life.

Like every other incident of this nature the imprudent decisions accumulate and build upon one another until overcoming them is not an option. The Finlanders up north tell you that when your truck gets stuck in 2 wheel drive, you put in into four wheel and get the hell out of there, you don't use the 4 WD to get yourself in deeper. Lack of training, lack of equipment like bilge pump & paddle float, spray skirts, bulkheads/flotation, or a VHF radio for instant communication, and a lack of local knowledge of the largest and potentially nastiest lake on planet earth all piled up until a bad outcome was about all that could happen. The other factor was likely the feeling of invincibility that all young guys have at that age. I know that mindset very well because I had it.

In 1975 in a plan eerily reminiscent of this ill fated kayak trip, a couple roomates and a buddy and I decided to go backpacking on Isle Royale. I was the 'experieneced' guy having been out there before. In reality I could barely take care of myself much less 3 other guy who said they had backpacked but had actually only managed a couple day hikes in the mountains with packs on their backs. We were dumped off at McCargo Cove in mid May for the hike back to Windigo with woefully inadequate food, cotton clothing, crappy rain gear at best, no insect repellent, and our invincible attitude that only 20 year old boys can have. I knew we were in trouble when the guys started bitching about how heavy their packs were about a mile in. They had of course brought way too much gear including a guitar and a fiddle, and had no idea what carrying them on their backs for 30 miles would entail. I also had to explain that if they fastened the hip belts on their packs and distributed some of the weight it might not feel so heavy. The trip was pretty much a disaster with blisters, insect bites, near hypothermia from soaked cotten, and far too few calories (whiskey has very few calories and a Mountain House 'meal for 4' back then was really designed for four 10 yr old kids) had us limping into Windigo looking more than bedraggled. Everything that could have gone wrong did but other than the possiblity of stumbling off a cliff the stakes were far, far lower than trying to cross 3 miles of open 47F degree water with 50 miles of fetch.

So again I ask, what the hell can we do to prevent this? There are blunt and graphic signs at Meyers Beach about the dangers and the example of the fellow that perished there a few years back. Rangers ask questions and warn paddlers of the dangers. The Coast Guard has a great new brochure on the dangers of paddling the lake. Clubs conduct training sessions and we kayakers will all be answering questions and discussing the situation at work today. One of my fellow instructors got a call from the NPS last fall asking him if his October trip went OK. Maybe they checked an online phone directory or used his license plate to get his number. The authorities are acutely aware of the issue. There is a ton of info out there and a bunch of people willing to provide it. The problem is whether the people shoving off into Gitchee Gumee will listen. I've had Meyers Beach rangers and volunteers tell me that people have told them to 'quit hassling me' in offended tones as they asked questions and inquired about their preparedness. "I know what I'm doing" is a phrase I've heard when a cursory glance at the paddler and their gear tells me that they in fact have no GD idea what they are doing as they stand at the edge of brink, Lake Superior, and look out over the water. I am almost 100% certain that the 21 year old DaveO would have insisted that he knew what he was doing and defiantly insisted that he quit being hassled.

We had a social paddle last night with 3 of the folks that will be teaching our intro course on Saturday. The 'graduation' from that course will be a trip to Sand Island on the last weekend of June, the very same route as the 4 fellows on the Wednesday trip. We plan on explaining and dissecting what happened, how we would handle a similar situation, the built in safeguards and fail safe features of a properly equipped Lake Superior trip, and the the 'weakest link' concept of a paddle expedition. It's too late for the young guy from southern Minnesota and I think that the entire Great Lakes paddling tribe extends its sympathies and condolences to the family and friends of young Mr. Dammen. We need to vow 'never again' and redouble our efforts to make people aware of the possible ramifications of venturing out that big, nasty, unpredictable, wonderful, and awe inspiring body of fresh water, Lake Superior.


Matt K said...

Great post on a horrible tragedy. I too wondered what the ranger's role was in all this. They've always been great about knowing who was where and keeping an eye peeled. Inexperienced kayakers shoving off in small craft advisories would certainly raise the hackles of anyone, much less the park service. Possibly a case of stubbornness or maybe just letting adventurers be adventurous.

DaveO said...

The poor guy was a twin and his brother is one of the three that made it. I don't know why, but that just makes it twice as bad and twice as frustrating for me.