Wednesday, August 24, 2011
Poor judgement at the sea caves. Again
I've written a number of posts on the decision to paddle or not to paddle and on the conditions around the mainland sea caves in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. It is well known that two paddlers died in very similar incidents there over the past few years, so well known that a group of federal and state entities and volunteer groups rounded up the money to install a real time wave observation station that's linked under the Lake Superior resources on the right of this very blog post. There is also a large sign at the top of the stairs warning of the conditions that can and frequently do occur in the Meyers Beach and mainland sea caves area. In a nutshell, there seems to be plenty of printed and online information out there plus the ace in the hole: there is a ranger stationed at the launch advising people on conditions at the time they are launching. I think former Vikings coach Denny Green framed the underlying problem best however. When asked what he thought of the criticism of his underachieving football team on the sports talk radio stations he replied,'The beauty of this country is that anyone can state their opinion. The other beauty of it is that I don't have to listen to it'. Unfortunately this is the attitude with some of the paddlers leaving for the caves. It is usually the guys (and I emphasize 'guys' here) in the 10' rec boats with cutoffs, Tshirts, and no spray skirt. This time was different however. It was 10 paddlers on a guided trip with longtime Bayfield outfitter Trek & Trail.
Check out the story in the Ashland Current for the basic facts of the story. Waves 2-3' and building and a ranger on the scene discouraging the party from launching were facts that are not in dispute. We don't know the skill level of the customers, what NOAA was saying on the radio, or how experienced the guides were but from my perspective the whole scenario just does not smell good. Typically experienced paddlers don't pay for the privilege of a guided day trip to the sea caves, they just saddle up and head out. This means the group were advanced beginners at best. If the guides were truly experienced and had that hard won 'local knowledge', they would know that with a west wind the bluebird, sun bathing weather on Meyers Beach at the launch would turn into those 2-3 footers once they got out past the wind shadow of Mawikwe Point. They also would know that those same 2-3 footers, maybe nice swells out past the point, or more likely building waves with the wind blowing the tops off them, would turn into a disorganized mess once they hit the sheer walls of the caves and bounced back out into the lake, clapotis/reflection wave conditions that would extend at least 300 yards out from the caves. There is a image, taken by the RTWOS camera during a September storm of a reflection induced eleven foot high square wave off the caves.
On guided trips the clients tend to trust the guides judgement because that's why they purchased the guided trip in the first place. They want to see the cool sights, learn a bit about the sport, and do so in a safe and controlled manner. It sounds like that trust was misplaced in this case. A similar incident involving a guided girl scout group from another state and a rapidly developing thunderstorm occurred a couple years ago but it was apparent that the 'guides' were from an inland environment and had minimal experience on the big lake. Not the case this time around. Reading the comments on the linked article and the one before it when the story came out are interesting. "Why should the taxpayers shoulder the burden of rescuing people that supposed professionals placed in danger?". "We should blame the guide service this time. Lives at risk is unacceptable. Suspend their license and fine them". " The clients did the responsible thing and paid to be taken out to the sea caves by professionals probably becuase they wanted a safer experience than going out alone. We can't put all of the blame the clients for being stupid or inexperienced. We CAN blame the guide service". "People who require rescue services out there should be billed for their stupidity". My personal favorite.....not!........"I think the government should take over the guide service like they did GM. Then everything would be better. Those private companies just take too many risks to make a buck".
Bill em for the rescue, fine em, stupid clients, etc. I'm sure this is not the end of this story, there will be more coming out in the next few weeks. Park officials are meeting with the owner of Trek & Trail today. It would be an interesting discussion to hear. I personally had an experience with the company back in 1997, when it was under a different owner, that had me questioning their decision making process but that's another post. I was in the same position as the eight clients were in this incident, an unconscious incompetent in the Lake Superior kayaking world, trusting the judgement and experience of the people I'd hired to make me better. It didn't quite turn out that way and it sounds like this trip didn't either. The attitude of the locals is summed up in this one last comment on the news story. "Dear kayaking tourists, thank you for bringing your tourist dollars into our area but please stop putting our locals at risk with your cocky attitudes towards Lake Superior". In this case the comment needs to be directed squarely at the two guides and perhaps the 'corporate culture' of the Bayfield tour outfitter. It will be both interesting and instructive as this thing plays out.