Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Kayak tragedy off Pigeon Point

I was alerted by my friend Bryan in Grand Marais that a kayakers body had been recovered off Pigeon Point, the narrow, rocky piece of land that juts out in to Lake Superior and forms the boundary between the US and Canada.  It's an area I've paddled many times and the masthead image on this blog is of the VOR paddling off Pigeon Point in a dissipating fog just about this time of year.  What gave me an uneasy, funny feeling hearing about the situation was the fact that the Canadian Coast Guard had responded to an PLB signal.  The signal came in around 9:30am on Sunday and the recovery was made at around 11:30.  This meant that the the typical pattern of a western Lake Superior kayaking fatality was not in play.  No jeans and a T shirt, rec boat,wet suit missing or in the rear hatch, missing spray skirt, or underestimating the conditions.  A PLB meant a prepared paddler that had backup for their backup and was most likely experienced with the big lake.  Frankly there are not all that many of those folks out there and given symposiums, clubs, and events like Canoecopia, that chances that I knew the person were significantly better than 50-50.  I checked the northland papers at least ten times over the course of the past couple days with more and more of a sinking feeling each time I looked. I even emailed my friend Travis up in Grand Portage and he had heard nothing.  The feeling I had was eerily similar to feelings when my youngest son was a Humvee gunner in Iraq.  I'd read of a convoy ambush, not every one, just once in awhile, and I'd get nervous as hell and go a little crazy trying to find out more information.  It's a bad feeling and I recalled that bad feeling as the day dragged on yesterday.  When the name of the paddler was released, Robert Weitzel from Middleton, WI it didn't click with me.  That is until I got the email from BearBoxSteve asking me if I'd heard that 'Bob from Madison, the guy with the Greenlander Pro that we met up at the ISS in Washburn' had died up on the border.  It clicked immediately.  I remembered Bob instantly and the bad feeling got worse.

As BBS put it in his email, he was the kind of guy you could talk to for 5 minutes and figure out he would be great on your week long Gitchee Gumee paddle trip.   He had good gear, was safety conscious to the point of installing a foot pump in his boat, and was very fit and tuned in.  He was a Wisconsin boy, 57 years old, paddled an Explorer as his expedition boat, had a hard chine Brit boat to play in, loved the Greenland stick, and wrote a blog about his paddling experiences.  That of course, is an exact and precise description of the fellow plunking away on the keys, working on this difficult post.  Sobering.  Very, very sobering.  There but for the grace of God go I. Bob did the Nigel/Doug Devil's Island paddle at the ISS last year along with a number of friends including LoneRangerRob and my buddy Rick from south of Rockford.  He was a strong paddler and very fit and prepared.  The trip he was on was a fund raiser for an organizaton called Big City Mountaineers, an organization that provides at risk kids with an outdoor experience and many times a second chance.

We may never know what happened.  His last post was dated Thursday and he talked about enjoying a cup of coffee in the Java Moose in Grand Marais, MN.  He would have paddled up the north shore past Grand Portage, through the spectacular Susie Islands, and around Pigeon Point, possibly headed toward the border checkpoint at the river bridge, which he had alluded to.  We have no clue to where he might have camped Sunday night but it could have been Grand Portage or even Hole in the Wall. My guess on gear from looking at Bob's stuff at the ISS would be drysuit, EPIRB, new radio, good pfd, and all the proper gear.  The reports said 30mph wind and 42F water but Bryan did some checking and surmised SW winds, maybe not that strong, with waves 2-4'.  It's a remote location, a very solid hour plus paddle no matter where you launch from, and there are no rescue resources close at hand.  Even with proper gear if you don't have any fellow paddlers the margin of error in that part of the lake is razor thin. 

I wish I would have known him better, other than a quick sandwich at a picnic table in Washburn.  This is something we are all going to need to get our heads around. I plan on very carefully and deliberately evaluating my skill level, preparedness, and comfort in different paddling conditions that I may encounter. This will be discussed this weekend at Little Sand Bay.  I also need to evaluate my solo paddles and the progression if things go bad.  In Bob's case the escalation from self rescue to companions to boaters in the area to professional rescue was short circuited directly from self to the pros.  We all need to think about how comfortable we are with that scenario, very common on the big lake.  My heartfelt condolence go out to friends and family, small consolation given their loss.  The fact is that with a community focused guy like Bob it is a collective loss on a number of levels.  Plan, prepare, carefully think ahead like a good pool player, and paddle safely.  We owe it to ourselves, Bob, and the paddling community as a whole.


11 comments:

Dale Kaufman said...

Thank you for your thoughtful words. I am a co-worker and good friend of Bob Weitzel. We were going to do the BCM trips next summer; he with the boys, me with the girls. I will pass along your blog to our other grieving co-workers. It was so nice.

Bill Burton said...

I camped next to Bob and paddled with him at ISS last summer. I'm glad I met him, wish I had known him better. My deepest sympathy to his loved ones and the many young people whose lives he touched. This is indeed a huge loss. ~Bill Burton

xtremewriting said...

Sorry to hear about Bob. My thoughts are with you, his friends, and family.

RoyM said...

I too, only knew him as "Bob from Madison"

Very Sad:{ :{ :{

shadit said...

I did not know Mr. Weitzel personally, but he was my daughter's guidance counselor at Glacier Creek Middle School. From what I hear, your impression that he was "the kind of guy you could talk to for 5 minutes and figure out he would be great on your week long Gitchee Gumee paddle trip" is spot-on.

The school district contacted all the parents of the school and conveyed:

There likely will be a story in this week's Middleton Times-Tribune. The Wisconsin State Journal and at least one local TV station have also contacted us and will likely be running an article or information regarding Mr. Weitzel's death today or Thursday.

Best wishes to his family and the multiple communities who are feeling a loss right now.

RoyM said...

I hate to say this...but I am struggling with this....I worked with him last year, but never had enough time to get his balance brace or roll where I would have wanted...He got too cold before we succeeded.....very sad....rethinking teaching

Unknown said...

Bob Weitzel was known to me as Mr. Weitzel. He was my middle school guidance counselor from 1998-2001.

In his office, there was a picture of him, surrounded my jungle leaves, with 2 African children. During a visit to his office (I had issues as a pubescent, but who didn't?) he saw me staring at it, and told me it was from his time in the Peace Corps. I'm not sure if I had ever heard of the Peace Corps at that point in my life, but I knew I liked the sound of it. I went home and yahoo searched (come on, it was 2000) the Peace Corps. Using a slow as molasses, won't load a picture unless you have about an hour to spare, Netscape web browser, I pulled up the Peace Corps website and I was hooked. From that day in Mr. Weitzel's office, at the age of 12, until the age of 23, joining the Peace Corps was what I wanted to do.

During my interview to get into the Peace Corps, and talking with fellow volunteers, when asked the question, “Why do/did you want to join the Peace Corps?” I never knew what to say. Yes, I wanted to help people, I wanted to expand my mind beyond the confines of the American border, and I wanted to make a difference. But I still never seemed to have a real answer besides, “I’ve just always wanted to join the Peace Corps, for as long as I can remember.” At a bar before I left, a few too many cocktails in, I could only describe it to as my best friend as, “Something that’s in my heart that I just have to do.” I never thought about it, until now. Recent events have made me realize that there was a day, and there was a time in my life when I didn’t want to join the Peace Corps. One man changed that, and I have never remembered that it was him until now.

At the age of 23, I flew to Washington D.C. and the next day was on my way to Kazakhstan. I am now back in the United States, a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. Hearing of Mr. Weitzel's passing has left a particularly heavy feeling on my heart, considering this was a man, that until I went into Kazakhstan, I really never gave a second thought. Even while in my host country, I didn’t think of him as the man who made me want to join the Peace Corps. I would just sometimes remembered that photo in his office and would think something like, “I can’t wait to put up a really cool picture from Peace Corps in my office someday.”

The girl that went into the Peace Corps was not the woman who came back. Peace Corps service will change your life -- this is one of the rare times that I have to use the old Peace Corps cliché, just because it’s so true. Mr. Weitzel, without knowing it, without me ever acknowledging it, changed my life, forever. The world needs more people like Mr. Weitzel, people who effect change. So for myself, for the loved ones he left behind, and for the world, I grieve.

DaveO said...

David Johnston from Paddlinginstructor.com had some good comments on coaching responsibilities, ones I will be taking to heart. We do the best we can given time and skill constraints. That's about all we can do.

Katherine Windels-Thurston said...

I came across your blog while I was searching for answers. Answers that I will not find via the internet. Answers about why this happened to a man that changed my life and the lives of so many others. I was very moved by your words and I am grateful that I had the chance to read them. Thank you for helping me in this time. And I'm glad that you too were able to meet "Bob from Madison".

nancykayaks said...

Just saw my kayak coach, Jeff, this morning, who told me that he had coached Mr. Weitzel, too, and that Mr. Weitzel did not have a roll. I can relate to that - I've been working on my roll for 3 years, and it's still non-existent. However, while I don't wish to speak ill of Mr. Weitzel or cause his family any pain, I think it's worth discussing in the sea kayaking community whether attempting to do a solo circumnavigation of Lake Superior without a combat roll is prudent. Without a roll and without paddling companions, you must rely on solo rescues, which can be tricky anytime, but especially in a lake as unforgiving as Superior.

laureltree2013 said...

Found an old address book and decided to look up some old friends from 30+ years ago. I started in the back with Bob Weitzel. I knew I had got the right Bob when I saw the words, kayaker, Wisconsin, guidance councelor. But when I read "body pulled out of the lake" and wanted to scream no no let it be the wrong guy. It was not. In previous Face book posts of his- on a news report he was the same Bob and looked just the same. Same smirk same sutle enthusiasum. I knew Bob 30-31 years ago at SIU in Edwardsville Illinois. We worked at the college bookstore. He was great to talk with and discuss the world with. I had not talked or communicated with him since and now I miss him and know the world is a little less bright because he is not here. Please send my thoughts and prayers to his family.Laurel