Monday, August 13, 2012

Launch or stay put? More decision making on the big lake

Lake Superior was pretty benign this last weekend.  RangerMark and I tipped over repeatedly off the end of the Washburn coal dock, the only place we could think of with any sort of conditions, weak though they were, for some rescue practice.  Beggars can’t be choosers with a  6-7 knot SW breeze and a few rebound waves off the side of the coal dock is about all there was.  Saturday offered a northeast wind that made for some fun play along the cliffs and stacks south of Washburn, but nothing that required much thought or evaluation.  In other words conditions this weekend did not require much assessment or analysis, the very opposite of last weekend’s paddling scenario. 
Last Saturday after the Point to LaPointe Two Mile Open Water Swim, the wind picked up out of the southwest.  The ManFromSnowyLegs and I paddled to Bayview Beach rather than Bayfield and had the wind in our teeth the whole time.  It blew steadily the rest of the day and was still blowing the next morning when we paddled north of Washburn.  We had a plan to launch around 4pm and then round Point Detour to our Oak 3 campsite with a bit of a tailwind.  When we arrived at Little Sand Bay, checked the visual conditions, checked the nearshore forecast and real time wave site, and then talked with the Living Adventures guys that were just coming off the water, our foursome collectively decided not to launch and to wait until the morning.  Some wanted to go, others were uncomfortable and since we were out to have fun we implemented plan B and headed to Patsy’s Bar per an earlier blog post.  ProfessorLichen’s group from CanoeSport Outfitters had planned to launch in the morning and camped at the Town of Russell campground at LSB after joining us at Patsys.  As I also mentioned in that post Mr. EngineerGear, the man who authored the Sea Kayaker article on an economic model for sea kayaking risk analysis, had prudently spent the Krugerrands for the ferry back from Presque Isle into Bayfield.  He and his SO, the WillingAccomplice, weighed all the factors including wind, route, paddling skill, forecast, estimated paddling time, Keewenaw Brewing’s Widow Maker, and the award winning Patsy Burger, and were able to synthesize the information into a very prudent decision.  Meanwhile, up on Devils Island more critical decisions were being made and some tough paddling was taking place as we swilled our beers.
A couple years back I met a fellow coach from the Chicago area at a coaches update and we stayed in touch. He now holds the lofty title of Grand Duke of CASKA.  VytautasOfTheMidway as  he will be  known on this blog, was leading a ACA Level 3 training trip which found itself on Devils Sunday morning with a destination of Little Sand Bay that evening. A 20 knot west wind that had been blowing for pretty much 24 hours and conditions were roughly at the top of the Level 3 skill expectations.  To make the situation even more interesting, one of the paddlers in the group had become ill and was under tow.  Decisions and evaluations were made based upon the wind, waves, and perceived skill level of the group and the collective decision was made to launch.  The crossing from Devils to Bear was accomplished and required a stop on the familiar NE beach on Bear to tend to the ill paddler. The group then continued down the eastern lee side of Bear to the Bear Spit.  The ill paddler was by this time exhausted and the group asked some power boaters if they could give her a ride into Bayfield. The power boaters were a bit cowed by the wind and weather and had planned to stay put on Bear until things got better. VytautusOTM and group decided to set up camp and stay put as well.  About 6:30pm however, the  boaters decided to make a go for it and took the ill paddler with them and were off to Bayfield.  The paddle group then decided to break camp and paddled from 7:30 until 11:30 to reach Little Sand Bay.  Their route was the classic island hop that many of us have done under the same conditions, an island hop to get a couple lee shores to rest when the wind is screaming out of the west.  Bear to Raspberry, Raspberry to the mainland, and then a careful sneak around Point Detour and into Little Sand Bay.  That route is about a 9 mile paddle and it sounds like the group must have averaged around two and a half mph, not bad with a headwind, waves, and towing a loaded kayak.  Paddling after dark in conditions can be daunting but a nice moon can mitigate that problem nicely.

A number of different decisions were made that weekend and given the information at hand as well as the various factors in play, they all seemed to be pretty good ones.  The decision not to paddle, to take the ferry, and to paddle in from Devil’s were all made based up on the information available to the decision makers at the time and all seemed to be sound.  Practical decisions based upon the available information, including physical conditions as well as psychological and intuitive factors, is the way we keep our butts out of trouble while paddling on Gitchee Gumee.  Depressingly, as I came off the water on Tuesday I saw the two young women in the video below heading out to visit the Sand Island sea caves.  The weather was nice, the lake was flat, and the water was warm.  They had life jackets and one had a little dog with his own little life jacket in her lap. No spray skirts, bilge pump, paddle float or even water bottle that I could see.  From the video a sharp eyed coach might assess that the paddle technique might not be quite refined as it could be.  When they pointed out to Sand Island and asked, “Are those the caves, on that end?”, I just shook my head and said yup, those are the caves. I just wasn’t in the mood for my usual warning speech and managed only a weak 'be careful and keep your eyes open'.  I can’t imagine anything befalling them on that trip but if it’s  successful it will likely spawn more trips. The future trips will be undertaken with a false sense of security from their success this time, and Lake Superior just does not allow that type of blissful ignorance to continue. 
Let’s keep our eyes and ears open, gather as much information as possible on all relevant factors when paddling on Superior, and give the big lake the respect that she deserves.  She will tolerate nothing less.

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