“It’s funny,” I said to my kayak partner and co-guide, Scott. “I’ve been a lifeguard for 4 years, and am certified as a Wilderness First Responder. I’ve been a sea kayak guide on the largest lake in the world (Lake Superior) for two years. But all I’ve ever done is put band-aids on blisters.”
I should have known better than to tempt fate like that.
Scott and I led a group of ten clients along the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, navigating waves as they rebounded off the sea caves and cliffs. Lake Superior was 60 degrees that afternoon, but a strong easterly wind whipped across the lake. Swells up to three feet tall crested over the heads of my clients.
Our group arrived back at the parking lot safely. As I approached the beach to grab another load of gear, I heard someone yelling for help, and started to run.
A woman struggled to yank her small child from the back hatch of a kayak while a pair of people tried to pull her boat from the surf. Another boy lay in the sand.
I introduced myself as a guide with a list of medical certifications, but it was if she didn’t hear me. Her panicked voice rose as she babbled; the two boys were spiraling into hypothermia, but her main concern was the capsized kayak a quarter mile offshore.
The boat belonged to her husband and another young man. Four victims. My mouth went dry.
By this time, Scott and the on-duty ranger had made their ways to the beach. Scott immediately launched his boat to go rescue the pair, while the ranger had a phone to her ear, asking me for information as she called the Coast Guard.
My head was spinning a bit; WFR instincts didn’t come as easily as I had hoped. I tried to warm up the boys, who were naked and blue-lipped. I wrapped the boys up in blankets from the ranger and started to rub their limbs and cores. One shivered uncontrollably; the other barely responded to our questions about his favorite TV shows and games.
After nearly a half hour, Scott returned with the other kayakers, who were able to paddle back once their boats were righted and emptied of water.
With all members of the group back onshore and the boys looking much better, Scott and I decided to take our clients home. Sirens of the approaching Emergency Medical Services vehicles drowned out the waves as we drove away—45 minutes after the rescue started.
One client repeated over and over, “This is why I always go with a guide.”
Although guides are not a guarantee of safety, proper education and preparation is imperative for trips on Lake Superior or any other body of water.
By correcting several major oversights of this group, the hysteria of Aug. 12 could easily have been prevented. Firstly, it is questionable that an inexperienced group with small children should have launched into such strong wind and waves at all.
It is also clear that this group was unfamiliar with how sea kayaks function at the most basic level: flotation. Hatch covers should remain in place while the boat in the water. Spray skirts help keep the cockpit of the kayak free from water. Both were absent.
Paddlers should be equipped with a bilge pump. This tool is too-often absent from the boats of inexperienced paddlers and, through proper use, can help save lives.
The final large error that this group made was in their clothing. Although they wore Personal Flotation Devices, none of them wore wetsuits. Hypothermia can set in after mere minutes in the cold temperatures of the Great Lakes. Wetsuits buy time in the frigid waters.
It is possible that this group simply was unaware of the dangers. The rules of a ten-acre inland lake do not apply to a three-quadrillion gallon body of water that literally creates its own weather and averages 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
Ignorance is a poor excuse in the face of tragedy, and if our group had arrived 10 minutes earlier or later, it is likely that the capsized boats would have had to wait much longer for a Coast Guard boat to help— possibly perishing during that wait. Taking a basic safety course or paying for a guided trip is a small price compared to potentially devastating consequences.
As we cleaned up our own gear and mulled over the afternoon, a client said, “I guess you finally got to use those skills you were talking about before.”