I had an interesting experience yesterday afternoon. I went out paddling on Lake Superior in 1- to 3-foot waves, sub-40 degree Fahrenheit water temps and air temps in the 50s. There’s a really rocky and nasty surf break near town, so I paddled there to ride the outside of the break, then I made my way back to the parking lot landing in dumping waves on the beach here and there just for fun.
A rec boater apparently saw me paddling and thought it looked fun. Just as I was about to go to the car, I noticed her without a lifevest and no wet/drysuit trying to get out through dumping waves. She got whacked by a couple of 2 footers on a dumping beach and pushed back, so I figured she would give up, but she didn’t. Her next try put her on the water.
Then I found myself on the water near a woman who was obviously uncomfortable in the waves in a Perception Acadia rec boat, so I paddled over and broke the ice. I tried to educate her about cold water and realized that she wasn’t going to go back in. She wanted to paddle as far off shore as she could, so I sat there with her talking and stalling to keep her close to shore. She really seemed to need someone to talk to, so I put on my guide mode and let her go.
Before I got on the water, I checked the radar and a big storm front was moving in, so I knew it’d make its appearance from over the hill soon — you can’t see the weather moving in on our shore, because a big hill blocks the view of the prevailing weather. It was sunny on the lake and seemed like a perfect day, but without checking the weather, you’d never know that something was on the way. Although strong winds were not predicted with the storm front, sometimes after the storms come over the hill, the combination of the hill and the lake can create strong offshore winds.
After about 20 minutes of talking and drifting in the current, the storm front made its appearance. Luckily, it looked nasty, because after I told her about how bad lightning is for paddlers, she decided that she should get off the water. We had drifted to a better area of the beach to land on verses where she launch, so I demoed landing in the waves twice, once bracing into the waves and bouncing in and once straight in. I encouraged her to put on her vest, but she would have nothing to do with it.
After yelling that she wasn’t going to land that she just wanted a helicopter to come pick her out of the water, she landed about as perfectly as you can. I couple of local grade school kids that I know came over and talked to us. I gave them a quick lesson about my gear and my kayak. Then I did a seal launch and a couple of rolls as a demo for the kids. When I got out, she admitted that she was afraid when she was out there. I told her fear of the lake was healthy and that she should get a lesson. I dropped my company name for kayaking lessons, and the local grade school kids were shaking their heads in agreement about the dangers of Lake Superior.
I see this all them time where I live. The lake never gets warm, tourists from the Twin Cities come up and treat the big lake exactly the same as a warm chain of lakes in the cities, and inexperienced paddlers have died just off our shore doing stuff like that. I always make an effort to educate, but most of the time it just doesn’t mean a thing. They smile and nod and I’m sure they go off thinking that I’m crazy or a jerk or whatever.
It gets tiring. As an instructor and guiding company owner, I feel like I have a burden to provide safety in my home port, but maybe that’s the wrong attitude to have. Maybe I should just let these people do their own thing and figure it out on their own. If they get into trouble, then let the authorities rescue them. It gets even worse because two businesses in town rent kayaks to inexperienced paddlers. One doesn’t even provide wetsuits and told me at one point that he has no plans to rent them, because they’re too expensive, plus his kayaks are so stable that no one ever tips, and his customers don’t ever paddle that far away from shore. At any rate, throughout the year I see lots of rec kayakers or newbies on 40 to 50 degree water completely unprepared. When I was a climber, I actually stopped climbing in popular areas because I was sick of seeing bad top rope setups. My friend Steve and I came across one group that if the kid would have rapped off the cliff before we got there, he would have died. These rec boaters are just one moment away from that.
Any thoughts about what types of burdens that we have as more experienced paddlers when we encounter these types of situations?