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While the rewards may be great, you might not like the consequences

managing risks in outdoor activities

At one of the entrances of Yellowstone National Park, they collect the innocent and naive questions that some of the visitors ask when they come to the park, such as “When do the rangers pen up the bison for the evening” or “When do they turn off Old Faithful?” They also collect stories of some of the dangerous things that tourists do there. Years ago a friend of mine related to me an incident that she witnessed as a park employee. A park visitor placed his toddler on the back of a bison, walked off, took and picture and luckily retrieved the kid without incident. When my friend confronted the person, he said, “If it was dangerous, the park wouldn’t let you get anywhere near it.” And, that was in the front country.

Recently in the backcountry, according to Kevin Jacobson of the Northland News Center, on Sunday, June 17th Robert Weitzel’s body was pulled from Lake Superior by the Canadian Coast Guard. At  9:20am that day something caused Weitzel, a kayaker attempting to circumnavigate Lake Superior to raise money for the Big City Mountaineers, to activate his emergency personal locator beacon. The activation triggered a search and rescue operation. After a two-hour search, the Coast Guard found and retrieved his body at 11:30. Jacobson reported that the Thunder Bay Detachment of the Ontario Provincial Police said that 42 degree water and 30 mile per hour winds contributed to his death.

The first incident was perhaps innocent and stupid and the second perhaps in pursuit of the noble and brave, but both to me seem to illustrate a couple of somewhat un/related important points:

  • In our parks and wilderness areas, the rangers are not there to manage all the risks for you.
  • Risks that might not seem apparent might be there.
  • Even the world’s latest and greatest technology might not save you.

All these points deal with risk or managing risk. Risk defined by Managing Risks in Outdoor Activities is “The potential to lose something of value. The loss may be physical, mental, social or financial. The presence of risk creates uncertainty … The motivation for risking is to gain something of value. That something in the outdoors is the challenge of an adventure.”

The book defines adventure as “An experience where the outcome is uncertain because key information may be missing, vague or unknown,” and challenge as “The interplay of risk and competence,” which is “The ability of an individual to deal effectively with the demands placed on them by the surrounding environment.”

If we eliminate all the risks of outdoor activities, they no longer offer an adventure or challenge or that magical moment in the outdoors when time stands still and you experience life in the moment.  In a world like that, our parks become zoos with any dangers hidden behind bars with cattle pens to walk us from area to area and backcountry travel becomes prohibited. The key for would-be adventurers to avoid a sterile fenced-off world is to understand that:

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  • You are on your own out there.
  • You need to own that thought.
  • Competence doesn’t come with gear choice or a class. It comes from seat time and lots of it.
  • Know your limits and when the real risk is death, don’t push your competence.

If you ignore that, you’re living on the edge, and while the rewards may be great, you might not like the consequences if you’re around to witness them.

Note: Please, understand that this isn’t a criticism or suggestion that the people in my analogies didn’t know this or surpassed their competence. Sometimes, shit happens. Well…the guy in the bison example was a flip’n idiot, but by all accounts Weitzel was competent enough for this trip.

My sympathies go out to Robert Weitzel’s family and friends.



  • A good set of thoughts on a fundamental part of anything that could be described as ‘adventurous’, whether in the context of outdoor expeditions or not. As for “risks that might not seem apparent might be there”, this is a blanket statement for life, and we all have to make our peace with its inevitable presence.

    RIP Robert Weizel.

    • Thanks, Tom.

    • Tom, thank you for pointing that out; it is so true! We take a risk everytime we get in our cars, step into the shower, climb a ladder, etc. Bob took every precaution, but was not content to just sit and watch life pass him by. Life will never be the same for those of us who were fortunate enough to know and love him, but I am so glad that he did not waste away in a hospital bed, or die in some other “routine” manner. He was living! This quote from Thoreau reminds me so much of Bob:
      “I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately, I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, To put to rout all that was not life and not when I had come to die Discover that I had not lived.”

      • Hi, Mary,

        I’ve heard that Bob wasn’t wearing a drysuit nor a wetsuit, and that he was only using a splash top and hydroskin pants. During that time of year, in those water temps, on Lake Superior on a solo trip, I’ve always worn a drysuit. If what I heard is true, I’ve wondered why didn’t he use a drysuit?

        • Bryan, I have wondered that too. I’ve looked at length of time in the water at that temperature and dry suits; with it taking two hours for the Coast Guard to find him, I don’ t think he would have made it anyway. I assume he thought about that; he’s never taken stupid chances before. At least that’s what helps me sleep at night. Deb (his wife) said the weather that day was even ore unpredictable than normal, with storms coming and going in waves, so to speak. I assume he thought the weather was going to be good-at least that’s what it looked like-he was having trouble with his radio in that area (according to his journal). We’ll never know exactly what happened; it just did, unfortunately. I understand that your article was meant as a warning to others and not solely as a comparison between my brother and a man who would put his baby on a bison as a photo op, but it hit a nerve with me. Bob was so much more than a choice he made that day, which could be said of anyone, really. I appreciate your sympathy note at the bottom. Please know that my comment was not an attack on your article, simply a defense of my big brother.

          • It’s hard to say if he would have made it in a drysuit. There are lots of questions, like would he had longer to get back in the boat before cold incapacitation set in, did he suffer cold shock from the lack of proper clothing and would have a drysuit prevented that, how much longer would a drysuit given him in time, why leave your drysuit at home if you have one, etc… I’ve gone over all these questions in my head (as has much of the Great Lakes paddling community), I’ve researched the weather that day, and I’ve come to conclusions that I haven’t shared online. Some of my friends were actually his instructors (and one was particularly shook up), so it hits home pretty hard, especially since I also guide kayaking trips to where he died. It was hard guiding my first trip there this year after I knew a kayaker died there. I thought about it on every trip that I guided there this year, and am sure that I will always think of it. Incidents like this give us, as paddlers, a chance to gather our thoughts and evaluate our ideas and learn from the incident.

            There are other questions as well, such as what if the U.S. Coast Guard based in Grand Marais would have had a boat that actually could have handled the conditions, like their old boat, but instead this year they were given a harbor patrol boat to use instead of something Lake Superior capable.

            My article wasn’t meant as a warning to others, although it could be taken that way, my article was meant to point out that there are risks; if you take away the risks, you take away one of the rewards of paddling; but there are ways to manage the risk via knowledge and experience; sometimes you die because of risks, especially ones that push you to the edge or ones that you don’t realize are there.; and some people may not like that. Basically, it was an argument addressed to the kind of people that comment that only idiots do these things. Which I don’t believe, because I also do long solo kayak trips on the Great Lakes.

            I didn’t really see your comment as an attack. I just saw it as you wanting to engage in a conversation, talk about how you saw your brother, and I’m glad you added your remarks.

            • Thanks, Bryan. I imagine it did hit your kayaking community pretty hard. It’s probably a relatively small one? I hope that your instructor friend doesn’t take it too hard or feel guilty in any way. Bob was going to do what he wanted to do… I’m sure he had reasone for the choices he made, while packing, going out that day… Reasons that seemed logical to him… Many of us in the family tried talking him out of going, but it was something he felt he had to do. It’s still just very difficult seeing his name in print and it being about his death…it still takes me by surprise, and I felt a bit defensive when I read your article.

              Have you read the book, “Deep Survival,” by Laurence Gonzales? I thought of it as I read your article. It’s about people who are competent, even experts, in their field, but take risks and/or make split second decisions that prove disastrous. It’s excellent. It’s taking me a while to get through it becasue it hits so close to home and I have to put it down for a while, but it’s a very good book.

              Best of luck to you in your writing and kayaking!

              • I’m not sure how big the Great Lakes paddling community is, but I’d guess thousands were talking about this incident.

                I have read Deep Survival before. Good book.

                Again, sorry for your loss.

  • Bob was a colleague and friend. We taught together at Glacier Creek Middle School. He was the kind of guy who lived life on a grand scale and had a great love of adventure and of Lake Superior. He was a very passionate human being who was never satisfied to just let “things” go. He will be missed, and his family and friends must know that Bob Weitzel made his mark in this world. RIP

    • Thanks for your remembrance, Kay. Sorry for your loss.

    • Kay, thank you for such beautiful sentiment; Bob really did live on a grand scale. He didn’t just pick up hobbies, he engaged in every adventure with incredible passion, whether it was music, writing, cycling, or kayaking. He went on so many great adventures, it never occurred to any of us that he wouldn’t return from this one. I am continually amazed and touched by the outpouring of love and respect for him, at his Celebration of Life, at his memorial at Glacier Creek, the memorial page his students created on Facebook…it’s beautiful. He’s always been larger than life to me, but to hear similar sentiment from so many others is overwhelming. The grief is huge, but wow, what a blessing to have him for a brother.

  • […] day started with the discovery of the kayak art created by the Canadians and then a memorial to Robert Weitzel followed by a blessing of the boats. After passing out a few tshirts, I took to the road to make […]

  • Great article. Really enjoyed it.

  • Heart goes out to Bob’s family. Great article I posted on facebook when I first read it back in June. When things like this happens it makes all paddlers take note. The BWCA lost two very experienced canoeists this fall also. Sad stories leave allot of us scratching our heads. I thought about Bob as I crossed over the ferry to Island Royale this summer for my first trip ever there. I read his blog and his story was touching and tragic. Just thought I would say thanks for sharing and Sorry for Bob’s Loss.

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