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It’s All in the Knot

kayaker paddling to Pigeon Point

Earlier this year, I was guiding a trip in Pigeon Bay, which is on the border of Minnesota and Ontario on Lake Superior. It was a windy day, but the wind was from the southwest, which, because the bay runs east northeast, usually means that it’s going to be calm in the bay. The bay itself is about 4 miles deep from Pigeon Point to the furthest west point of the bay, so it escapes the fury of the lake on any winds except from the northeast. The bay is formed by the Canadian mainland and Pigeon Point, a slender peninsula with a maximum width of about half a mile and a length of 3.5 miles. The northern side of the peninsula is characterized by steep cliffs up to about 100 feet and rounded hills towering above the cliffs. When you’re paddling against the shore, it can be dead calm on any southerly winds. It can lull you into a sense of security, and, in fact, I think it did that in 2012, when a kayaker attempting to circumnavigate Lake Superior got into trouble and died in the mouth of the bay (See: While the rewards may be great, you might not like the consequences).

I’ve guided this trip about a dozen times in the past two years. Many of those times have been on windy days when Tettegouche State Park wouldn’t have worked because it was too windy and wavy for that exposed trip. This trip was one of those. It was too wavy at Tettegouche, so I moved the tour to Pigeon Bay. It started normally with a brisk tailwind on the Pigeon River. Usually what happens when the wind is westerly is that the wind funnels up the bay, which quickly pushes you outward, but makes the trip back a bit of a struggle. The hills usually block any southerly winds.

Boxcar Islands reflecting in Lake Superior.
Boxcar Islands on a previous solo visit using a Remote Area Border Crossing permit.

It was doing the typical thing on this day, so I kept the group along the shore until we were about a mile from the Boxcar Island (Border Islands), a set of islands just on the Canadian side of the border. I like to paddle groups up to the islands and paddle past them on the U.S. side and then swing back towards Pigeon Point and a bay called Hole in the Wall. Usually, the wind will push you to the islands and then push you to Hole in the Wall as it funnels up the bay. By the time you reach Hole in the Wall, it’s time for lunch there. Before the trip, I checked NOAA’s hourly wind forecast for the trip and it showed winds blowing at 8 knots until the afternoon when it would gain strength and blow around 15 to 20 knots. With the the speed of the wind, I estimated that by the time we got to Hole in the Wall, we’d have about 1-foot waves, which seemed pretty manageable for this group of two solo kayaks and a tandem. My plan started out fine as we raced towards the islands with winds blowing about 15 knots.

As we neared the islands, I noticed that the wind was doing something unexpected and something that I had never experienced there before. While it was still funneling up the bay from the west, it was also blowing directly from the south and southeast right at the islands. We got there, checked out the islands and then I decided that it would probably be best if we paddled straight back to the cliffs on the peninsula about 3/4 of a mile away from the islands. I didn’t want to risk getting blown to Canada and out of the bay if the weird southerly winds kept up. We were still over 1.5 miles from the mouth of the bay.

As we started out, I immediately noticed the problem. The two solo boaters were going faster than the tandem, so I let that go on for about 10 minutes until we got to the point where the strongest solo paddler, a strong teenage who had graduated from high school and was heading to college and was being recruited to row on the school’s crew, would get ahead, look over his shoulder, wait and drift back. I paddled up to him and just told him to paddle to shore and wait for us. He took off and I kept my eye on him. He got to shore fine.

At that point, winds were blowing at about 15 to 20 knots. It was strong wind and I knew that the tandem wasn’t going to get to shore, so I paddled back to hook up a tow rope. I hooked it up and paddled off. At about 30 feet out I expected to feel a tug but felt nothing. For a second, I thought this is going to be easy.

And then I realized that the knot on my tow rope had just come undone!

“WTF,” I muttered just under my breath.

I had just taught a safety and rescue class, which included a significant amount of time on towing and the tow rope was fine throughout the class. It was tied with a good bowline and a backup knot. How in the world could it come loose?

I paddled back to the tandem, retrieved the end of the rope, tied it into my belt and started off towards shore. Meanwhile, the other solo paddler hadn’t gotten very far, so in an idea that I’d have herculean strength, I told her to raft up with the tandem. That didn’t go very well.

She couldn’t maneuver to get her kayak next to the tandem and by the time we almost got it worked out, we were blown back towards the islands. So, I decided that I’d leave the tandem behind — they agreed it was a good idea — and tow the solo boat to shore, then paddle back to the tandem, then tow the tandem back to shore.

About an hour later I finished all the tows, and we were all on shore eating lunch. At that point, they seemed fine, I seemed fine. There was no wind or a 5 knot tailwind along shore. We paddled to Hole in the Wall, then came back. We finished the trip uneventfully. It’s easy to chalk this up to one of those situations that you run into guiding sea kayaking, but I felt like writing about it might be helpful to someone and myself.

The Map

Pigeon Bay Map

Unpacking What Happened (Lessons Learned)

The easiest lesson learned here is that you need to check your knots frequently, especially those that could mater is a sticky situation. I’ve never had my tow rope knot come undone before and probably won’t have it happen again, but I wasn’t in the habit of checking it periodically or checking it after each and every use. I expect what happened is that the backup knot got untied while someone was using my tow rope during the class I had just taught, and that allowed the bowline to give way — a bowline will give away when not backed up. The nice thing about a bowline is that it will untie after it has been compressed underweight, but so will other knots. When I was a climber, I used a figure of eight knot to tie into the sharp end. I took a few whippers and managed to get the figure of eight untied and that would be more force than a tow rope would ever see. The figure of eight doesn’t mysteriously untie itself, so I changed my bowline with a backup to a figure of eight with a backup and made it a habit to check the knot before putting on my belt (just like I would with climbing before starting up a pitch).

The other lesson isn’t an easy one to admit or learn. It’s easy to chalk this up to weird winds that day, but in reality, because I had guided the same trip about a dozen times, I had become complacent about the trip and had an expectation that this guided trip would go the same as other guided trips and hadn’t really expected different. The wind forecast looked right. I had road that wind before. And my paddlers seemed competent enough to handle winds to 10 knots. The forecast was right with the strong winds building in the afternoon and it was still mid-morning. As we were paddling out and I noticed the higher winds, I should have turned us back towards the mainland and skipped the islands. We still had tailwinds at that point, so it would have been an easy retreat as we continued up the bay with the wind behind us. But, because I had done it before in similar conditions, I expected the same to happen again. I was wrong. The lesson is that each situation is different and just because you’ve paddled the same trip many times before, doesn’t mean that it will go the same again. You need to approach each trip as a new trip. Perhaps, because it’s usually a cakewalk to paddle in Pigeon Bay compared to other areas on the north shore, that I was lulled into this complacency. It’s a good reminder that you need to stay at the top of your game wherever you go.

Once, I was in the situation, I thought about exit plans and with the wind blowing like it was blowing, my ultimate fallback would have been to drift to the Canadian mainland and then deal with getting through customs. From the Boxcar’s, we were only about a 1/3rd of a mile from Little Pigeon Point and then a paddle back towards the Pigeon River on the Canadian side. To enter Canada, you’re required to call Canada Border Services Agency Telephone Reporting Centre from your cell phone, but I don’t get service with my current plan. As far as customs is concerned, there’s Canadian cell coverage in Pigeon Bay, so it probably wouldn’t be a bad idea to buy a burner phone for the summer just to use when guiding trips in Pigeon Bay. That would alleviate any custom concerns in the future.

All-in-all, everything turned out okay, in part, because of my towing experience, the positive attitude of the group I was with, and in part because it wasn’t a bad situation for an experienced paddler to be in, but had it happened to beginner paddlers without tow ropes, they could have been in for a wild day of excitement or fear or maybe worse.

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One comment

  • Excellent article. Thanks for emphasizing the importance of planning, experience and of course the correct knot.

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