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What’s Our Burden as More Experienced Kayakers?

Grand Marais Lighthouse and Waves

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.

Grand Marais, MN. Cook County
My home port lighthouse. In the background, you can see the hills that block the view of incoming weather. The picture at the top of the article shows the Grand Marais lighthouse in a storm.

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?

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  • I think all of us have a duty to teach, prepare, equip and when necessary, intervene when we see something unsafe. Yeah, 80% of the time people won’t listen, they’ll get lucky like this girl, and walk away thinking you are a pedantic jerk. But, there is the other 20% who will not be so lucky, whose very lives may hang in the balance by what you do or don’t do. This isn’t just the burden of experienced kayakers, it’s the burden of what it means to be humanely human.

  • Ahhhh!
    That was refreshing Bryan. Someone with a personality addressing a new paddler doing things horribly wrong. So many stories I’ve read comes across as the experienced paddler so sanctimonious it makes me want to sell all my gear and buy a pungo 100 and paddle in jeans and jean jacket (poison iron on patch of course). Thanks for this.

    I try to educate in a softer way as I know I was in a rec boat doing things horribly wrong years ago as well…and didn’t take kindly to what at the time I perceived as arrogance. Which in reality was a concerned paddler.

    I don’t think many of us started knowing much of anything; and I believe your keeping that in mind with your approach.

    Again THANK YOU. Faith in humanity rising again….slightly!

  • You certainly did the right thing for the situation. In a country such as ours, with the tort system we have, people insist on being given choices, and then look for someone to blame when they have made the wrong choice. In all likelyhood this type of thinking has been going since the dawn of mankind and the advent of human “rational” thought. Charming folks, will always have more success at convincing others to see their point of view than bellicose folks.

  • I ran into the some situation last summer up at Piture rock shore line. I tried to talk a couple into putting there life jacket on when we past them. They wouldnt have it, they said it way to hot out for they. Later I spoke with the local Coast gaurd and he informed me that they had made 29 kayak resques last year.

  • You did the right thing. We must try to educate every chance we can. As a relatively new paddler I have a healthy respect for the water and always have. I have been shunned away as you have here. I have also been told to go screw myself. (not in those words) I have tried to put the risk their taking in perspective for them, telling them how powerful water realy is and go on to mention that it only takes 2 inches of fast moving water to wash away your vehicle. Thats when a lot of people think I’m nuts. It also opens the eyes of a select few.
    If we can prevent an injury or something worse for 1 paddler, hopefuly they’ll pass that knowledge on to some one else who needs it, and the death tolls will diminish along with rescues from outside sources. Then we may gain more respect when were on the water.

  • I feel it is our duty, as experienced paddlers, to share our knowledge and safety tips to those who are less expereiced and, therefore, more apt to get in trouble. That’s how I learned, plus going to kayak classes. If we offend the listener, so be it.

  • what is this kayak rental business that has no plans to rent wetsuits, because they claim their kayaks are tip proof and customers will stay near shore? It is feasible even probably that they are equally lax about other margins of safety on a cold body of water like Lake Superior. With those practices and that attitude they will get someone killed sooner or later.

    what’s their name? So I can warn people away from them.
    Call them out.

    • I’m not going to name names here. But, if people want a safe tour, you can send them to me. Safety is my top priority.

  • Bryan,
    I understand your article a lot. Last year my brother and I kayak camped in pictured rock. We were launching at miners beach when a big group of kids and adults were getting a lesson on kayaking before they headed out themselves. Nobody had wetsuits on including the guides.
    I was thinking to myself, how could this be safe for them. My brother and I had all the safety gear and here was an outfitter providing nothing in immersion protection for their clients. I do not know the outfitter but I was afraid for the younger kids in the group just as my brother and I headed out.

  • Bryan, thanks for sharing. We encounter this problem all the time on the Mendocino Coast. The waters hover in the 50′ range. When we are out paddling, we regularly encounter paddlers (usually tourists) in jeans/t-shirts and no pfd’s. Like you, we casually check in with them and without lecturing suggest that they put on a pfd and head for sheltered waters. As boaters, I think it is our responsibility to check in with them and let them know the hazards. Ultimately, it is their decision. Some follow our guidance and others do not.


  • I live and paddle not far from you although on the other side of the border. Our shoreline is similar as is the attitudes towards paddling Mother Superior. The group that I paddle with embraces the concept of sharing knowledge, leading by example and overall safety when afloat. We as a group, teach and practice roling with pfds on, surf zone and rock gardening skills with helmets on. Maybe it’s my age but I’ve learned that if something can happen, it’s likely to happen to me and it’s always better to be prepared than to “wing it”.

    It amazes me to see the numbers of paddlers, instructors and guides out on the big lake without pfds or spray skirts, no maps or navigation skills or even the most basic skills past making the boat go in a straight line. I’ve spoken to people about what I see as potentially unsafe practices, offered a little guidance or invited them to paddle with us and learn. Some have listened, some ignore and a few have been hostile.

    I’ll continue to invite people to join our little group, offer to share what little I have learned and promote the safety and enjoyment of our sport. I commend you for your efforts, your blog that is so informative and for being an example to follow for your local enthusiasts. Great job!


  • Thanks for all the great discussion.

    It seems like this is a big problem in many locations. A problem that I see is that retailers and manufacturers have shifted the problem to paddlers and advocacy organizations. What burden do they have? Can retailers (big box, chains, etc…), where I see the problem more than in specialty stores, just take the money and not worry about it? Is it even their responsibility or does all the responsibility fall on the user? Should manufacturers include cold water literature in the user manuals?

    I feel like there’s a lot of burden being moved from where it should be in the purchasing chain to experience paddlers who may just want to go paddling. Should we really have to be the safety patrol? For me owning a kayak guiding company and helping run a paddling club, I feel a little more responsible, because I want to increase usage and experience levels among people that visit Grand Marais. But, should an experienced paddler have this same burden if he or she just wants to go out on a training paddle? Or for that matter, should one company have to educate the kayakers that rent from another and don’t get safety gear or lessons. It seems a little tacky at that point.

    I just feel like there’s no good answer in the current climate. This education needs to start in the purchasing chain.

  • Personally, I just plain won’t paddle with anyone who doesn’t follow basic safety rules, including thermal protection and a properly adjusted PFD. Years ago, I had a falling-out with a close friend; at the start of a day’s tandem canoeing, he flatly refused to wear his PFD, saying he’d put it on if we capsized. “No PFD, no launch”, I said. “Why the hell not – I’m the one who’ll get drowned”, he joked. “Because I’m the one in a PFD you may grab when you panic, and get us both killed; because I don’t want to try and tell the cops what happened – and finally, because I really don’t want to have to face your wife and children after”…we didn’t get on the water together that day, or since – still friends, tho…

    Strangers on their own – a different matter…I’ll try to softly mention the cold, PFD use, etc., but ultimately they, like us all, are responsible for their own safety. As bad as I feel whenever I hear of a water fatality, at the end of the day I’m a paddler, not a cop or a coastie, and there’s a very definite limit to how much I can do in trying to get people to protect themselves. I do try to set a good example, teach a little informally when the opportunity occurs, and have an eye out on the water for anyone who looks like they could wander into trouble.

    Given our water’s cold year-round temperature, most local sea kayakers are well aware of the dangers, have decent gear and skills and dress accordingly, and most novices are intimidated enough by the North Atlantic’s reputation as widow-maker to be cautious. Fresh water is more problematic – the 20 degree air temp, 2 degree water temp scenario claims too many lives here. For those who doubt the necessity of thermal protection, a standard suggestion is to have them place an ungloved hand in the water and leave it there for 5 minutes – saves a lot of arguments…

    You did the right thing, Bryan…

  • That is exactly why I don`t paddle with inexperienced kayakers. I feel as if I am responsible for them.

    You did the right thing Bryan…way to go.

    • I like paddling with inexperienced kayakers as long as they have the right gear. It’s running into inexperienced kayakers who are in places they shouldn’t be without the right gear that gets me.

      • Bryan, I like your attitude better than Melodie’s. I have a passion for paddling, and I enjoy sharing it. I do think we have a responsibility to try to help others and educate them. As has been mentioned, we have to be diplomatic, tactful and friendly in how we do it. There are some we won’t reach though, no matter the approach. I hope that in my writing and interacting with others, I don’t come across as the sanctimonious blowhard that Lee refers to above. That approach is probably easy to stray into, and isn’t particularly helpful.

        In the situation you described, you definitely did the right thing and I commend you for taking the time & effort. Sometimes we need to get a little bit scared for a message to hit home. I think the person you described will be a better and safer paddler after interacting with you.

        Bryan S.

  • Hi Bryan, of course the week that my computer is in the shop you published this article with the subject that has plagued me for years. I agree that paddling with inexperienced kayakers is enjoyable. I have learned from the experiences. Especially so with the times I have paddled with a friend who is disabled. I have from these sometimes difficult days on the water become a better paddler, ampted up my patience limits and at the end of the day most times, they too have learned, and gained from paddling with someone who has done some considerable kayaking.
    However, there are times that this becomes an issue for me. I know it is my own crap energy that comes to play but there are days that I want to not be the ‘unpaid kayak guide’, yet again. A case in point and perhaps a good idea for a post on my blog as well is the episode three weeks ago here on Salt Spring Island.
    A dear friend and former paddling mate had not kayaked for 5 years due to illness. He has recovered and every Sunday I have dragged him out for a day paddle. Increasing length of time on the water each trip. 3 weeks ago one such paddling weekend was turned into a spontainious mixed group paddle. Some people I knew, two newbies came along. One in a dodgy little rec boat with no spray skirt and zero good gear, he was not experienced in the slightest. The other, a young girl who was invited along but had never paddled before and was abandoned to figure things out for herself. Mike and I, already on the water, eyebrows raising knew what kind of day this was going to be.
    The forecast I had checked the night before and that morning was very insistant on a coming wind warning as the day progressed. I was happy about this until I I discovered this group deal. Wind is not such a big deal in the inside of the Gulf Islands, but where we were paddling acts as a wind tunnel if the gusts are coming from the right direction. I have played in swells where the tides converge at the tip of the island that have been tall and breaking in what we call the ‘tossed salad’.
    My story cut short, I tossed aside my relaxing day with someone I knew had close to the same skill sets as I assembled this girl’s kayak gear on the water after they had shoved her off the beach without instructions and without her skirt attached. She was told that she would not need it. oi! I fixed her up, gave her a paddling lesson and shadowed her as best I could all day. Meanwhile, the other dude without the right gear was not enjoying life. The return paddle was in a cross wind with broad-siding two-four footers and I have sore neck to this day from rubber-necking to watch over the newbies. We ALL returned in good shape, but I was tired and frustrated by the day.
    A long day, and I got home and muttered to my wife about once again being put in that position. Feeling guilty for taking that negative attitude as well. Alas, the debate in my head continued, but I have to land on the fact that no matter what the day is like, no matter who was invited along, it was not my burden, but my responsibility to guide the less able paddlers. It was more their day out on the water than it was mine as I do this all the time, and they, never to seldom. I want them to do it again, to have a good day and feel safe. Do I have to set aside my fun play paddle day in that case? YES!

  • In the spring I let flies buzzing at the window out, but summer gets into full swing and the flies multiply, and if I let them all out I would be a fly butler all day long. Natural selection comes into play and the dumb flies are weeded out.

    On the other hand, I will always save a bee.

    So Bryan, like you, I guess it all comes down to how attractive the endangered paddler is. I may be more inclined to look out for a svelt blond, be she ever so dumb, than a dumb hairy gorilla.

    Part of the problem with kayaking is that those who have never had a scare, or had the conditions turn against them, can be lulled into the perception that it is a leisurely pastime and a meditation, rather than, in certain conditions, an extreme sport.

    In the spirit of universal brotherhood we should look out for one another, but if you are in a popular venue, and you are consiencious enough that you feel you have to sheepdog every novice, you may as well quit the sport, or find another paddling hole.

    I am fully in favour of people learning by trial and error, but guardian angels have to work overtime for beginners in any adventure sport who decline tuition.


  • From what im reading here. Its seam that our passion for the sport makes use feel like a parents to the less experienced and risk takers that we come crossed. So many that I come across never think about the damager that they are putting them selves in.

  • I’m a little gun shy of suggesting that other put on their safety gear or paddle in a certain area, because I’ve been treated badly by the folks I’ve tried to help. So I tend to let other paddlers be until they are in the water and asking for help. I’m open to learning ways to suggest other be safer without causing problems or bad feelings.

  • Great thread, great thoughts, everyone!

    Where I paddle there are no kayak rental companies, and I rarely see any kayakers, so I’m not faced with these situations too often. But every now and then I see boaters leave the public marina with overloaded boats, or once I saw a couple of teenage girls on an SUP in early spring on an abnormally hot day, in shorts and halter tops. I paddled by a few hundred metres away in my dry suit…what a square, eh? I ponder at times telling these people how nuts they are but the fact is nothing will probably happen to them and so far I’ve been right. If I ever need or can help someone I will, if it doesn’t pose a danger to me. Otherwise there is a local fire department with a launch that can help them pretty quickly, and I’ll just call them in.

    Actions have consequences, eh? We can never forget that.

  • Constantly have this situation.
    We don’t have as cold water as you do, here in Cape Town, South Africa, but it is cold enough to kill you if you’re in it for long enough.
    We paddle surfskis – the essence of surfski is to paddle in big conditions downwind. Our favourite 11km route takes us about 2km offshore.
    As a website owner, I’ve found it quite effective simply to tell the stories about incidents. We’ve also done search and rescue exercises with our local coastguard equivalent. Finally, our kayaking organisation made it mandatory to wear PFDs for races – between all of those things we’ve managed to change the way people feel about safety gear.
    But of course, you still get the cowboys who go without PFD or other safety gear… all you can do is talk to them.

  • More great comments. Thanks everyone.

    Here’s another relevant comment from the previous article on the website, which is just a quick post about paddling in the Apostle Islands and a trip we took to film a video there. Chris Porter writes:

    Great video guys. As a guide in Bayfield who has lead many commercial tours in the mainland Sea Caves, I wish you had discussed some of the safety considerations of going in the Sea Caves. The biggest factor is having calm weather. Even waves of a foot or so can rebound and cause difficulties for experienced paddlers. There have been 2 fatalities and many incidents in my many years of guiding that have been caused by inexperienced paddlers attempting the sea caves in rough conditions. Also, you must learn to self rescue. Keeping yourself out of the water and in your boat is the key to survival on Lake Superior. Last but not least, having good sea kayaks with bulkheads that will keep your boat floating even if the cockpit is flooded is paramount. I see too many people in little rec boats attempting the sea caves everyday. Learn your gear, learn your techniques and learn your rescues. The Apostle Island Sea Caves can be as deadly as they are beautiful.

    I reply:

    When experienced kayakers head to a location to film a video about how cool a place is, do they have a responsibility to inform the viewer about safety issues? How many safety issues? How about for a video about hiking in the mountains? Should every video out there explain the 10 essentials, about breaking a leg? Or does every video about kayak surfing or surfing on Lake Superior need to talk specifically about the dangers of doing so? If so, then Unsalted is flawed. Or should the viewers be responsible for figuring that out on their own? Your comment raises interesting questions.

  • Bryan,

    I am confused in the narrative, was the woman you saw exiting the channel the same woman you saw outside the breakers?

    If it was, what was the transition between being ok and wanting a rescue?

    • What channel?

      It was the same woman. I added “Her next try put her on the water” to the narrative to clear up the text a bit where I assume it got confusing.

      The transition from being okay to frightened was almost immediately after she got on the water. I think when I demoed landing she got even more frightened, because on the first go, I went on a bigger set and was consumed in the wave. I went back out to demo it a second time on a smaller set. I think yelling that she wanted a rescue was more to calm her nerves and from fear than really wanting the entire rescue to happen. I made a google map for you.

  • Hmm. Funny. From all my nasty swims on the great lakes, I never said to the heavens “send the helicopter”. I always either got back in, or swam for it. Granted I was stupid and alone.

    Interesting. I concur that there is the moral quandry, I often ask myself what I would have done if I had run into Mitch Fajman and his friends on the day they launched. I had planned on being at the beach at the same time. Maybe I would have wound up where you did.

    Failure can be a great teacher, but as death is final, it teaches nothing to the deceased.

    I have to wonder though, if there are just a few people in almost every sport who pick up the gear, head out and then get in over their heads right away.

    Imagine downhill skiing. How many yahoos go up to the top of the toughest hill on the lift and just ski down without knowing how to stop or turn or anything. There have to be a few? I vacillate between thinking none, and at least one. It just seems in the Great Lakes, we have 1 every few weeks. If you worked a ski hill you might see “that guy” once or twice a day and shake your head as the ski patrol stretchers him down the mountain.

    I also wonder about your comment on the destination filming for something like unsalted, is there a responsibility, or should the not too common sense kick in and have someone say, “hey it looks big, mean cold and nasty out there?” How many surfers do you see in Minnesota head out in early spring with no immersion protection and no idea of how to surf? Not many I bet.

    • That’s a good point. There’s something about paddling that must seem safe to people. There must be some kind of I’m-not-going-to-fall-in mentality that makes it feel safe until they fall in.

  • Bryan, excellent post. I’ve never been in Grand Marais, including August and September, when even the water in the harbor has been comfortable for swimming. I started to write a detailed comment and it turned into a blog post. I think ‘Groundhog Day’ is apt for what we run into, especially at Little Sand Bay and Meyers Beach in the Apostles. I guess we just keep chipping away.
    PS Watch our for that Wikle guy up in GM, MI. He’s nothing but trouble!

  • A couple of observations:

    1. Perhaps it would be useful to cite a dry land parallel. “If you were at a club with some friends and someone got really drunk, would you try to take their car keys from them?” The risks are similar and the moral dilemma that they have imposed on you is similar, and it’s a context in which they don’t feel a need to be defensive about their relative lack of knowledge. And they’ve probably heard about it before. It’s like you’re the only one who is sober.

    2. A physician friend who deals with such things told us that when kids get organ transplants they usually do pretty well until they get to their late teens/early twenties. It is not uncommon for them to decide that they are nineteen and invinceable and don’t need to take their meds anymore. So their immune system kicks in and starts to reject the transplant and things get really exciting and some of them make it and some don’t. My point being that it is more difficult with that audience, for developmental/biological reasons, to communicate risk effectively.

  • For me the answer lies in Loren Eisely’s “The Star Thrower”.

    “While wandering a deserted beach at dawn, stagnant in my work, I saw a man in the distance bending and throwing as he walked the endless stretch toward me. As he came near, I could see that he was throwing starfish, abandoned on the sand by the tide, back into the sea. When he was close enough I asked him why he was working so hard at this strange task. He said that the sun would dry the starfish and they would die. I said to him that I thought he was foolish. there were thousands of starfish on miles and miles of beach. One man alone could never make a difference. He smiled as he picked up the next starfish. Hurling it far into the sea he said, “It makes a difference for this one.” I abandoned my writing and spent the morning throwing starfish.”

    The tricky bit is to know when to intervene. If I see a potentially life threatening scenario, I’ll always butt in, if someone is just doing something stupid and the likely outcome is a good learning opportunity, I’ll usually let it develop.

  • […] What’s Our Burden as More Experienced Kayakers?: A look at the responsibility of looking out for the inexperienced when they unknowingly put themselves in danger. This was a result of running into a recreational kayaker while on Lake Superior. […]

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