Kayaker Fatality-is it the right question?

There have been a ton of posts already about the tragic death on Lake Superior of Kevin Dammen.

The media has covered this event from different angles, and even CASKA’s Tom Bamonte’s post did an excellent job of elucidating the dual-nature of our sport.

One thing that continues to strike me each time there is a new death on the Great Lakes in the sport of kayaking is that the media asks a series of questions, which are invariably the wrong questions. Where was the paddler headed? Who was with them? How cold was the water? What was the weather like? And if the reporter is especially ambitious they might ask how much experience the paddler had. These are all good questions that help fill in the story for a local paper. But it does point at a larger gap in the understanding of fatal kayaking incidents. They certainly never ask if the kayaker had a skirt on the kayak, which may not have been the case with Kevin. The never ask if the kayaker could roll, perform a self-rescue, or a t-rescue? They never ask if the kayaker attended any ACA/BCU training session.

My aha moment is that according to non-paddlers, the media, search and rescue from the DNR, police, and Coast Guard it seems to be based around the idea that kayakers are essentially un-powered boaters. This intuitive or cognitive leap may sound like no big deal, but stick with me.

Interestingly I called the Wisconsin DNR after they did a nice write up to try and inform paddlers about potential risks. Though from my point of view, the article from the DNR achieved more from the point of view of body recovery in a search and rescue than it did in preventing incidents from occurring.

The Wisconsin DNR essentially told me that in search and rescue, their reporting of incidents is based around power boating. How many hours had the victim/pilot logged, and so forth, but nothing in the details about paddling experience, or skills. While this is an after the fact record of the details, it does illuminate that much of the focus on safety and searches revolves around power boating for the Wisconsin DNR. Sounds fair as this is the majority of the boating activity. Kayaks and Canoes make up a smaller portion of recreational boating.

From my trips to Bayfield the National Park Service does ask some very good questions of paddlers headed out to the Apostle Islands. How long are you staying? Where will you be each night? Do you know about the bears? Do you know how cold the water is? They may even ask if you have a wetsuit or a drysuit. Because a kayak sits in the water and the paddler is literally inches above the water, we are more half-swimming than we are half-boating. The types of questions asked of a kayaker do not probe into the nature of our sport. Doug Van Doren has a saying that boaters like boats, and kayakers like the water.

I can say from my time in kayaking that I do not care for big boats, I like to get wet. Staying dry is not part of my interest in the sport. Certainly kayak surfing has taught me plenty about the eventuality of a swim, more than the unlikelihood of a swim. Based on this thought process even the basic safety propositions from inexperienced paddlers and the National Park Service fails to address this fundamental conceptual difference in our sport, our passion and our safety. We are a unique in that we are both endurance athletes and a skill-centric sport. This isn’t to say that sailing/powerboating don’t have their skills, but there is certainly a very different level of emphasis.

If we understand our safety from a perspective of being half-swimming everywhere we go with a paddle, the Great Lakes begin to look a little different. Perhaps more ominous, bigger, and less friendly, but maybe this helps clarify our abilities.

My question to Great Lakes Sea Kayakers is this:

If we were to offer a new series of questions for the National Park Service to ask before they turned kayakers loose on Lake Superior to do overnight trips in the Apostle Islands, what would it be?

In the spirit of Kayak Quixotica’s Kayaker Peer Review post, what would this series of questions look like from our community. I will be calling the National Park Service and suggesting a list to propose to the park and I’d love to hear your feedback.

Picture if a Park Ranger asked you these questions prior to your Apostle Islands Trip. Not to prevent you from doing a trip, but to inform you of the risks.

  • Do you have the ability to receive weather updates either on land or on the water during your trip? From a Marine VHF radio or wireless device?
  • Are you able to self-rescue your kayak with either an eskimo-roll, or a cowboy re-entry in rough water
  • Can you perform a t-rescue for a companion that has exited their kayak in deep water?
  • Does your kayak have a sprayskirt to keep water from entering the cockpit?
  • Does your kayak have bulkheads fore and aft to keep it from sinking should you swim while at sea?
  • Does your kayak have full static rescue lines to allow for a tow? Does anyone in your group possess and know how to use a tow-belt?
  • Do you have immersion protection to adequately protect you against the current air and water temps?
  • Do you have a signaling device to call for aid? Radio, cell-phone, flares, smoke?
  • What is your groups collective decision process for go/no go based on risk factors such as cliffs, waves, wind, and temperatures?
  • How far can you paddle a day in winds at five knots, ten knots, fifteen knots? etc.

There will always be those who will not care about these questions and proceed anyway. However I would argue that if a beginning group with any common sense heard this at the ranger station they might make some decisions differently.

What’s your checklist?


  1. Hi Keith – Your post hit on many ideas a few of my friends and I have been discussing. And it all stems around asking questions, knowledge, and safety. People just do not understand the rules, the playing field, and the potential injuries that can occur in our sport.

    Before I take any person out on the water I ask them similar questions.

    I think if more people read about your ten bullet point questions in the glamorous outdoor magazines, at kayak rental sites, and received instruction from an ACA or BCU instructor/coach, then people would make safer decisions. – Jeff

  2. I was talking to the park ranger at Meyers Beach (part of the Apostle Islands) yesterday about the incidents they have had there recently. He agree with the sentiment expressed here, that it is very difficult to convince naive folks that the dangers of Lake Superior are very real and DO apply to them. He told me that just 2 weeks ago, two young girls were heading out in rec boats and bikinis. One of them flipped, and her friend could not get her back into the boat. After bobbing around for 20 minutes (by which time she was becoming hypothermic), a professionally guided group happened to come by and save her. So, conversation alone may not be enough when dealing with folks that simply are not even aware of how much they don’t know.

    The only approach I’ve heard of that actually worked was having the conversation with both parties standing in 2 feet of COLD lake water (but, of course, only the experienced paddler was wearing a wetsuit and booties). After a minute or two of talking, the reality of what it would mean to actually flip in the conditions at that time began to set in, and “I know what I’m doing” was replaced by “So, where would be a better place for me to paddle today?”

  3. I’ve posted on this issue, unfortunately, 4 times in the past 6 years. Our trip guidelines for Superior trips (and we are SKOAC, Superior Kayak & Outdoor Adventure Club) require those items you discussed plus a pdf with a signal whistle that is WORN on all club trips, a first aid kit for people and a repair kit for boats, and proper clothing for anything from 90F and humid to 40F with horizontal sleet. As they say you can lead a horse to water but can’t make it drink. “LIghten up dude, I know what I”m doing” ranks just behind “Hold my beer and watch this” as famous last lines in Wisconsin. I guess we just keep hammering but I like the idea of a few more questions or maybe a list sent out when you apply for your permit. May have to run that past the park guys……..see you in a couple weeks!

    • Dave,

      Awesome, I like the lighten up dude, and hold my beer and watch this.

      Definitely interested to hear how it goes with the Park Guys! Keep me posted.

  4. basic questions of reporting: who, when, where, what, how, & why. In that context, esp. w. 3 survivors, a reporter could provide info as to who was involved, the weather, intended course, what happened, and why (in this case) the events led to a fatality.

    In that sense the news article was a good effort. Better than most I’ve read in the last several years. The details including the conditions (small craft advisory) and gear (wetsuit not worn in water temps of 40- 43 degrees) provided key info. Apparently the deceased was found in the process of putting one piece of the wetsuit on (which is already, sadly, too late.)

    But I will bet you an assortment of pastries at Coco’s Cafe in Washburn that the very next week people were going out in similar kayaks, dressed in similar fashion, underequipped and underskilled esp. for an unforgiving lake like Superior. And I will lay a second bet for a full breakfast that most would brush off any idea of being briefed or put to questioning by rangers or coasties as an intrusion of the nanny state and an infringement on their intrinsic right to paddle the way they want to paddle. There are a lot of paddlers who are fiercely independent and quite frankly dismiss paddling fatalities of this nature with a cold assessment of the “Darwin Effect” which “thins the herd.”

    Regardless of locale, most beat reporters, sheriffs, etc., even Coast Guard personnel, would have the knowledge to ask the more detailed questions regarding a kayak skirt over a smaller cockpit (in this case, a neoprene one over a nylon skirt, to inhibit implosion in the waves), ability to T rescue, cowboy scramble, ability to roll, presence of bulkheads, full perimeter rigging, etc.

    Further details like a compass, a bilge pump, tow line or tow belt, a VHS marine radio (and, more importantly, the knowledge how to use one swiftly) are very rarely if ever mentioned, unless the radio is used to make a distress call.

    Unless they are a proficient seakayaker (not a casual & occasional person who goes out in a recreational kayak) they will not ask about what they do not know about.

    At least this article avoided the weary misrepresentation of many a deceased paddler (canoe or kayak) as “experienced”, when they clearly made a number of mistakes in judgement, equipment, skill level matched to conditions, etc, that an “experienced” paddler would not.

    This young man, while bravely telling his friends to leave him and take his companion to shore, while he waited partially dressed in 40 degree water and building waves in a small craft advisory, was not the one to be making decisions of that nature.

    Never should someone be left alone in conditions, in their boat and esp. out of the boat and in the water. The first priority is to get the swimmer(s) out of the water and secondly back in their boats. We know that in our rescue training.

    I wonder if any of these young men knew about what a “small craft advisory” actually means, or what hypothermia is and how to recognize the signs and treat it. It seems tragically clear they did not have training in rescues by the events that ensued.

    Even with no skills in doing self or assisted rescues, the persons who remained in their boats could have easily rafted up, creating in effect a stable pontoon, and both men in the water could have crawled up on the stern decks or conversely assumed a defensive posture laying on their backs, each grasping a bow. This would at least have kept their vital organs out of the water while another plan was formulated to get back to shore. You, Keith, demonstrated that in a class we took at Grand Marais last year.

    With practice one can paddle in to calm water or ashore w. a person on the stern – but one must know of this option and practice it.

    The stable pontoon created would have helped stay upright in the conditions til they could assess options like these or others.

    It is sad. For $45- $85 in a simple beginners’ class they could have learned some or all of these techniques. And being the compassionate young man he was, Dammen would have no doubt taught them to others.

    Now he is dead, far too soon, far too young. And why? That is the article that will never be written.

    Sorry for the long post but with each fatality this is ever more deeply on my mind.

  5. Great list of questions to ask sk trippers and we plan to include these questions in a modified format in emails to groups renting sea kayaks.


    • Wow,

      considering the number of renters and how great your shop is, I'll take that as a good sign that I wasn't just blowing hot air.

  6. In my opinion, the people who already know what a bulkhead or a t-rescue is probably don’t need any checklist. It’s the ones that have no idea about any of the equipment or skills that do. The latter crowd, when faced with questions about things they don’t know about will probably be put off, ignore them and paddle away.

    Apparently, the national park service has some kind of board at the Apostle Islands launch sites with warnings and a checklist of sorts. I don’t know what it contains but it would be good to find out before we jump into this any further.

    With that, like the DNR article referenced, I would focus squarely on the go versus no-go issue with as few criteria for making this decision as possible–very very short list. Likelihood of swimming, ways to estimate that likelihood, water temperature, and wetsuit would be on the top of my list.

    Any questions I would pose would (1) direct the paddlers’ attention to wind strength, direction and wave size and (2) encourage reflection on their ability to stay upright in their boat in those conditions. I’d beg: “If you have never paddled in waves over 1 foot, don’t make this your first time!” I think that a table with specific survival times based on the water temperature would be a very sobering in-your-face reminder. Ability to call for help on the VHF would be great but if the reader does not have one at the launch spot, that question would probably not influence their decision to go.

    In my opinion questions about rescue equipment and maneuvers are irrelevant. Those who know about them don’t need the reminder, those who don’t have no way of factoring those factors into their decision making.

  7. I tend to like questions that start “Have you ever….”, “Are you able…” or “Do you know…”.

    – Do you know what the weather and marine forecasts are for the next few days?

    – Have you paddled in those conditions?

    – Do you know how to signal for help if you end up needing it?

    – Have you ever practiced rescuing someone in the conditions that are forecast?

    – Have you ever swam in water that is as cold as the current water temperatures?

    – Do you know that very few paddlers expect to capsize when they launch from the beach?

    – Look at your equipment! Are you F’ing kidding me? 😉 Just saying…