-- The following is adapted from Nick Carlson’s post on his Outside Adventure to the Max blog.
Good judgement is the result of experience and experience the result of bad judgement. –Mark Twain
All my friends and family know I like to kayak and paddle. I don’t really consider myself an expert, but paddling is a very big part of my life. I’ve guided trips, taught classes, taken classes, and I have experienced many days on the water. Like many, I think about paddling daily. When I’m not paddling, I’m either writing or reading about it.
So I was not surprised when friends and coworkers asked for my take about the tragedy that happened on Lake Superior just prior to Labor Day weekend, yet another loss of life on this dangerous waterbody. I’m sure many of you have had the same questions from your non-paddling friends.
The conversation went something like this.
“Did you hear about the family that died kayaking?”
Across the country, as casual paddling gains popularity, kayaking accidents are more and more common. That increase is according to 2013-2017 data from the Coast Guard, compiled by the ACA [Ed note: Despite the increase, there was a slight downturn last year in total fatalities for all types of paddling, including canoeing and SUP]. And then there’s the endless anecdotal reminders online — a quick Google search revealed several kayak accidents reported over the Labor Day holiday.
In Florida, a family's kayaking trip turned into a nightmare after getting lost in the dark. A medic had to leap from a helicopter and navigate them back to shore. In Iowa, rescue crews searched for a man whose kayak overturned in rain-swollen Indian Creek. While in Los Angeles, authorities investigated after a kayaker was struck and killed by a 50-foot boat near Marina del Rey.
But the biggest news of the past holiday weekend was the loss of a father and three children while kayaking on Lake Superior. It was the banner headline on every newscast and paper across the country.
Mother is the only survivor after a family of five’s kayak capsizes on Lake Superior headlined CNN. ‘Utter disbelief’: Loyal in shock after father, 3 children die in kayaking accident, read the Wausau Daily Herald. You get the idea. With kids onboard, this kayaking accident left many–including those in the paddling community and those outside–asking how could something like this happen?
Back to the conversation with my non-paddling friend.
“It’s pretty tragic,” I responded, almost at a loss for words. It was such horrible news in an activity that, for people like me, brings so much joy and exhilaration.
“What do you think happened?” my friend asked. “Why were they out there with their kids?”
“I don’t know,” I said, shaking my head. I immediately thought back to the time I paddled on Lake Superior just under Split Rock Lighthouse near Two Harbors, Minn. Alone in the vastness of the big lake, I have never felt so small in a kayak. I was a speck on a giant sea, ready to be squashed.
“Lake Superior is a mean animal. It’s not to be taken lightly ever. It will kill you in a second if you do. I think they were overmatched. Yeah, they took their kids and I’m sure they thought they were being safe and everything would be just fine. But that lake can be a killer. You need to take the utmost precautions.”
I didn’t want to come off as callous to my friend, but I questioned the family’s paddling experience and their judgment. I’m sure kayakers would have been cringing if they watched the Fryman family leaving Madeline Island in a 13 ½-foot open-top tandem kayak for a 4-mile paddle across open water to Michigan Island. On a lake known for aborted crossings, the route is rarely traveled by experienced paddlers because they knew the area is prone to strong winds and waves. When the family’s kayak capsized somewhere between Stockton and Michigan islands hours later, Eric Fryman, of Loyal, Wisconsin, and his three children tried to swim to shore.
They never made it. Only his wife, the children’s mother, Cari Mews-Fryman, survived.
“Some of the places that people want to go kayaking are incredibly attractive but also deceptively dangerous,” Superintendent of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore Bob Krumenaker, told the Star Tribune. “This particular incident happened in a place that is not often traversed by people on kayaks, and for good reason.”
Across the social media pages I follow, boaters questioned the family’s choice of boat and their lack of safety equipment. Sure every family member was wearing a PFD, but area outfitters also recommend that paddlers wear proper clothing, such as wetsuits to help protect against hypothermia, and bring along emergency supplies such as food, flares and a radio.
The family’s 13 ½-foot kayak seemed to draw the most ire on Twitter and Facebook. Open and sit-on-top kayaks are great for sunny days along the shore, but don’t fare well against sea-like elements and can fill with water and capsize.
“That family shouldn’t have been on the big lake in the kayak they were in,” tweeted Bryan Hansel, an adventurer and photographer in Grand Marais, Minn. “It’s tragic not only in loss of life but also because it was needless. That’s a very public lesson that others need to learn.”
Which brings me back to their lack of good judgment. Krumenaker told the Star Tribune that the trek would have been difficult for even the most experienced paddlers. “We want everyone who comes here to kayak to come here a second time to kayak,” he said. “Knowing that the lake is dangerous, I think, is really an important part of the experience.”
“Hopefully, it happens when the consequences are small,” author and kayaker Bryant Burkhardt once told me in an interview. “But every paddler I know has some story of when things went wrong. What you learn from those experiences very much determines what type of paddler you become. For me, the important part was to always improve my judgment. That's what makes a good paddler in my eyes. Someone who honestly appraises their own skills, whether high or low. Someone who thinks through their decisions and understands risk versus reward. Someone who understands that just because everything worked out, in the end, it doesn't mean good decisions were made in the beginning.”
The conversation with my friend ended with me saying this:
“I’ve been out on Lake Superior and San Francisco Bay. The ocean and big lakes can be pretty amazing, but on the other hand can feel really intimidating. Maybe, that’s why I prefer rivers.”
-- Check out C&K’s series on PADDLING SAFELY, including our recent Paddling Accident series reminders with the Water Sports Foundation to always dress for immersion, and to always paddle with a partner and a plan.
-- See more from Nick Carlson’s blog, as well more of his work on C&K, weighing in on the 2016’s tragic kayaker-ferry accident in New York City, as well as a profile of a veteran paddling 2000 miles for suicide prevention awareness.