A cautionary tale for newbies

One summer, not long ago, my friends and I went kayak camping at Lake Tahoe. We went on a pre-trip to a smaller nearby lake just to figure out gear and work out the kinks, some of my friends had never been kayak camping before.
A loaded boat handles much differently than one without a bunch of camping gear.
The pre-trip was a good idea, however the place we chose to practice with the loaded boats did not have the same ecological issues as Lake Tahoe.
This would prove to be an important oversight during our trip.
First issue - the lake we practiced on was a very small one and although we learned a lot about maneuvering loaded boats, both on land and on the water, we needed to take much more into consideration.
Lake Tahoe is huge and even on a sunny summer day, the weather can change in a matter of minutes. Although my friends were in good condition, one had hand surgery almost a year prior, this would become a serious concern later.
Having lived at the Lake for about a decade, I knew all about the moods of the lake, how fast conditions can change, and how dangerous the lake can be even on a good sunny day without wind or thunderstorms.
Prior to our trip, we also had a sit down meeting, about three weeks prior to leaving, we sorted out who had made the camping reservations, who would ride with who and we figured out food and meals etc, I felt it important to talk about the weather, safety and how dramatic things can get, we covered everything, or so we thought.
One of my friends would be riding with me in my van, the one who had surgery on her hand. We would meet our other friends at the campsite for dinner.
I was scheduled to provide dinner that night and deviously stopped at a local Thai restaurant not far from the campground, ensuring full bellies and happy campers, thankfully nobody was disappointed.
Next morning, we broke camp and we’re on the water by 10am, headed to the second campground via the lake. We had much to do that morning, secure the cars against bears, park in a designated area, walk a mile to the launch beach and then we were off, happy to be on the water.
All of us had water experience, some more than others, all had over two years experience on the water on their boats.
I knew the wind would pick up in the afternoon, which it did. Two of the paddlers hugged the shore basically avoiding the waves, which were building. The other friend was doing well, following me off shore, in the middle of the wave action. I loved it and my kayak handled the waves perfectly.
White caps were starting to form about a half an hour from our put in site for the next campsite. I looked back to see my buddy getting further and further behind.
I was concerned enough to pull up to some rocks along the shoreline, pulled about half of my gear out of my kayak to lighten my boat and headed back out to check in with my friend.
I asked how her hand was and she reluctantly replied that it was a bit sore. I tied her bow to a line which I tied to my stern and proceeded to tow my buddy in, at first she objected a bit, but I could see the relief in her eyes.
After retrieving my gear and putting in at a sheltered beach by the campground, we set up camp and after dinner had a chat to talk about what happened and why.
It turns out she had a kayak with higher gunnels (the sides of her boat were taller than all of the other boats), she had a smaller river runner kayak (not a good choice for a mountain lake trip) everyone else had recreational kayaks, with a lower profile, longer and more sturdy in winds.
She was far enough offshore to be impacted broadside by the wind and although the waves were hitting us head on, she was struggling, losing ground so to speak.
The combination of the weakness of her hand, the profile of her boat, the wind and waves could have resulted in a perfect storm of negative impacts on her day.
Lesson learned.
Even though we were prepared for changing weather conditions, the type of boat she owned and her underestimating how weak her hand was could have ended very badly.
So if you are newer to kayaking and are planning a trip anywhere for any length of time, consider every aspect of your trip.

Safe travels, happy paddling and camping!!

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Leave as a group the group should stay together. Why would you have to remove your gear to go back to your friend? How far back was she? What kayak did she have and the rest of the group have? Mismatched kayaks are always a problem. Weaker paddlers should never be left behind.

Just my thoughts.


Thanks for your story. Lake Tahoe is a very unforgiving lake. I had a sailboat up there for about 6 years. It is cold, big water and there is nowhere to hide. Finding camping spots can be difficult. The fetch is 25 miles long allowing for the building of some really large waves. People surf on it believe it or not. I have paddled canoes on it maybe a half dozen times. Fine when it is calm. Once the wind comes up trying to hit the beach is a challenge in breaking waves.

Wear a PFD and dress for immersion. We have fatalities on the Lake very year.

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The waves are especially bad at Hurricane Bay near Timberland on the westshore, which is where most surfers find waves. Waves don’t normally get big enough to surf on unless you’re in the middle of winter though. We ended up hitting whitecaps right around Farley Beach and Emerald Point where Emerald Bay is, late summer. We were probably more at risk from thunderstorms during that time of year, than high waves.
Yes the lake can be very moody and people die there every year some from pure stupidity or from hypothermia.
I have the upmost respect for that lake and in fact any body of water.
Having lived with the fire marshal in Tahoe City, I was privy to much of a decades worth of accidents and injuries in the Lake Tahoe basin.

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Our group was never out of line of sight from each other during the entire trip. I removed my camping gear to make my boat lighter because I was going to be towing her boat which was full of gear, It was a good decision because it made my boat faster, and it allowed the boat to ride higher up in the water, which made it so that it wasn’t impacted so much by waves.
Everybody brought their own kayaks, so we had no control over that. My friend was comfortable in her knowledge of her boat right up until this trip.
She was not a weaker paddler, Nor was she left behind. She was just out of shouting distance she would’ve been within shouting distance had the wind not been so strong. A year after the surgery she was cleared by her physician to take this trip he said she was strong enough to do it and after being in physical therapy and being cleared by her physical therapist says well she saw no reason not to go.
Had she been in a recreational kayak like a sit on top or sit inside probably a 13 footer or longer, more than likely she would’ve been fine. It was the combination of the wind and the waves increasing during the day and the fact that her boats has higher gunnels added to her hand being less than stellar in condition, which like I said would probably have been OK in a bigger boat. So there was no fault here with anyone my point is that even when you’re as prepared as we were a combination of things that probably would not have been an issue elsewhere (Which is why we had our shake down paddle…specifically to determine if there was any problems, which they were not) - Clearly either had to be a perfect combination of things to have created an issue.
Which is my point in creating this post, is that the smallest things can sometimes be become a larger issue if there are other factors involved, even if all the boxes have been checked.

Good food for thought. Thanks for posting

Per your statements there were NO surprises on the trip: people, boats, weather, etc. The fact that you had problems to me reflects poor planning and anticipation. Your problems are not surprising. Wind, waves, differing / inappropriate boats, differing abilities and comfort levels, not staying as a single group, not staying with your “partner”. Your post is useful to demonstrate s**t can happen on any trip.


Thank you for sharing your experience.

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Taking the wrong boat for the conditons and overestimating one’s capabilities are pretty common factors in tragedies, so is weather that gets worse after launching. It seems like it’s always a combination of 2 or more things that get folks into trouble. Thanks for posting.


rnsparky - If you want to lay blame at my feet, be my guest. As someone invited to this trip by friends, I took the initiative to discuss with everyone the weather patterns and to go on a shakedown trip prior to going to the lake. As for your statement of having NO SURPRISES, there are ALWAYS SURPRISES, some positive, some negative. I recognized my friend was lagging behind, and I took the initiative to do something about it BEFORE anything happened, it wasn’t the two other kayakers with us, who initiated the trip. When I got to my friend in the boat, she was reluctant to have me tow her, I would not take no for an answer. I did not have problems, as I wrote, I was doing just fine, and I did pre-plan and prepare and anticipate an issue which could have been serious. I guess you blipped over that part. As an adult paddler, my friend was responsible for being honest about her limitations (what, am I going to beat it out of her, seems like you are looking to place blame and like I wrote, that is up to and on you. I did everything humanly possible to make certain the people I was paddling with were okay, even though it was not my trip, and I was not in charge.

So what exactly was she in? Something less capable than a 13" rec boat?

My kayaks get less affect by waves with gear in them. My hulls are more stable with gear. They lose little speed with gear. What were you in exactly?

As far as her hand goes anyone can go out 100% healthy and have an injury come up. Any trip you’re in is your trip.

You were all learning about manuvering loaded boats seems like a problem to me. I am not more than a daily trip paddler. I go to the beach for the day with tent good and other comfort items. Not really like going for two or three weeks worth of gear and supplies. I have placed ballast in some of my boats to see how they handled. I wanted to have the experience and see the difference. I have put up to 50 lb in them for the experience.

I am not trying to pick or blame I think we’re are just all exploring the situation you were in for all our safety and experience. Everyone here has different opinions and methods which is why we discuss things here.

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If I am understanding your post correctly, the issue that caused you to drop off gear and put a tow line on your friend happened within a not too long distance of the camp site you were going to. But your friend’s tiredness from managing the wind and waves was making her unsafe to finish the last part without assistance.
Frankly good on your for having a tow option available. Most people who paddle rec boats would not have had that ready.

Do I have this all right?

IMO, anyone who did not get caught out stupid some time in their earlier paddling days on big water is either a God or not following full disclosure. Most imperfect human beings paddling bigger water learned some amount of what they know by being slapped by Ma Nature. The ones commenting here made it home. I did once when it was 50/50 about being a newspaper story.

I would make a couple of suggestions for future trips on bodies like Lake Tahoe.

  1. Any lake or water body with that kind of fetch is IMO full out sea kayak water, not rec boats. We have two lakes in my area that have such fetch and tend to lose someone from a paddle boat every year on both of them. Granted the cause is often aggravated by fishermen in canoes who capsize without having a PFD on etc. But the capsize happened to start with because they were in boats not suited to the conditions.

  2. Wind over a big body of water, inland or coastal, will tend to build up on a warmer day starting midmorning and into the afternoon. I and my husband used to go out into the teeth of it in coastal Maine. But now that I am paddling solo I often skip a real breakfast so I am back at the cabin by 10am. When I do all day paddles I pick days with tons of head room in terms of conditions, which makes for boring flat paddles but I make it home safely.

  3. A loaded boat handling poorly in wind often points to a problem with trim. And that can vary by boat. I have two day boats, both sea kayaks, that I switch between in Maine and I load one the reverse of the other to get the trim right. Once in a while I go out short on coffee and realize just after starting a crossing that I got it backwards. Given that I paddle in very safe conditions it is annoying rather than fatal.
    A rec boat starts out being difficult to trim well for wind, because of the limited storage. Trimming most effectively is a lot easier with decent sized bulkheaded areas front and back.

  4. Unless you practiced this and did not mention it, what to me is missing from that pond work is practicing assisted rescues. With the fully loaded boats. You got away without needing to do that on this trip, but what shape would have been in had someone capsized? In wind and waves that complicate the rescue for even quite experienced paddlers, who are paddling sea kayaks with static line all around to help hang onto the boat?

I appreciate that you shared this. If you found the trip fun outside of this problem, you may want to get a boat featured like a proper sea kayak so you are set for bigger water.


We can learn to be careful on big water, cold water, and with people of unknown skill levels.
For any overnight trip I take people on a short day paddle. People do not want to look foolish. “Oh yeah, I grew up back East with a paddle in my hands.”

I took two friends to a local lake before a week long trip. I was in my OT Guide 18 kneeling solo. My two friends were in a modern 16 foot Bell. The wind came up. They could not control the boat and ended up walking the canoe back to the put in. I paddled back. It told me everything I needed to know.


This tale strikes me as an example of the classic “little things pile up” leading to potential incident and the OP broke the chain by lending a tow to the hand-surgery friend. The aid was unrequested but may have been the step that made this a tale for discussion instead of a tale of tragedy.


Totally agree with the OP that surprises happen. I’ve been surprised plenty of times, both solo and in groups. I also agree that it’s great that the OP had a tow rope. If everyone made an effort to over-prepare and be ready to help others I expect that a lot of bad situations would end up being minor problems.

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I took a group of 8 on the Willamette R in Oregon about 75 miles. It is mostly pretty easy but with some definite current. We ran into one bad spot where there was a chute with high speed current. A sweeper had lodged in the runout. One of our canoes capsized with the Eagle scout in the stern. I laid a rescue line right in front of the guy in the bow. He drifted into it. “Take the line” I yelled. “What?” We got em ashore and righted the boat.

After everyone had calmed down I took them back to the spot where they went over. I tried to explain why that was dangerous. They could not understand the concept. One draw stroke in the bow would have pushed them through the eddy line and out of danger. It was at that moment that I decided not to lead a large group ever again.


People refusing a tow is not that uncommon, even when someone is endangering or markedly slowing up the group. If it is a group trip with a leader, it should be made clear before getting on the water that all participants agree to abide by the leader’ instructions. The exceedingly rare exception would be if a large majority of the group deemed the leader as totally incompetent. The only time I have seen this is a case where a leader, supposedly a local, tried to lead a group to a lunch spot on a beach that was clearly marked on the charts as a restricted area of Aberdeen Proving Grounds with unexploded ordinance. That resulted in a mutiny.

In more than one case I have seen a trip leader or an assistant paddle up to the bow of a recalcitrant paddler and hook up a tow line. There’s little the person being towed can do in this situation. Needless to say the person that was towed was not invited back for subsequent paddles.

She had the wrong boat and she underestimated the possible conditions and her abilities 100%. That I was paying attention to her condition is what prevent a possible tragedy at the most, At the least she could’ve gotten a good dunking or overturned.
Because I’m such a stickler for safety I had requested meetings with these friends and or shake out trip to go over these issues.
She was in a little river runner kayak, Short with high sides, Great for the river, Not so great for the lake.
The bonuses since this trip she has rethought using that boat, and has talked about purchasing a canoe. :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye: I’m just thankful nothing worse happened and that everybody was safe. My reason for posting this is because you really can’t control the choices of other paddlers you’re paddling with even though if you were responsible caring human being you’re going to be impacted by their decision making, she wasn’t doing anything bad or intentionally attempting to be a jerk she was just an experienced and injured and she learned. It turned out to be a very positive experience but it was close to not being that

As long as she understands that an open canoe would probably be an even worse choice for big open water.

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