First local kayaker problem of 2020

Four kayakers got into trouble on the St Joseph river nearby today. Three went in the water, one self-rescued and one was rescued by emergency personnel. One still missing. Water temp around 39 and level up about 2 feet following some recent rain.

As of 10:30 AM they had located the 4th kayaker but have not yet revealed his condition – all they’ve reported is that he was taken to the hospital.

Hard to imagine they could have been very experienced or responsible launching in such conditions upstream of a dam.

That’s great news. With all the rescue personnel right in the area where the kayaker was lost I was not expecting a happy ending.

Unfortunately one of the kayakers didn’t make it.

On the evening news they said that the kayaker that died was trying to recover the empty boat of one of the others that went into the water when he flipped and came out of his boat and was drawn into the dam.

As the news article says you really need to know what you’re doing if you get on the river this time of year.

so sad, lots of risk factors- cold water, cold air temps, high water, and a dam were all obvious in the newscast

lots of unknowns- drysuits? pfds? previous experience with the conditions, level of boat control, debri or hydraulic from dam a factor?

one thing for certain- a tragedy for all involved (victim, families, friends, paddling partners, rescue personnel)

Why in the world would you take two people with no kayak experience on a trip in those conditions???

On the video above I saw someone dragging a rec kayak in the snow,. Not sure if that was one of the kayaks but if it was rec boaters most likely. Clearly cold as you can see the snow so dry suits required. They wont be the last.

Whenever a paddler is lost I hope that something (anything) good will come out of it. Whenever a local paddler is lost I wonder what we can do to help keep others safer. I don’t know if they have any warning signs at this nearby launch site but I can say that a sign with pictures of people that have lost their lives has made at least some people more cautious down at our local Lake Michigan pier.

You don’t know what you don’t know, as evidenced by these two teenagers who walked out on the Holland State Park Pier at 11:30 p.m. when Lake Michigan wave heights were over ten feet.

Locally, late on New Year’s Eve. My guess is that alcohol was involved.


In addition to the obvious risks of going out on a pier at night with ten foot waves or launching by a dam in fast current, both of these cases also seem like examples of the risks of trusting someone else with your safety versus taking personal responsibility and using your own judgement. If I remember correctly one of the other canoe forums had a good debate around whether it’s safer to paddle solo or in a group and many concluded that solo is safer. I can think of three examples where organized group paddles exposed me to danger that I would have avoided solo including one New Year’s Day paddle where a dozen boats swamped due to congestion in a fast/narrow section of river created by downfall on both river banks where the organizers had not scouted the route.

1 Like

Some folks would have benefitted from this video

1 Like

Another of those “By the grace of…” scenarios - unintentional body surfing a triple overhead wave off Santa Cruz:


1 Like

The group think thing is always a caution. But IMO at times this debate is misdirected.

If you are on a group trip in an area you don’t know, and are trusting the organizers to exercise the same prudence that you would, then it is the fault of the organizers if that risk materializes.

But as often it seems these stories have a point where one or two people in the group make a judgement call that one or two others do not agree with, but they don’t object because it seems that everyone else is in accord. The rest of the group may not be in agreement with the leaders, but if no one breaks the silence…

I and my husband got into a risk situation once via the second above. It never happened again. He/I learned to be the spoil sport. I can’t say it always left us or now me very popular, but 20 years later I am still muddling around on the water.

1 Like

tdaniel - good stuff. I actually sent a safety summary and a couple links to a local news station and encouraged them to do a more comprehensive water safety segment. Although they’ve done a pretty good job of providing safety tips for Lake Michigan swimmers, for boaters on local rivers it’s still pretty weak. Someone dies at a dam and they say be careful around dams. Someone dies not wearing a PFD and they say wear a PFD. Too reactive and doesn’t touch on the known common risks that may well take the next paddler.

sing - I can’t see your video…probably my fault. I do understand the concept of a high surf warning. I think a good percentage of Lake Michigan victims ignored warnings.

Celia - I totally agree with your points. I don’t go on a lot of organized paddles any more but one thing I pay attention to is WHO is organizing a paddle and how much trust I have in them. All three of my bad experiences were with organizers I didn’t know.

Yeah, I learned the hard (yet not fatal) way in my mid-20’s to not be too trusting of group intentions on the water. I had flat water canoe experience but had never been on whitewater in any craft when I went along with my outdoor club’s ww raft and kayak trip that was typical after our annual Spring activity and party weekend near the PA-WV border. The tradition was to rock climb on Saturday, party that night with a big barbecue and keg, then crawl out of our tents Sunday morning and do a leisurely 4 hour “beginner” float down a class 2 and mild 3 section of the Youghiogheny.

But at some point on Sunday morning, apparently when I was either in the outhouse or distracted breaking camp, the 30 or so members of the paddling contingent decided that there were no beginners on the trip so, hey, the gauge is way up so let’s drive a little further and hit the Cheat Canyon which is a 10 mile long class 3 to 5 trip at that level that takes about 7 hours with a large group.)

All I knew was that I got in the back of a windowless shuttle van with a bunch of folks and gear and we drove to a riverside launch where I helped inflate the club’s rafts and was placed in a two-man with an odd older guy I had never met before. I presumed we were launching for the short jaunt on the Yough until we had started floating a ways and my friend George paddled up beside us in his kayak and expressed surprise at seeing me. “I didn’t know you did whitewater, Kerry” says he. When I explained that this moderate Yough trip seemed as good a way to try it out as any he informed me that I was now on a river that required skills and experience I lacked. I was wearing nothing but old running shoes, cut off jeans, a tee shirt, a club horse collar PFD and my brother’s old hockey helmet. Fortunately it was a hot day and the river was warm anyway.

It was too late to bail out by then (it is a canyon). But George began a hasty tutoring of the basics as we approached the first set of rapids and vowed to track through each one and rescue me when necessary (he was one of our most skilled paddlers and guides who regularly tackled the New and Gauley Rivers, even during class 6 releases).

I was bounced out of the raft through the first set (class 3 I think) and entangled in the safety lines attached to the paddles, which briefly trapped me under the boat. I managed to stay in during the next rock garden zig zag but realized by then that my paddling companion in the raft was even more clueless than I was and did not seem to know his right from his left when I would scream directions to him. Though George continued to shadow me and scoop me out after my many dumps in rapids like Big Nasty, Even Nastier and High Falls, I was in a state of existential terror by then.

Fortunately, I’m one of those stoics who responds to crisis by digging in on a sort of automatic pilot rather than panicking. I concluded within the first hour that I was going to drown on that trip but vowed to keep myself alive for as long as I could just through sheer stubborn grit.

Before the 2nd hour had passed, most of the floor of our two man raft had ripped off, leaving us thigh-straddling what was essentially an oval inner tube. In retrospect, why the group did not mercifully swap me into one of the 6 man rafts is a puzzle. Maybe I looked more competent than I actually was.

I have very little memory of most of that trip – was mostly in gritted teeth survival mode. The climax of the Cheat Canyon is near the end at Upper and Lower Coliseum, essentially a set of waterfalls that cross the entire breadth of the river. By the time we got there I was running on pure adrenaline and anger. George coached us on the line in the pool above but as we approached, my dingbat partner froze, dropped his paddle and failed to help me aim into the tongue – raft hung up on a rock and spun us around and dropped straight into the boil. I made a split second decision to drop my paddle, fill my lungs and cling to the raft with every ounce of strength, figuring if I kept paddling I was just going to fall out anyway and be of no use. My partner was already falling off but he was swept cleanly down into the pool beyond. I may-tagged several cycles with a deathgrip on the raft, catching a breath when I could – seemed like a long time underwater. Then suddenly the raft and I shot out of the hole, upright over a big wave and into the pool beyond! We were among the last of the group through that section and everyone that had been ahead was standing on shore or eddied out along the bank. I got a whooping applause from the group as I eddied in myself and George came up behind me to report I was the only one of the rafters who managed to stay with their boat through Coliseum. I think I left my fingerprints embedded in the rubber. George had tried to get to me in his kayak when he saw me go under and was surprised when he saw me pop back up downstream. I was never so glad to reach a take out in my life. I was so whooped I don’t think I said a word the whole way home that night and recall passing out on my sofa still fully dressed.

I was black and blue for several weeks after that adventure and developed a permanent dislike of whitewater. I also never again trusted anyone else to organize a trip I was joining without getting detailed info beforehand on the location, conditions, time frame and thoroughness of their planning.

Somebody did persuade me 30 years later to kayak that moderate section of the Yough I had THOUGHT I was paddling that first time. Well-planned trip that round but I also hated it.


Wow - that’s a story - nothing like a couple of long, scary swims to make you realize what is important in life, and what isn’t. I’m pretty careful about where I go and who I paddle with for just that reason. In the end, when you are in the water, you are on your own. Great story.

The fact is that human beings are lousy at assessing risk, in general. That’s why we tend to freak out over extremely rare events like plane crashes and terrorist attacks, but happily get in our cars every day, where we’re hundreds or thousands of times more likely to die.

Most people - even most paddlers - have little concept of how deadly cold water can be. I will always be grateful that I started paddling with a club that took training seriously and I had the opportunity to spend a lot of time in cold water during winter workshops and our annual spring training sessions. There’s nothing like bobbing around in 28-40 degree salt water to drive home how critical it is to be properly dressed and prepared. Yet every year, during the inevitable 70-degree weekend in April, I see people paddling in shorts and T-shirts, typically without PFDs, when the water is still 40 degrees. If you point out the danger to them, their response is always “We’re not planning on going in the water”. Ugh! Once in a great while, I’ll convince someone to put their hand in the water and see how long they can keep it there. They’re always shocked at how painful it is. Then I mention “Now, imagine that pain over your entire body”. I don’t know if it’s ever changed anyone’s behavior, but at least I’ve tried.


Tell me about it…
If it weren’t for my EXCELLENT guardian angels I would have been gone many times over the last 75 years…

Yes, exactly: “imagine that pain over your entire body.”

When my dad, who had been a driver and interpreter with the US Army Engineer Corps in Europe during WW II (where he had to scout ahead of the battle lines into occupied territories), taught me to drive a car he instilled in me a habit that I call “constructive pessimism”. He told me the first steps in driving are to get in the car, fasten the seat belt and then take a few seconds to imagine the sights and sounds and feel of you and your vehicle crashing into something, with glass breaking in front of your face and twisted metal crushing your legs. Then take a deep breath and start the car.

I thought the idea was ghoulish but did not resist or question it. And it stuck with me. I became a very defensive and attentive driver. Not in a “geezer in the right lane crawling along with the flashers on” mode – I do drive as fast as conditions and the law allow but follow Dad’s additional training about planning my route in advance, judging and pacing the flow of traffic, looking far ahead to plan my line (like scouting a river), separating emotions from driving and always presuming that all the drivers around me are being oblivious and unpredictable. I took high speed-driving classes when I had the opportunity so I had direct experience at managing skids under controlled conditions and used to go to empty icy parking lots on winter weekends to practice winter driving. I have also chosen to drive manual transmission cars whenever possible so that I have more direct control and awareness of my vehicle.

I’ve driven close to 1,000,000 miles in my life with no accidents other than a few parking lot fender benders and being rear-ended at high speed once when I was at a full stop on an interchange ramp. My underlying awareness while driving is that I am split a second away from maiming or death, of myself or someone else. As a result there are very few people that I am comfortable being a passenger with. Those with whom I can relax in a car have earned my respect for being as careful and aware as I am and I thank them for that.

I took the same attitude (what can go wrong and what do I need to do in this moment to make sure it does not?) with me in my career as a construction project manager and when I got into leading wilderness recreation trips and guiding in my late 20’s.

I should explain that I don’t claim sanctimonious “virtue” for being so pessimistically cautious. This attention to possible negative outcomes is because I am fundamentally VERY lazy. Having to deal with crises, especially those you did not foresee and prepare for, is time-consuming and demands more effort and commitment than which I care to be burdened.

Like the old saw says: A stitch in time saves nine. Or per my early Girl Scout training: Be Prepared.

Using your imagination to visualize the worst outcome in advance is the best way to avoid stumbling into it. No, this attitude doesn’t make me constantly anxious but rather less so. Besides, I claim that the advantage of being a pessimist is that you are never shocked or disoriented when things do go bad but are (more frequently) pleasantly surprised when they don’t.

And per what Brian says above – I am exponentially more relaxed flying than I am getting into a car.