Wind, waves,, and the go or no-go decisions

Another death. And more that I remember. J-rig flipped in the Grand Canyon.

The water, the raging river or the tiny stream in the backyard, the pond, the tiny lake, the Great Lake, they have all had the same lesson. When people talk of wilderness tripping, it is some far away place, BUT it is not far away. Once you are 10 feet from shore, a single boat length out, I water deeper than what you waded into to step into your wet-foot canoe, or kayak, you are now in the wilderness. You are in the wilderness. That stream in the backyard has been there for 200 years? 1,000 years? And the surface, the current, the wind are no different now, no less dangerous now than they have ever been.

Worse, much worse, wind, waves, water do not normally kill people, schedules do.

It is Saturday, and my day to paddle and come hell or high water, I am gonna paddle. I must be back to work on Monday promptly at 8AM. I have a plane to catch, will we be back in time? All of this is so very wrong.

DO NOT PUSH OFF IF THE WIND OR WATER IS NOT RIGHT. There is no schedule that is worth your life.

That applies to professional rafts in the Grand Canyon, a kayak in the backyard, a sailboat on the Great Lakes. Once you are off shore, you are in the wilderness, every bit, every tiny bit, as dangerous as it was last week or a thousand years ago.

ALWAYS pack for a layover day. And take the layover day, bring a book, the extra food, or be a bit hungry. Hungry is good, it means you are alive.

I slugged it out in Blacks Canyon 2 weeks ago, wind on the nose, great effort to make good 1 mph, steep wall canyon, no way to beach or climb out, but I only went as far as the first beach, tiny, facing the wind. I had to completely unload the canoe and drag it above the waves. The propane stove could not heat water in 40 mph winds. A small stick fire cooked dinner. Rocks were needed in the tent to keep it. But, I kept my head, I had packed several books, had extra food. My safety people had been told in advance the trip would be ‘something’ between 6 and 10 days. A potentially scary day played out as a pleasant adventure, sitting safely ashore and eating bad food (Oh please, don’t make me ever open another Clif bar.) and reading lurid novels.

With the wind pouring across the water, sand blown, waves pounding, and a wonderful Louis L’Amour western, and spam and a Clif bar. And alive. Schedules kill. Make your next schedule with a layover, or two, or three days in your plans. you will live longer.


Clif bars are almost reason enough to put back in the river. Those concentrated dog vomit RXbars would put me in the water w/o a PFD, trying to end it.


Thank you for the reminder. Sometimes it’s good to hear (read) some “common” sense.

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I’m a big believer in “don’t get in a hurry”. That’s when mistakes are frequently made…but there are certainly times when expediency is desired. Getting out early and fast before the wind picks up or pushing to finish before dark can beat the alternative. I’ve even raced down the river to keep ahead of a surge, rapidly rising water levels-like an unexpected dam release. I’m not a salt water paddler but I’m wondering if sometimes pushing would be beneficial to “catch” a desirable tide.

I know some pretty highly skilled individuals. They’ll run an evening lap after work on a class IV river and get off right before dark. They’ve got it dialed in. Hanging with them requires a certain physicality and skill set. They’re boatin’ 100 + days a year, much of it after work. I can no longer hang. It’s not just age, some of them are older than me. My own skills are diminishing.

So I’m not quite there anymore, but three of us did manage to paddle the “miracle mile” (1.6 miles) of the meadow (WV) after work yesterday. I had fun but there are plenty of hazards on that stretch. So keep it real and boat within your abilities.

I don’t miss trying to pass and dodge commercial ww raft traffic to video rapids, something I did in my 20s. At the time, I liked the challenge. I do wish I was in the physical shape that I was back then. Videoing was a good physical and mental work out. Most commercial rafting trips here in wv run on a schedule and people seem to enjoy it, just something to think about.


Your last sentence is exactly what I am referring to.

“Most commercial rafting trips here in wv run on a schedule and people seem to enjoy it, just something to think about.”

I have personal knowledge of two fatalities caused by ‘run on schedule’. In both cases the winds were up above anything I would have been paddling in. The commercial operator , however, had to keep to schedule. In one case, the operator made the must ‘go’ decision. In the other case a National Park ranger enforced the ‘go’ decision.

Counter to that, I have also aided in the rescue of a commercial rafting trip where one of the passengers was complaining loudly about “You promised I would be back by Tuesday. I have a flight to catch.” She lived. She also missed her flight.

Yes schedules kill… I had the pleasure of talking to three folks at Hattie Cove as they prepared to get on a water taxi to start their trip down the coast of Superior and wind back up at Hattie Cove.
One was hiking the Coastal trail and the other two in a canoe. The plan was to meet at a campsite ( predetermined) each night.

The outcome was that one of the canoeists died and the other survived in cold water only thanks to a PLB that he activated. The conditions on the lake were not good that day but they had to keep to schedule.

canoe?, Lake Superior?, Pukaskwa?,
yeah, sure, can be done, but…

I got into kayaking from an ad for an Aquaterra Chinook (many moons ago) paddling by Pictured Rocks.
I knew the area (from ‘tourist boats’ with family when young) wasn’t very conducive to open boats, but liked the idea of paddling out there in a ‘safe’ mode of transport.
The ad worked.

Yup. It’s often done in canoes. Safe isn’t equipment dependent. The most important equipment is between your ears. And if it is humble. It is wise to know that a kayak is more secure in seas but if you have a canoe and a good set of charts and know where you are and where the hidey harbors are and can read the weather and are not sticking to a schedule you have time to appreciate and coexist with the lake.

Done it four times in a canoe. Voyageurs did not have kayaks… Back in the early 80’s hardly anyone had sea kayaks. Water trails like the original Maine Island Trail were designed for off shore travel in canoes.

Safe is not synonymous with kayak. There was a duo that was experienced and made the mistake of keeping to a schedule paddling out to Michipicoten Island. If it were not for their PLB and a weather window that allowed quick extrication they would have died. It was written up in Sea Kayaker magazine.

Canoe yes. Extra caution yes. And a big canoe ( ours is a Wenonah Odyssey)… Solo a Mad River Monarch.

The canoeists that had the accident likely would have fared the same in kayaks. The White River had a sizeable outflow that day and the wind had picked up from the west making breaking waves and strong eddy lines that can easily flip a craft if you are unaware. The same may have happened to Herb Pohl at the mouth of the Michipicoten though I am not sure. Opposing wind and tide causing or cancelling waves. We have to always think of that when paddling the Maine coast. What looks begnign can fool you into an accident. Wind off shore and outgoing tide looks dead calm till you get out look back and see that you cannot paddle back.

Oddly enough, the only times I’ve paddled Superior has been in canoes. Coming off of the Dog it’s around 18 miles to Dave Wells Rock Island Lodge in Michipicoten harbor. That was in early May in a whitewater canoe. Very light swell on the day we finished the Dennision Falls portage and glass smooth the next morning after we camped at a river mouth on the coast. It was rather different when we came off of the White one August though. Wind was blowing hard as we were finishing the river. We opted to camp at the portage up the coast from the mouth. The next morning the wind had stopped and the sky was gray and spitting a little rain. There still was a pretty good swell though & we were debating our options. The VHF forecast was OK but none of us were big water paddlers and were rather intimated. While we were watching the lake we saw a group (2 tandems) heading up the lake & running reasonably smoothly - what I call “elevator up, elevator down” on the swell. We had met them on the river & had reason to believe that they were experienced paddlers. The combination of that & a decent forecast gave us enough confidence to take on the 6 KM paddle back to Hattie Cove. The group was three solo canoes and one tandem - NovaCraft Prospector 16’ that I & My daughter were paddling. All in all it was an OK paddle but way more exposed than any of were comfortable with. The swell was probably 2’ - 3’ but smooth with a fairly long period. Our canoe was happier with the conditions than the paddlers. We did have one surprise to us (predictable I suspect by experienced big water paddlers looking at the chart) in probably the most exposed place. Somewhere off of Playter harbor we ran into waves coming form three different directions. Likely influenced by Campbell Point. That paddle rates in the top three of my most nerve-wracking paddling experiences.

There has been much discussion here of equipment, canoes, kayaks, To clarify my favourite boat, and use. I like white water, I like long trips. A short trip for me is 120 miles, a jaunt 80, a good trip is in the range of 600 to 800 miles… Carry most of my water, I need ballast in the bow anyway, and I hate drinking agricultural chemistry. Food for as much as 6 weeks. Think of the distance between Green River, Utah, and Page Arizona, there are zero resupply points between. All of this, and a paddler that is 6’ too many inches and 280 pounds on a good day, 310 on a bad day. My solo canoe is a McKenzie 20’ with full spray deck. The MacKenzie 20 is a custom layup, think Sherman tank, and the full spray deck with skirts, again built for me. Even fully loaded I only draw 3 or 5 inches. I have made the claim, all I need is wet grass to paddle it. In Class III and Class IV, it is a great machine. Rides high and light, surfaces quickly if it goes full submarine through a wave train, or just leaps over the next trough or hole. And it can be a beast with strong wind on the nose.
I also own 4 other boats.

Campbell Point it the commitment point for paddlers leaving Hattie Cove. It is said that once there there is no turning back. There is always clapotis. If its mild its a good lesson in why to avoid points of land. I learned that sometime way before going there. Probably around a cape in Maine which has the same issues but I was with a group… Since then I have passed on the knowledge to stay away from points of land.

Yeah, we were probably coming too close to the point. We really didn’t want to miss the turn in to get to Hattie Cove. The Prospector is a great design and our canoe was never “out of shape” but lord, the cost of error is high there.

Today it’s sunny and I planned to paddle. But its windy and there are big rolling waves with whitecaps blowing upriver against the current. So it’s a no go. I’ve had some memorable outings where I enjoy paddling upstream with a strong tailwind and then when it’s time to turn around the wind gets even stronger and I’m wondering if I might break a paddle fighting for every foot. Just a couple of weeks ago I got hit with wind gusts I’d estimate at 45+ mph (which agreed with the forecast) and although most of the paddle was no problem since the gusts were rare and the river is partially protected, a couple of gusts just blew the boat sideways and sent me skidding along on top of the water towards obstacles and in danger of broaching. It made me think about paddlers that might get caught in unexpected high wind for the first time.

The real problem is that most don’t know enough to be able to understand their limitations.

This is especially true of renters. If they will rent to them they believe it is okay to go out. Safety doesn’t seem to hit any buttons for them.

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“I have personal knowledge of two fatalities caused by ‘run on schedule’. In both cases the winds were up above anything I would have been paddling in. The commercial operator , however, had to keep to schedule. In one case, the operator made the must ‘go’ decision. In the other case a National Park ranger enforced the ‘go’ decision.”

We certainly have our share of ww fatalities here in wv, yet I can think no instance where rafting companies endangered their customers “to meet the bus”. They do a far better job than most “private boaters” when it comes to monitoring the water levels, adjusting plans, and evacuating when necessary.

Not long ago I was disagreeing with a fellow pnetter in a thread on how lousy liveries are. I stated then that my experiences have been overwhelmingly positive with almost any river business/professional I’ve been in contact with or employed by.

In fact, I will more than likely use a commercial outfitter to increase my safety on the Colorado in the Grand Canyon some day. I’ve been associated with (mostly videoing/ some running safety and shuttling) on hundreds of commercial trips on the New and Gauley Rivers and rushing to get someone to the airport isn’t their priority. The companies that I worked for were Rivermen, New and Gauley Expeditions, Whitewater Information, New River Adventures, and a sprinkling of trips for Rivers Expeditions and Class IV.

After a fatality, naturally some Monday Morning quarterbacking goes on. I don’t think that’s necessarily bad. Analysis and learning from a tragedy so it isn’t repeated has real value.

Sometimes stuff happens- making good decisions is what is essential. Lots of little missteps often result in fatalities- water too high, new wood- strainers, playing in or above hazards, inability to self rescue (swim effectively), pre existing health conditions, cold water, foot entrapment, outfitting to tight, unfamiliar with the location of hazards are just a few. I’ve got no issue with adding “rushing” to that list.

Responsible operators operate responsibly.

My knowledge of the 5 days ago incident is true 2nd hand, from an outfitter. My knowledge of the second of 5 years ago, direct. There is not a scrap on Monday morning quarterbacking. The weather was not suitable.

Responsible operators are under tremendous pressure, financial, customer, and park service that insists on date specific launch and campsite specific dates. The schedule killed.

Responsible operators operate responsibly. Until the 22 year old employee or the Park ranger says otherwise. Your confidence in operators is laudable.

Remember that you really do not “have to get there.”


For better or worse, one thing I learned 30 years ago was people don’t travel from far away to get somewhere and not take on the challenge. The more they are invested in something, the harder it is for them to take a pass.

One of the things I used to do in sandy areas is tip a canoe on its side then run a tarp off of that to help block the wind/rain.

Adventurous people don’t travel a distance, take up a challenge to not do it. I’d bet each one of us has done something borderline. This quest for challenge is damped with age and experiences. Or maybe instead of age it’s the “yeah, I don’t need to challenge myself anymore as I already have a pack full of those.”

If people had to pay for their own rescues then maybe they would think twice about undertaking things at the edge of their capabilities? Or pay for their ignorance/lazyness*?

*Being lazy here means not putting in the time and effort to research what they are going to do to find out conditions, gear, experiences, etc.
“we had no idea…I didn’t know…”
We used to joke that I should get a T-shirt and hat that had “HELP” printed on it because of all the times people would see me and think, “look, here comes help”.

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Just over a week ago on our coastal SC trip we came home a day early, because the weather was iffy for the next day’s paddle back. No one was pleased to have too, but we all agreed It might be the best thing to do. We had 3 days, and a wonderful trip. The fourth day would have been good, but because they were calling for thunderstorms and gust of +25 kt and sustained 15 kt winds against us and the tide we came home early. If you have paddled with the peak of the tide change, and the wind standing up short period steep waves against the tide you know what was our primary concern. Also the conditions in a thunderstorm with potentially very high winds and lightning on top of that, you can understand our decision. The conditions might have proved doable, but also could prove to be worse. I believe everyone should have a veto if they feel they are uncomfortable with the potential conditions. We have a good group dynamic, and that also helps.

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