Last stop on the Nordic Tour with Helen Wilson and Mark Tozer

Our last week in Sweden was very busy. After leaving Nynashamn, we made our way to Sandhamn. Sandhamn is a gorgeous island just east of Stockholm. It can only be accessed by boat. John Sjoberg of Sandhamns Kajakskola picked us up and took us to the island, which has a very relaxed feel. The small harbor area hosts a couple of pubs and restaurants. The following day we conducted a rolling class in the morning, and a strokes class in the afternoon. During the strokes class we wound our way around several of the islands in the archipelago enjoying the gorgeous scenery.

The ride to Sandhamn.

Although Sandhamn is very close to Stockholm, it feels secluded.

Mark talks about the forward stroke.

This sandy island was a great place to stop for coffee and cinnamon rolls.

The archipelago can be very tranquil when the weather is calm.

The following day, John returned us to the mainland and we prepared for classes in Sickla that would take place in the morning. Although in distance, Sickla is not far from Sandhamn, it has busier feel, as it is very close to Stockholm’s center. Classes took place through Sjostaden Kajak. Mark and I conducted two rolling classes and a rescue class, all of which took place on a small lake that is part of a chain of lakes that run through the area.

The paddle to the lake was very pretty with lily pads lining the narrow channel.

Rolling felt great in the warm lake.

Mark demonstrates how to empty a kayak before performing a self rescue.

After teaching in Sickla, we made our way across Sweden for our last stop on the west coast. We arrived in Helsingborg and were greeted by Zsuzsanna, a lively and fun woman who organized our visit to Helsingborgs Kanotisterna. Upon arrival I was happy to realize that I’d been there during the first year of the Nordic Tour in 2010. I recognized the club and the active beach, which had lots of organized recreational activities for people to enjoy. The first day we taught two rolling classes, and the second day was filled with strokes, maneuvers and rescues in the harbor area.

Helsingborg has a wonderful sandy beach, with great views of Denmark in the distance.

Strong winds and cloudy skies created a dramatic backdrop for Sunday’s classes.

Demonstrations and activities on the dock provided a break from being on the water.

After leaving Helsingborg, we crossed the country one last time to return to Stockholm for our final day of classes before flying home. We met up with Karin and Martin of Ornsbergs Kanotsallskap. The following day we conducted a yoga session and a rolling class on another of Stockholm’s gorgeous lakes. We enjoyed hanging out with Karin and Martin in the evening and learning all about the beautiful city where they live.

The kayak club is right on the water.

Paddle tricks provided a fun after lunch warm up.

We’re now back home, and this year’s tour is over. Thank you to everyone who helped organize it, and to all of the participants who came out to take classes from us. We’re in the process of organizing next year’s tour, and hope to see you all again!

Safety: Storm on Yellowstone Lake

I woke up in the front seat of my truck on Sunday morning at the Grant Village parking lot on the shore of Yellowstone Lake. Despite my penchant for making lists, I’d forgotten a couple of things, so I bought some Tang for breakfast and a hoodie in case it got cool.

I had breakfast in the restaurant by the boat ramp and went to the backcountry office for my boating permit and campsite reservations. The guy there looked at my itinerary and mentioned that I had a 20-mile passage and some long days between proposed campsites. Then he said that they don’t recommend traveling alone.

I asked, “Do you want to come with me?” He laughed and shook his head. Then he told me to stick close to shore, but the look on his face told me he knew that I wouldn’t. Of course in rough weather I would stay close to shore, if I went out at all, but with a favorable weather report and no clouds in the sky, I’d cut across the bays. The Park Service does a great job keeping people safe, but they know to let the more experienced boaters do their own risk evaluations.

My trip was going to cover the south end of the lake. The north end has a highway that runs along it—I didn’t go to Yellowstone for traffic noise. Besides, that’s the open part of the lake and weather can whip up quickly with a fair amount of force. I prefer the more convoluted path at the south end and the anticipation of what lies unseen around the next bend.

Yellowstone Lake is the largest lake above 7,000 feet in North America. It has 110 miles of shoreline and an average depth of 139 feet with a maximum depth of 390 feet. Half of it lies in the Yellowstone Caldera, an ancient volcanic crater approximately 34 miles wide and 45 miles long. The super volcano that created it erupted on three occasions, 2.1 million, 1.3 million and 640,000 years ago.

Sunday’s weather was perfect with barely a breeze. I cut across the West Thumb, a 3 ¾-mile-wide lobe of the lake on its western side, and paddled through the narrows to the main body of the lake. After 12.3 miles I reached my first campsite at the mouth of Flat Mountain Arm. Halfway there, I realized that I had forgotten one other thing. Bread!

I had scratched it off my packing list when I bought two loaves, only to leave them in my fridge. My sandwiches would be rolled-up ham and cheese and there would be no toast with breakfast.

At the campsite I had the option to place my tent on a slight, flat-topped hill overlooking the lake, or down by the shore. I chose the shore to be closer to water for cooking. Each park-maintained campsite has a fire pit. After I set up my tent, sleeping bag and pad, I got back in the boat to paddle the Flat Mountain Arm.

What little wind there was had died, and the lake was like a mirror reflecting the beautiful pine-covered mountains. I was told that the campsites at this end of the arm were not open because of the presence of bears at this time of year. I hoped to catch sight of one taking a drink from the lake, but I saw none. At the end of a six-mile loop I was back at the camp.

The following morning, I packed up, paddled across the mouth of Flat Mountain Arm and crossed over to the South Arm and headed south. At the end of the arm, as I paddled between two islands, a pair of eagles came swooping down, trying to hook talons in a courtship ritual. They missed.

The fire of 1988 was evident in many places. Tree skeletons, no more than bare trunks, rose far above the eight- to 10-foot-tall post-fire pines that were replacing them. The park  is making a remarkable recovery.

Coming back north on the east side of the arm, I found my second campsite. It had a sand beach that wrapped completely around the point, leaving me with lots of sun and a view of the entire South Arm. The fire pit and camping area was up on a small rise. After a bit of lunch, I went for a swim. The water was a bit chilly, but it was another perfect day in the 80s with blue skies and only a few white puffy clouds. My day’s mileage was 15.7.

My third day of paddling was going to be a short one, less than 10 miles, so I slept in and made a late start. I paddled up the South Arm, rounded the point and back down the Southeast Arm. Shortly after rounding the point I passed a beautiful campsite, but I continued on to where I had made a reservation. At the bottom of the arm, the lake widened and I found  my campsite.

It was off to the side with a long, tree-lined outcropping, creating a small protected bay. It was next to a huge open meadow with lots of purple, yellow and red flowers and a thick forested area with a fire pit and room for a tent. I had my choice of sun or shade, but I was concerned that the meadow would attract bears seeking berries.

Later that evening, I finished my dinner of chili and had pudding for dessert. As the sun went down, I crawled into my tent to read the issue of Sea Kayaker that I’d packed. About an hour later, I heard the sound of a thick branch cracking. The last time I’d heard that noise I was in the Minnesota Boundary Waters—and it had been a bear. Grabbing my can of bear spray, I began to consider my options.

I didn’t want to leave a tent door open for a quick exit because of the mosquitoes. With a two-door tent, I could go out either way. I hoped I wouldn’t have to spray a bear while I was inside the tent. Ten minutes went by and nothing—then another loud crack and again it was quiet. Suddenly, I heard another crack; but this one was much louder and the sound kept going until I heard a very loud thud.

It was unmistakably the sound of a falling tree—but there was no wind. I was afraid that it was a bear pushing over one of the dead ones. The bear I saw in Minnesota had torn a tree stump apart to get at some ants. I heard nothing after that and later went to sleep. As I drifted off, it occurred to me that this was the first time I had ever known of a tree falling without it being cut down. I figured that I would likely never experience that again.

The next morning brought the first sign of a change in the weather. It was cloudy, but the sun was trying to peek through. After breakfast, I packed the kayak. On days like this, I leave the tent for last in case it starts to rain. It did. I crawled back into the now empty tent and waited. Ten minutes later it stopped, and I was on my way.

I headed across the bay, avoiding the Molly Islands bird sanctuary. When I got to the other side of the arm, I found a small river. I paddled up a ways, but I didn’t want to make this a long day because the next day I’d have to paddle close to 20 miles and cross some open water to get back to my truck—even longer if weather forced me to hang closer to shore.

I wanted to make that crossing as quickly as possible because you never know what the weather on Yellowstone Lake has in store for you, and I didn’t want to get caught out in the open. As I headed back out onto the arm, I saw a rain cloud moving toward me from across the lake.

A giant, thick bolt of bacon-strip lightning crashed down to earth. I thought about continuing but, reminding myself of the many foolish risks I’d taken in the past, I pulled over to the shore and exited the boat. The wind and the rain soon came.

It didn’t rain hard or long, but the wind was strong. I retreated to the cover of some tall, thick bushes and stayed dry and out of the wind. The waves kicked up and although they weren’t very big, I was glad not to be out there. A half hour later, the wind died. The lake was still choppy, but not bad, so again I
pushed off.

The waves turned to gentle swells coming from my left, but then the wind did a 180-degree shift and created small waves from my right. This made for a slightly confused sea, but I was more annoyed than worried. I would soon exit the wide area of the lower part of the arm and be in a lee of the land with only the gentle swells to contend.

As I made my way up the arm on the east side, the wind switched again and came from the south. The wind waves grew large enough to surf. This made the going fun and easier.

Then the wind picked up and the waves got up to two-feet high. I decided to cut across the arm hoping that the other side would be calmer. The change in plans would also allow me to stay at that beautiful campsite I’d passed near the point and cut off a couple of miles from my last day’s paddle.

The only downside was leaving the safety of the shore for a 2.2-mile open-water crossing. However, I could easily see the waves coming from my left and I could turn into the larger ones. It would be no problem if it didn’t get worse. It got worse.

The wind increased and the waves grew to 2½ to 3 feet high. The rough sea made my paddling more difficult; what should have taken 30 minutes took almost an hour, and I was getting tired. Near the other side, I discovered the land wasn’t protecting me at all.

The waves were going right down the coast, so I turned north and paddled slowly, letting the waves slide under me. With just 50 yards left to get to the campsite, the wind died as quickly as it came. By the time I turned around the point and beached my kayak, the water was completely flat.

I saw I had cell phone reception and called the backcountry office to let them know of my change of plans. They assured me that the site was available and thanked me for calling.

I made some soup for dinner and put up my tent. As evening came, I saw a storm cloud coming across the lake.

The first storm had come from the west, the second from the east and the third from the south. This one was coming from the north. As the storm approached, I could only see the edge of it. The rest was concealed by the trees on my left. Not recognizing the size of the front moving in, I thought, “At least this will be a mild one.”

I went to my tent early and within a few minutes the winds whipped up. I switched on my VHF radio and listened to the forecast: “Severe storms expected. If you see one of these storms approaching, move to a sturdy building immediately.”

I’d never heard that kind of advice on the weather radio. I laughed. What was I supposed to do? I’d been in some nasty blows, but I’d never heard such a warning before. The forecast was for winds stronger than anything I’d experienced, so I decided it would be wise to evaulate where I was and consider picking a safer spot.

There were fallen trees all over this part of Yellowstone. I had little idea which of those still standing were vulnerable to being toppled. A friend of mine told me that he was in a storm and only the live trees got blown over because they had plenty of leaves to catch the wind; the dead ones were bare and stood strong.

In Yellowstone, there are lots of dead trees from the 1988 fire. With that tree crashing down not far from me during the windless night before, I should have been more aware.

In addition to the countless fire-damaged trees around me, trees throughout much of the west have been damaged by beetle infestation. Many campsites have been closed until they can be cut down. Setting up my tent next to a downed tree might offer some protection, I thought.

I left my kayak tied to a log close to the water’s edge. I hung much of my food from a tree, but my kayak was still quite heavy, laden with cans of food. I was betting a bear couldn’t smell through metal.

[Not a winning wager. According to the National Park Service, bears can pick up scents from metal cans. See —Ed.]. I loaded them separately—rather than packed in bags—for better weight distribution, a tighter load and more storage. As a consequence, it’s inconvenient, though usually unnecessary, to unload my supplies.

A lot of it stays in my kayak when I’m in camp. I’ve been in some severe blows before that were so strong the tent completely blew over flat across my face, but my kayak, weighed down with the gear aboard it, didn’t budge. It was only after this trip that I realized the log it was tied to could have been washed away.

If I’d had more rope, I could have, if nothing else, tied my kayak to something solidly fixed on higher ground. There was the rope that I’d used to tie my food up in the tree—there wasn’t much chance of a bear foraging for a meal in that storm—but I didn’t think to repurpose it.

So, upon hearing the weather report, my attention was focused on what might happen to me in the tent, rather than on the vulnerability of my kayak.

The wind seemed to double in strength every 30 seconds. Soon, dirt was flying up under my tent’s fly, through the screen and onto the book I was trying to read.

The wind kept building, and I became concerned. Suddenly, that cracking sound that I’d heard at the last campsite came again, only this time much louder and much closer. With a powerful thud the tree came crashing down onto the corner of my tent, missing my foot by inches. The roof was pulled down slightly and it was difficult to unzip the screen door with its distorted shape.

A branch tore off another tree and landed right next to the tent on the other side. As I stuck my head out, thick branches blocked my way. A huge tree trunk pressed up against the side wall. I realized how close I’d come to injury or even death. I crawled out of the now small door opening and looked out onto the lake in absolute horror. There were five- and six-foot waves with the wind blasting the tops off into spray.

If I had gone with my first idea of paddling farther, I’d still be out on the lake. There was no way I could paddle in that maelstrom. It was then that I began to worry about my boat. It started to rain.

I crawled back into the tent to keep dry while I figured things out. The tree had landed on my can of bear spray. I wondered what would have happened if that thing had exploded with me in the tent. Just then, another tree crashed to the ground about 10 feet from me.

Luckily, it was downwind of the tent and fell away from me. I stuck my head out to see the damage and then I looked upwind. I saw four tall trees within striking distance. There wasn’t one live pine needle on any of the four trees. They were dead and had been decaying for 24 years since the fire. I couldn’t stay in the tent, and I also couldn’t move it because it was pinned under the
fallen tree.

My mind raced. If I had to abandon the tent, I’d have to find something to shelter myself. The only waterproof thing in my tent was my sleeping pad. My concern about leaving my shelter was hypothermia. Soaking wet in a 40-degree night could be serious.

I said to myself, “Think, Jim, think. What do you have? Where’s your stuff?” Even though I’d heard the warning on my VHF,  I had negelected to bring enough “just in case” stuff to my tent.

I had nothing to protect me from the rain. I’d thought that as long as I was in the tent, it wasn’t going to be blown away, and I could weather the storm safe and dry inside. I never foresaw myself stuck outside my tent hoping trees wouldn’t kill me.

I calmed myself and remembered that my rain jacket was in my kayak. I needed to check on my boat anyway, so I hurried to the shore. It was fine, but it had been blown sideways by the wind.

I pulled it as far away from the water as I could. I grabbed my multi-tool and jacket and ran back to the tent. Wind and rain sprayed my face as I knelt in the lee of the tent, staring up at these four giants and waiting to hear that awful cracking sound.

I was forced to stay outside the tent to keep an eye on the trees, but could I get my 60-year-old self out of the way in time? I looked around, but saw nothing that could give me any sort of shelter from rain or wind. I had to figure something out.

Then I saw the logs that were used for seating around the campsite fire pit. I grabbed a log and laid it next to my tent then I grabbed another and placed it across the first. I laced more logs across each other making a V-shaped wall up in front of my tent. If those trees came down, they’d crash onto the logs instead of me.

My fortress complete, I crawled back into my tent and lay down on the side closest to the wall of logs. Adrenaline was still flowing through my veins, but I was feeling safer now and I began to calm down. I heard two more trees come crashing down, but not the ones upwind of me. About 45 minutes later, the winds began to subside and I was able to drift off to sleep.

Dawn revealed a perfectly calm day with no wind, glass like water and blue skies. I got up and inspected the damage. The tent was still pinned under the tree and it wouldn’t budge. I decided to give myself time to figure this out while I went to see if I still had a boat. I found it upside down with its rear deck shoved up on some rocks.

My spray skirt and paddle leash had kept everything with the kayak, including my two carbon wing paddles. There was almost no damage to the kayak, just a few chips in the gelcoat. My expedition deck bag was gone. In it were my two cameras, binoculars in a waterproof case and a few more belongings like my toilet paper.

I looked around, and to my amazement found the deck bag washed up about 10 yards down the beach. Then I looked at my PFD and realized that in all that had happened, I’d never even thought about my PLB in the front pocket. Not that I would have needed to use it, but that’s not something you want to forget about in an emergency. If I had been pinned under a tree, I could have used it to signal for help. All that I lost from my boat were my cheap $10 sunglasses.

I returned to my tent. I looked at the pile of logs and thought I could use them to create a fulcrum and lever to move the tree off my tent. The idea worked. I pulled the tent free. I was surprised that there was no damage to either the fabric or the pole.

I was still shaken and thought to wolf down an energy bar and race across the lake back to Grant Village. Instead, I reconsidered and had an oatmeal breakfast and some orange juice and settled myself down before heading out. After a relaxed 19 miles of paddling I was back at my truck.

When I got home, I called the National Weather Service and asked what the highest wind speed was on Yellowstone Lake that night. The highest recorded wind was 87 mph, but she said it could have been higher because some of the weather stations hadn’t reported. I asked, “How come? Did they get blown away?” She said, “They might have.”

Jim McCann lives in Colorado and kayaks about 75 times a year on mountain lakes. He’s been at it for almost seven years. Before that, he was a canoeist for five years.

Lessons Learned

I lived in Yellowstone Park for six years in the ’90s and have paddled on Yellowstone Lake many times over the past 35 years, so I have come to know it quite well. In addition, I have come to respect it. Jim describes paddling on Yellowstone Lake with accuracy and detail.

It is, indeed, a very large body of very cold water where intense winds can develop quickly without predictability. Conditions can range from glassy surfaces to waves that would challenge and bring fear into the heart of even the most experienced paddler.

It is a mistake to paddle on Yellowstone Lake without being mentally and physically prepared for every possibility. When we leave land for water, even inland lakes, we have taken on significant additional risks.

Having said that, not every condition and possibility can be known, prevented or planned for.

There are always changing conditions and surprises that we must respond and react to. This is certainly part of the reason we find enjoyment in paddling our little boats to remote places.  The unknown challenges that lie ahead do pull us along.  It is clear to me that this paddler feels that pull, and I admire him for it.

The National Park Service does an excellent job of trying to prepare visitors for the realities of paddling on Yellowstone’s waters and for traveling into its backcountry.

I have listened to their checklist of warnings many times, and there have been times when I felt as if I knew more than the ranger. That can be a mistake, as the 100-plus deaths on Yellowstone’s waters attest to. Being humbled can be a good thing.

Complacency on Yellowstone Lake is not. The tendency to get going, to prove things, to power on can often overwhelm our deeper instincts, gut feelings and good sense—all qualities that can help keep us safe. Mindset is an important element in big-water paddling.

Heading off alone into backcountry of any kind also adds to the inherent risks, and the Park Service is correct in the warnings given to solo paddlers. I have had some of my most memorable and enjoyable trips with no one to share them with but myself.

However, it should be obvious that one’s risks go up when traveling alone on water in the backcountry, and one should behave accordingly by being hyperalert to possible dangers.

With all the warnings the Park Service outlines, one can’t be warned of every possible risk, and it is not clear to me whether the paddler was warned of falling trees.

I can’t recall that I’ve ever been warned of “widow makers.” It appears to me, however, that the park does make an effort to cut down limbs or entire trees that may pose a risk at campsites.

As I read Jim’s narrative, there were a couple of red flags at the start of his trip. He had forgotten warm layers when going into the high-mountain, cold-water conditions of Yellowstone Lake.

Substituting a good synthetic layer with a gift-store hoodie, most likely made of cotton, is not the ideal—as I trust he knew. Also, forgetting somewhat important food items made me wonder a bit at Jim’s method of preparing for a trip.

No matter how many trips you’ve been on, there are a lot of things to remember, and to forget things is natural. Relying in any part on your memory when preparing is inviting omissions. The creation of a personalized and detailed checklist of equipment is essential to the safety and enjoyment of your trip; though even Jim, with a “penchant for making lists,” prematurely checked off “bread” and forgot it in the fridge.

Make sure you’re constantly updating your checklist and don’t ignore any item until you’ve put it in your boat. From my own mistakes, I know it’s not unusual to bring a necessary item to put in, only to leave it in the vehicle. While paddling in Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park, I came across a couple who had experienced several miserable nights in the rain, hunkered down in a tent without poles which were left at the launch.

So, use your list when preparing and packing for the trip, double-check it at the launch point, and update it both during the trip and shortly after. Updating it after will help you benefit from your experience by eliminating the items that turned out to be superfluous, and adding new ones that will improve your next adventure.

An equipment list should be continually revised. This list can also include such additional items as: Have you left your float plan with someone? Is your mail being taken care of?

Have you checked weather forecasts? Is your vehicle locked and do you know where the key is stored? Your wallet? In other words, your list should address every detail so you can relax knowing you are completely prepared.

When you are traveling in a group, be sure to double-check the items others are responsible for both at home and again before launching. You don’t want to be at camp the first night and find out the food, the stove and pots, or the tent poles are still at home.

It does appear clear that Jim used adequate caution in assessing the water conditions, thereby arriving safely and without incident at each of his camps. Though luck sometimes plays into our successful outcomes more than we care to admit. Ironically, terra firma was where his risks increased to a dangerous degree—and this can so often be the case.

There’s a strong tendency after a long day of paddling, perhaps out of relief or weariness, to just get camp set up, get some food in our stomachs and sit back and relax. It may simply have to do with the security of being firmly ashore. The risks are over. Or are they?

At times I’ve paddled in some challenging conditions, whether on the coasts of British Columbia and Alaska or on a big freshwater lake like Yellowstone, where the last thing I did was consider my safety.

For example, even on land, winds can be a problem and, in some cases, even life-threatening. Gear and boats can be blown away, leaving you in a precarious situation at best. While canoeing in the Boundary Waters region in Minnesota, my paddling partner and I were forced to camp on a small and exposed island due to increasing wind and waves.

Once camp was set up and we felt relatively secure hunkered down in the tent, the wind really picked up, blew cooking gear into the lake and rolled our 18.5-foot canoe well into the island. The lost pot was a nuisance, but what if the wind had blown the canoe toward the water rather than inland? Should we have tied it down even if it was high and dry? Most certainly!

While that remote island we were forced to bivouac on was treeless, trees would have surely added to the risks.

It turned out this storm was one of those that flattens square miles of trees like stalks of corn, complicating camps and portages for the remainder of the trip.

Camp is where new risks replace the ones left behind on the water, and these deserve the same degree of attention. Camp becomes the place where burns and cuts can occur, where ankles and knees get sprained, where contact with wildlife takes place, where rocks can tumble from cliffs and where trees can fall. Dead trees combined with high winds was exactly the very serious situation Jim found himself in. Could he have eliminated the risks? That’s hard to say, but there are some things he could have considered that may have
reduced the danger.

As Jim describes, parts of the Yellowstone Lake region were burned in 1988. That’s a long time ago, and most of those dead trees have fallen over the years. But some remain standing, and you can be assured that their root systems have decayed, leaving them poised to fall when the wind comes up.

Weather reports that include high winds should always be cause for evaluating your situation and taking steps to assure your safety and secure your gear.

While forecasts will help you assess general and potential risk, alertness to specific conditions at your location is what can save your life. How strong are the winds, what direction are they coming from, how are my camp and my tent situated within this reality and, in the context of this article, are there trees nearby (or limbs overhead) that could pose a threat?

Moving camp can be an option, but it’s not always a realistic one. In Yellowstone, you may only use a site if you’ve reserved it. Of course, I can’t imagine the Park Service would quibble over a camper’s decision to avoid an apparent risk.

(I once had a family ask to share my camp on Yellowstone due to inclement weather and, of course, I made room for them.) If there’s a safer spot to pitch your tent, that’s an option to consider.

Jim had already made his camp and retired for his third night when he heard a cracking branch that caused some concern. I’m puzzled that the cracking and thud of a falling tree came without wind and a flapping tent, or the sound of waves coming ashore.

I have to wonder whether the absence of wind was in the primitive realm of nighttime imagination that we naturally carry with us. But sometimes trees do fall of their own accord, and maybe this was one of
those times.

At this point, it would have been both wise and helpful to exit the tent and take a look around with a flashlight (and his bear spray—just in case) to assess the situation and conditions. While I can understand the hesitation to exit a tent when bears are in our thoughts, especially at night when our fears may be distorted, a tent provides no real safety if a bear is present.

If it was determined that conditions were worsening, he could begin to assess the risks and his options. Whether or not the weather was responsible for the tree falling, a tree did indeed fall. That’s cause for concern, and some action.

The following day’s lightning, rain and wind brought some changing conditions that Jim responded to by wisely heading to shore to wait it out. As he headed off again, conditions on the water may have been fun, but also noteworthy if waves were getting to two feet.

A crossing of over two miles with these changing conditions, in my mind, is taking an unnecessary risk—one that increases as the paddler tires. While weather systems passing through the region may have somewhat predictable conditions, the uncertainty and possibility of localized strong winds and high waves should be taken seriously.

Many people have died of drowning and/or hypothermia on Yellowstone Lake after their watercraft capsized on open-water crossings during both predicted and unpredicted afternoon storms. Jim was lucky he made it through the deteriorating conditions to a beautiful, albeit unplanned camp.

Jim used his cell phone to call to the backcountry office to inform them of his changed plan. That was the right thing to do, and one of the many benefits of today’s technologies. Jim was also equipped with a VHF radio, and the weather report he describes was an ample warning of things to come. With that warning Jim should have secured his camp, the kayak and its contents.

This should have been part of the preparation for the upcoming storm, not done after the fact. When we are on the water during deteriorating conditions, the increasing dangers cause us to seek safety by getting ashore or to a protected place, but when the same conditions take place on land, we are often lulled into complacency by the apparent safety of land, only to find different risks and dangers looming all around us.

This was therefore the time to assess the risks of falling trees, especially since this had happened the night before. Conditions were becoming ripe for this and sure enough, soon after, a falling tree came close enough to raise the greatest of concerns, losing one’s life. Then a second tree came down. His situation was worsening, but the risks to his well-being could have been lessened by assessing them ahead of time. The time to notice four dead trees directly upwind is before a storm hits, not in the midst of it.

Under the seriously deteriorating weather conditions, Jim ultimately jumped into action, attending to his boat—but not securing it—and trying to remedy the pinned tent situation. Hypothermia was a realistic concern, especially considering the hoodie layer and the fact that his rain gear was not with him in the tent, but left in his kayak.

Building the protective log fortress was probably better than nothing, especially under the circumstances, but I would be suspicious that logs light enough to be moved by hand wouldn’t offer adequate protection from the extreme force of a falling tree.

The new day brought clearer weather and perhaps a clearer mind. Jim was very fortunate that his kayak was still there and undamaged. Wondering and worrying about its safety could have been eliminated if he had properly secured it earlier.

Getting a good night’s sleep is always important. It helps you recover from the rigors of the previous day and better prepares you for the day to come. A restful night is more likely if you prepare for the worst before turning in.

For a calm and confident mind, make sure that your kayak is safe and secure, that gear won’t blow away, that food has been properly stowed and that emergency and rain gear is at hand.

Jim was fortunate; he came away from a severe storm—with perhaps record-breaking winds—with minimal material losses. It could have been far worse. Could he have prevented the worst-case scenario?

That’s difficult to determine, but I hope his story now promotes a greater understanding and respect for the forces of nature and the risks they impose. Look up, down and all around whether you’re on water or land.

Don Nelson has been kayaking since 1993 and lived in Yellowstone Park from 1991-1997 as the Director of the Yellowstone Institute. He is the author of Paddling Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks.

Kayaking, camping, traditional island life and an international border

Our kayaks were lined up like driftwood along the sand and stone beach when we heard the long, sharp Miller Ferry whistle in the distance. The sound welcomed the beginning of another trip to the Erie Islands and our launch from the Ohio mainland for a three-day weekend of paddling among the largest collection of islands on Lake Erie.

Located in the western basin of Lake Erie, the Bass Islands and their surrounding sister islands are part of a 21-island archipelago located in some of the richest walleye fisheries in the world.

While well known as a sport -fishing destination, the islands also offer some of the best paddling opportunities on Lake Erie. The island chain, separated midway by the international border with Canada, is steeped in history from its roots as a Native American fishing grounds to its grape -growing heritage and its pivotal naval battles during the war of 1812.

You can make the easy crossing from Catawba Island to the campground at South Bass Island State Park from several mainland locations. There is a public beach launch location just east of the Miller Ferry dock and another at Catawba Island State Park.

To add a few more shoreline miles, you can put in further southeast at the Mazurik public boat launch near Marblehead, Ohio. The three-mile crossing to South Bass Island takes kayakers across a busy boat and ferry channel, but be attentive and respectful and you should have no problem negotiating vessel traffic. Give a wide berth to the active ferries serving the island.

We edged our boats into the water from the little beach east of the Miller Ferry and paddled past Mouse Island toward the southern tip of South Bass Island, where its lighthouse greets boaters coming from the mainland. For the many day-trip opportunities in the Bass Islands, paddlers usually split off before the light and head east or west toward their selected adventures.

I prefer to paddle west around the rocky coast to South Bass Island State Park and set a base camp, then day-paddle throughout the islands for a nice, long paddle weekend. When you visit the islands for the first time, it’s easy to spend four or five days linking multiple island crossings and shoreline for more than 40 miles of water. Paddlers looking for a three-day weekend getaway or more can find many interesting shore and historical sights among the islands.

South Bass Island State Park offers cliff-side campsites reserved for tent campers, and the vistas overlooking the lake are a perfect post-paddle reward. These sites sit more than 100 feet above the water and you can set your tent as close to the lip as you dare for maximum viewing pleasure.

It’s only a short carry from the beach to the closest sites but we typically leave our boats lined up on the grass above the rocky beach and lug the gear up the slope to camp. The small harbor and breakwall off the beach provides a great location to practice rolls and rescues when the wind cooperates.

On previous trips, we always seemed to draw a small crowd of spectators who enjoyed watching us turn upside down and sideways during practice. On this trip we planned to put some miles behind us, so we launched our boats over the cobblestone beach for the afternoon paddle into the island’s main harbor.

All of the islands in the chain are limestone bedrock and paddlers usually follow the steep cliffs from camp four miles around the northwest shore to the harbor village of Put-in-Bay.

Cottages dot the cliffs above the water along this section. From a kayak you get a unique perspective of Benson Ford’s Shiphouse, a freighter which was removed and craned to the cliffs as a summer home in 1986.

At water level, the broken shoreline leads paddlers through a playground of rock gardens that dot the base of the cliffs. Depending on lake levels and wave action, there are several carved out caves where you can poke your kayak and many dynamic rocky play areas.

Paddling into Put-in-Bay Harbour, you’ll wind through sailboats bobbing at mooring balls and water shuttles bringing boaters into the busy maritime village. The little rocky beach at the edge of DeRivera Park, next to the Boardwalk restaurant, makes a convenient rest stop.

Stretching your legs, you’ll peer over the breakwall and back into time at the village’s nautical-themed, gingerbread framed shops that face the waterfront and park. This destination offers a convenient option for paddlers; they can rough it at the state park camp or wander into town for a beverage, perch dinner and nightlife.

Gibraltar Island and its steep, rocky shoreline is a paddling gem that guards the harbor entrance.

It’s home to college research laboratories instrumental in tracking lake biology and preserving the rare and threatened Lake Erie water snake. From time to time Stone Laboratory, the oldest freshwater biological field station in the United States, hosts open houses for visitors interested in learning about the ecology and biology of the lake.

The Stone Laboratory anchors one end of the island and Cook Castle sits high on the cliffs at the other end. Paddlers can also stop at the joint Ohio State University and Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) outreach facility across the harbor at Peach Orchard Point. Exploring the waters around Gibraltar Island, you’ll wind your way around car-sized boulders and under rocky overhangs that block out the surrounding boat traffic.

The highlight of your Gibralter circumnavigation will be finding Lake Erie’s only natural sea arch, the Needles Eye. Threading the needle is a paddler’s tradition.

As you head east out of the harbor from Gibraltar Island you’ll also be in the shadow of one of the most impressive sights on Lake Erie: Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial.

This fluted, granite Doric column, topped with an observation deck, stands 352 feet (47 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty) above the island and symbolizes the long-lasting peace between Britain, Canada and the United States. On a clear day the observation deck provides views of the entire western basin, islands and Canada. During the summer of 1813, Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry sailed from Put-in-Bay Harbour to fight the British in a battle that would help close out the War of 1812. Perry commandeered the Brig Niagara after his original boat, the Lawrence, was disabled.

With the Brig Niagara, Perry proceeded to outflank the British on his way to U.S. Naval victory. Vessels around the islands still fly versions of his famous blue banner that read, “Don’t Give up the Ship.” A kayak trip through these islands follows in the footsteps of this famous battle.

For a day-paddle destination, there is a small beach on the southern side of the island, near the visitor’s center. Kayakers can land and take a short walk to the tower and visitor center. If you listen closely and squint your eyes from the lookout deck, you can almost hear the ring of cannon fire and see naval vessels sailing at a distance through the milky haze.

Continuing your circumnavigation of South Bass Island, you’ll find 12 miles of rocky shore, well-kept summer homes and the Scheef East Point Nature Preserve. Activists and the state helped save this point of land from development and created a nine-acre preserve vital for the migrating birds and the preservation of the very rare Lake Erie water snake.

Just recently removed from the federal endangered list, this reptile was at the brink of extinction until efforts were made to save, track and restore its habitat. A day paddling the islands becomes complete when you see one of these mild-mannered gray heads poking out of the water along the shoreline. As you round the southern lighthouse point and head back to the State Park, give the Miller Ferry Line a wide berth as you’ll need to pass in front of its landing at the Lime Kiln Dock to make the turn back to camp.

The steep cliffs and strong current in this section also make for choppy waters, so be on your game when paddling near shore.

You will find a full day of paddling if you stick to the host island, or you can use South Bass Island as your jumping-off spot to a number of crossings and longer day-paddles. For our favorite full-day, 20-mile paddle, we leave Put-in-Bay Harbour and cross over to Middle Bass Island.

We then head north past Sugar Island, around the eastern shore of North Bass Island and then cover two, five-mile crossings to Rattlesnake Island and Green Island before landing back at the state park on South Bass Island.

As another option, you can also circle Middle Bass Island, paddle around Ballast Island and complete a circumnavigation of South Bass Island. With charts and your imagination, you can create any number of day trips of varying lengths among the islands.

If you cross from Put-in-Bay Harbour to Middle Bass Island, you’ll see a gothic castle that was once the main building for the former Lonz Winery. Now owned by the State of Ohio, there is a marina and a half dozen rustic campsites with beach access that paddlers can reserve through the ODNR.

Started during the Civil War, the former Golden Eagle Winery was the largest wine producer in the United States in 1875. Several of the islands have a rich history in wine production, as the climate and soil are known to support rich harvests. Grapes are still grown on several of the islands and sent to the mainland for processing.

Heading north, you can follow the Middle Bass shore past Sugar Island and out to North Bass Island. Members of the Native American Ottawa tribe once used the island as a fishing, hunting and trade outpost, and up until 1822, the border with Canada ran through the island before it was moved farther north.

North Bass Island doesn’t offer the same steep, rocky shore as some of the other islands, and Manila Bay on the northwest corner of the island is a good lunch stop.

Here, the clear water skirts what appears to be a white sand beach, but upon parking your kayak you’ll find it’s really a vast accumulation of broken zebra-mussel shells. Still considered an invasive species, the zebra mussel shells have actually helped filter water in Lake Erie, effectively improving water clarity from inches to feet.

The improved clarity allows sunlight to penetrate deeper into the lake, causing various plant and bacteria organisms to grow, decay, then pop back up as algae, a growing concern for Lake Erie biologists. If you want to bushwhack, there’s also a shallow grass and tree lined inlet to a small three-acre inland lake towards the northeast corner of the beach.

North Bass Island is currently uninhabited and was purchased in 2004 by the State of Ohio with the intention of preserving and letting nature retake the island. The state operates the island as North Bass Island State Park, where primitive camping and low impact activities are allowed with a permit.

To preserve the history of wine production, the state leases 38 acres to the Firelands winery and future plans include trails and access to the chapel, school, cemetery and several historic homes that still occupy the island. Only a mile from the Canadian border, this remote island allows for excellent secluded camping and exploring.

Experienced paddlers can link several long crossings together to make a full-day of paddling by leaving North Bass Island and heading southwest to Rattlesnake Island.

This island is privately owned, but houses a club and a three-hole golf course that doubles as a landing strip. Legend holds, the island has a long history with private ownership, organized crime and prohibition bootlegging.

The current owner/membership list is extremely private and the land is off limits. While the island is very private and doesn’t allow boat landing, the high cliffs, carved out limestone water-level caves and surrounding rock outcroppings that form the island’s “rattles” are fun to explore.

There is a small metal lighthouse protecting the entrance to a tight marina, and while powerboats are dissuaded from seeking refuge, a paddler should have no issues landing in an emergency.

Turning southwest from Rattlesnake you’ll see Green Island in the distance. Now an ODNR wildlife refuge, this island is uninhabited and displays rugged shoreline like many of the other Bass Islands. Several lighthouses once stood watch from this island and now an automatic light guides vessels through the south passage around the Erie Islands.

Weather and waves have calved off large chunks of the island, inviting  a fun rock-play experience. Rebounding waves may keep less experienced paddlers away from shore, but experienced paddlers can venture closer and run through some of the technical slots in the rock.

Landing is difficult on this island, but there is a low depression in the far western side of the island where you can land if necessary. After balancing your boat on the rocks, careful and adventurous paddlers can climb through the vegetation to see the remains of the limestone lighthouse and keepers quarters.

The roof and internal structure were lost to fire and the elements long ago, but the large, carved “1864” above the doorway still stands watch over the island and the birds that now call it home. Only two miles from the state park and camp, paddlers can zip back to South Bass Island and home after a long day of crossings and open water paddling.

Many paddlers are introduced to the islands via the South Bass Island Kayak Rendezvous, held each June at South Bass Island State Park.

Each year more than 100 kayakers gather and paddle the islands during what park officials call “Kayaker Weekend.”

Kelleys Island

Kelleys Island should be included in your list of Lake Erie paddling adventures. Slightly outside of the scope of the Bass Islands, and seven miles away through open water, Kelleys is the second largest Lake Erie island and home to a year-round population of 360 people.

Kelleys shares a similar Native-American and maritime history with the Bass Islands in addition to serving as a large quarry through the 1940s and an active commercial fishery into the 1950s. The island is home to loyal village residents, a lush state park and a commitment to keeping a lot of the island reserved in its wild state.

You can paddle its shores after making the five-mile mainland crossing from the Mazurik State Boat Launch or from Catawba Island. Access from the Mazurik Launch places you closer to your vehicle if you have to leave the island by ferry.  The rocky shore does not include steep cliffs, but paddling along the North Shore Alvar offers several miles of opportunity for rock exploration and seclusion since cottage development is not allowed in the area.

You can also hike this shoreline from the 677-acre state park on Kelleys Island. The park offers a  wide and well-kept sand beach and many lakeside campsites. Each September the Island Audubon Club and State Park host the Kelleys Island Poker Paddle and more than a hundred paddlers descend upon the island for a weekend of socializing and paddling.

With a strong northeastern wind, the eastern and southeastern shore can be a fun surf run, and there are at least 15 miles of shoreline to paddle if you circumnavigate the entire island.

Pelee Island

If you’re an experienced paddler, wait for a good weather window to paddle nearly 20 miles through the Erie Islands to Pelee Island on the Canadian side of the border. Crossing the international border in the middle of Lake Erie is a neat life-list check-off.

More than once I’ve been greeted with confused, “You came by arm?” responses from the French Canadian customs agents on the other end of the phone when I called with my passport. Even the phone location is interesting, as you direct dial from a 1970s-era phone booth sitting outside the historical museum at west dock.

Pelee Island is the largest Erie Island and is nearly nine miles long from tip to tip. Camping is at the Anchor and Wheel Inn and at the municipal campground on the east side of the island. The shoreline is mostly beach and breakwall, but the island community, its natural areas and winery are worthy reasons to visit, and it’s a bonus if you can get there via kayak.

The two most distinct features accessed by land and water are located at the extreme tips of the island. To the south, the Fish Point Provincial Nature Preserve and its long sandy beach offers many opportunities for hiking, bird-watching and exploring the natural habitat.

To the north, Lighthouse Point Provincial Nature Reserve includes trails and the restored Pelee Island Lighthouse.  On land, the island is too large to navigate without using a taxi or renting a bicycle, but there are many day adventures to tap into with some advance research.

In accordance with the wine-making history of the islands, Pelee Island Winery offers tours and tastings. If you don’t arrive “by arm,” you can bring your kayak to the the island by ferry from Sandusky, Ohio or Leamington and Kingsville, Ontario.

The Erie Islands have long been a boater and fisherman’s haven, and now the islands have a growing reputation as an eco-friendly destination for kayakers. From day-paddling expeditions to week long adventures, the Erie Islands offer a multitude of sights and distances for kayakers of all levels.

A tour through the islands will carry you over waters that are rich with history, island life and natural preservation.

Eric Slough is a kayaker based in Toledo, Ohio and loves paddling throughout the Great Lakes. He is the co-coordinator of the South Bass Island Kayak Rendezvous held each June at South Bass Island.

Kayaking with the Dolphins at Danzante Island

There were ten in our group who all met a year prior on a guided paddling trip in  British Columbia, Canada. On that trip, we encountered a pod of orca whales our first day out. The experience we shared with the orcas inclined our paddle group to keep in touch. Kathy was the core member who kept emails flying until we all agreed to reunite for another group paddle. This time, we decided to exchange the drizzle and gray of Canada for the sunny warmth of Baja California, Mexico. 

With several solo trips already under our collective belts, we felt like old pros and decided to head over to Danzante for two days and then paddle south from our put-in at Puerto Escondido to wherever we ended up after ten days on the water. We had no idea the best part of the trip would begin and end with the first two days.

Baja’s Danzante Island is a speck of volcanic rock that breaks the surface of the Sea of Cortez no more than a half mile offshore and 25 miles south of Loreto. It is a reminder of a prehistoric volcanic upheaval that separated Baja from mainland Mexico, and has gradually become a popular starting point for kayakers heading south into the cerulean Sea of Cortez.

We launched our boats into the mirror-like, air-temperature waters of Cortez near Puerto Escondido, Baja California Sur, and decided to head north a ways to see the landscape before circling out and back to Danzante Island. Within an hour we had surprised a small herd of wild burros drinking at a river mouth. Had we been on land and not in our silent kayaks, we would have spooked them long before we saw them.

When we finally turned south, we passed a flock of brown pelicans sunning themselves on a downed tree lying just offshore. Right then, six dolphins sliced through the water with thick, gray dorsal fins.

Like most dolphins in Mexico, these were a bit larger than the ones we see off the coast of Southern California. We set a leisurely pace with the plan of spending our first night on the beach at Danzante.

Halfway to the island we were surrounded by at least a dozen dolphins. They raced past our boats in tight formations of threes and fours, like precision flying teams.

They eyed us from just below the surface, then sped ahead as if to show contempt for our slow pace. They soon came back in a group, surrounded us and adjusted to our speed, making us feel a part of their pod. They zipped in and out of our boats and when we landed on Danzante, Kathy said she had put her hand in the water and felt one nudge her with its rostrum.

Danzante was so covered with shells that it was hard to take a step without walking on one. Many shells housed live hermit crabs and moved about. I almost got vertigo trying to walk on a beach that appeared to be moving.

During a brief exploration on the beach, our feet were lacerated by the sharp shells piercing through our sandals. We decided to circumnavigate the island by kayak before setting up camp, and this pleased our dolphin friends to no end.

Once again they jetted around our boats as though we were standing still and led us around the island. We floated over beautiful sea stars and deep purple urchins while schools of triggerfish darted by. Whenever I stopped paddling, schools of dainty damselfish, glowing with yellow backs and vertical tiger stripes, gathered around my boat, staring at me with large, curious eyes.

From the water, the large, green cardon cacti stood at odd angles, with upturned limbs like arms waving to us. A lone osprey swooped low over our boats carrying a fish in its talons.

On the backside of the island I paddled farther out into the open sea in hopes of sighting a whale, but had no luck. I let the slow current carry me for a while and then remembered what a seasoned Baja paddler told me about the afternoon chubasco or “devil winds” that can appear and quickly churn a calm sea into a life-or-death situation. I turned back toward land just as a large school of skipjacks flashed past.

As we began to unload the evening’s gear, a lone dolphin began lobtailing only a few feet offshore. We all gathered at the water’s edge, and a large dolphin sprang fully out of the water in a perfect arch, followed by a second and later by another in the opposite direction. We cheered and clapped, and this seemed to feed the egos of our watery performers.

Before visiting Danzante, I’d only seen this behavior in theme parks and found it hard to believe people keep such happy-go-lucky creatures confined in tiny, overcrowded pens. At Danzante the dolphins were performing stunts in their natural environment. If anyone was a captive it was us, as we watched, transfixed, while these intelligent mammals entranced us with their water ballet.

At first they jumped solo, then in pairs, sometimes in sync, other times in opposite directions, almost forming a heart-shaped arch as they passed each other in midair.

All of this was happening in water no more than five to ten feet deep, which revealed to me the tremendous power these animals could generate in a limited space to lift their entire bodies skyward.

They were not more than 20 feet from us while we whooped and hollered, in awe of this natural phenomenon. The dolphins jumped and spun, doing backflips and somersaults, and the more we cheered the more they threw themselves into their acrobatics.

The afternoon passed slowly, but the pace of our performers never slackened. The sun began to sink, bathing the land in a velvety yellow.

As my wife and I crawled into our tent the dolphins were still jumping but by now had lost their entire audience. We just couldn’t stand there all night, no matter how great the show. They were doing it for themselves, out of sheer joy, with no signs of stopping. We fell asleep listening to their splashes.

We awoke at sunrise with plans for a long paddle that day. I began the day by stepping into the water, slowly inching out till it reached my chest, and waiting. I hoped the dolphins would be curious about me.

In just a few minutes they returned and circled me, slowly and warily. I could sense the echolocations as the dolphins bounced them off of me. After several minutes a large male approached, almost close enough for me to touch him. He sprayed me with his blow, did a quick flip that drenched me, then darted away. I never got to touch him.

We put in and the pod followed us for about a mile as we paddled south. Two of the dolphins came close enough for us to touch, but we refrained. They timed their breathing to surface directly underneath my raised paddle. The dolphins disappeared as quickly and silently as they had appeared, apparently not willing to leave their island home to accompany us.

While the rest of the week was a paddle to remember, the dancing dolphins of Danzante Island were a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

James Michael Dorsey is a marine naturalist who has kayaked or canoed most coastal waters from Alaska to Baja, Mexico. He’s worked in the gray whale sanctuary of San Ignacio Lagoon in Baja for 16 seasons and spends his spare time documenting remote tribal cultures in Africa and Asia. 

Safety: Crossing Lake Michigan

Tired of snow and bored out of my mind I was sitting in my living room, staring at my Facebook page.

I made a list of summer to-dos and posted them on my timeline. One idea was to cross Lake Michigan with my Zodiac. My coworkers and friends thought I was nuts. The weather on the lake can be very unpredictable and many things could go wrong, they said.

I was not convinced. I searched on the web for those who had crossed Lake Michigan and came across a story of a group of guys who kayaked across the lake. “Not a bad idea!” I thought. That was pretty bold coming from someone who had not seen or touched a kayak in years.

A month later I bought a Wilderness Systems Tempest 170 on Craigslist. I knew nothing about it other than it was 17 feet long and built for open water.

The weather was cold so I did a test run on a pond before going out on the open water. I didn’t have a kayak paddle so I used a canoe paddle instead.

I’d never been in a sea kayak and wasn’t sure what to expect. I carried the boat to the pond, got in and launched. As I hit the water, I immediately rolled upside down into 40-degree water. That got a few giggles from my wife. I drained the kayak and gave it another go. This time I stayed afloat. I never realized how unstable these kayaks are compared to the wider, shorter, leisure counterparts.

The kayak sat for over 4 months before I took it out again. I’d been extremely busy at work and had entered a few local adventure races.

In the spring, I posted inquiries on several forums asking if anyone would be interested in kayaking the lake with me.

That sparked some interest, but no one was able to go come launch time.

By July I‘d purchased a spray skirt, paddle, night lights [i.e. running lights. Many of the author’s names for things have been left as he wrote them. Language can reflect a kayaker’s experience or lack thereof. Ed.], emergency signal kit, drybag, gloves and a life vest.

Uncertain that I would be able to do the Eskimo roll or a wet entry in open water, I decided to build an “anti-roll” set-up that would prevent the kayak from tipping over if I ran into rough weather. I purchased four buoys, two flag-pole holders and two aluminum windshield squeegees.

I’d hoped to launch in August but I wasn’t able to catch good weather when the time came. I set my sights on the week after Labor Day, Monday September 3. I had yet to purchase a device to track my progress, report my location and allow me to call for help in case of an emergency.

I found two such GPS-equipped devices. One was the DeLorme inReach. It transmits location and SOS and sends and receives text. It would also allow me to track my own location with a smart phone. The inReach uses Iridium satellites which was a big plus on my list but I couldn’t afford the hefty price tag and expensive service plan.

The second was the SPOT 2 GPS Messenger. It could broadcast my position and call for help but could not receive communication. It ran over the Globalstar network, which I’d read had some issues over the years. The cost of the device and the service subscription were within my budget.

I tested the SPOT 2 by sending locations and OK messages, not the 911 distress call, and it performed without failure. Having the SPOT 2 convinced my wife that it would be okay for me to do this trip solo.

With a week left before the trip I had to decide which direction I would paddle: Michigan to Wisconsin or the other way around? Both options had an equal number of advantages and disadvantages. Paddling from Michigan to Wisconsin would be easier as I would not have to deal with a ferry service when the time came to paddle.

I would also be paddling most of the time against the waves because the wind usually travels from west to east and I would see and anticipate what was coming but I’d have a longer crossing time. With approximately 80 miles between Milwaukee to Muskegon, I had no desire to make the trip any more difficult than it had to be so I decided to go from Wisconsin to Michigan. Instead of driving to Wisconsin I could take the Lake Express ferry. This service would get me over to Wisconsin in less than three hours saving time and money.

I picked up the remaining necessities: marine compass and bilge pump from Bill and Paul’s, a sports store in Grand Rapids, spare hiking compass, several flashlights, glow sticks, emergency horn, emergency strobe light, extra batteries and a shorty wetsuit.

Once my vacation began I checked the forecasts throughout each day to find a perfect window. The weather over the Labor Day weekend was not cooperating because of hurricane Isaac. The forecasts changed hourly, making my decision to set out very difficult.

On Monday, Labor Day, I finally saw a break in the weather forecast for Wednesday or Thursday. While making my reservation with the Lake Express ferry I was told I could bring a kayak only if atop my car. I called the only other ferry service the S.S. Badger. It sails between Ludington and Manitowoc and I could walk my kayak aboard without charge.

The Badger would leave from Ludington on Wednesday, September 5th at 9 A.M. and would arrive at Manitowoc four hours later. By paddling the 52-mile long Badgerroute my trip would be eight hours and nearly 30 miles shorter than paddling the Lake Express route.

On Tuesday I got the hardware for mounting the buoys and stopped at the local Dunham Sports Store to get a paddle. The paddle I had at the time was 240 cm, much too long. I had purchased it without knowing much about kayaking. I bought a nice aluminum paddle that was the right size and an excellent blade shape, which would allow me to get a better “grip” on the water.

The bright yellow blades would also make me more visible. At the grocery store I got a box of granola bars, two cans of peaches and two cans of pears. These cans did not require a can opener and would not take up too much room. The fruit would give me energy without filling me up too much. I bought one Powerade, a six pack of mini-V8 drinks and some bottled water. A can of Monster and a can of AMP, both caffinated energy drinks, would keep me awake and alert at night.

It didn’t take long to mount the stabilizers and get my gear “battle ready.” Attaching a leash to the paddle was a last minute idea. It would prevent me from losing my paddle in case it slipped out of my hands. By late afternoon, everything was ready to go. That evening I packed the car and sent an email to my friends with the link to the site where they could monitor my progress. I fell asleep around 11 P.M., watching the weather on my mobile phone.

I woke at 6 A.M. on Wednesday, grabbed the phone and refreshed the weather app. Two storms were passing over the lake but the evening was forecast to be clear with a chance of rain. Tired and unmotivated, I stayed in bed for another 30 minutes. In the back of my mind I had hoped that I could reschedule the trip, but I eventually jumped to my feet.

With a two-hour drive ahead, I was pressed for time. I left the house at 6:45 A.M. On the highway I set cruise control for 65 mph as I did not want to press my luck with the kayak strapped to the roof, but by 8 A.M. I was still a good hour away from the dock.

My speed went from a calm 65 to a frantic 85 mph. I finally arrived at 8:45 A.M. as the ferry was being loaded. I parked the car and crammed everything into my backpack and the storage compartments of the kayak. My first test of the trip was to see if I could lift the now extremely heavy kayak and carry it to the Badger.

The ship set off a little after 9 A.M. The weather was calm and there was no sign of the storm systems reported earlier that morning. To my surprise, the only waves I could see were caused by the wake of the ship.

The sky was clearing to the west and the chilly morning winds turned into a warm breeze. The Wisconsin shore finally appeared and the closer it was the more nervous I got.

At 1:00 P.M. the ferry reached the Manitowoc. I checked the weather one last time. There wasn’t a single cloud on radar as far west as Seattle, Washington. That cheered me up quite a bit.

I lifted my kayak to my shoulder and made my way to the small beach nearby. I was out of breath by the time I got to it.

I started to unpack my gear. I was not exactly sure that a lake crossing via kayak was legal. Honestly, I‘m still not.

I hurried to mount the stabilizers and the night lights to the kayak. The lights connected with suction cups. I was about to trust them with my life, so I taped them to the deck using Gorilla tape (the strongest tape I could find). I stuffed my food and drinks and emergency signaling kit behind the seat where I could easily reach them.

The backpack with my shoes, sweater and sweatpants went in the rear hatch. A small tool-kit, extra batteries and the Gorilla tape went in the hatch right behind the seat. I secured on deck the marine compass, glow sticks, emergency horn, extra paddle and the camera.

Slipping on the wetsuit, I decided to wear it half-up as the water and air temperature were somewhat warm. If it was going to cool off at night, I could simply slip the rest of the suit on. The life vest went on next. I turned on the SPOT 2 device and sent out an “OK” message.

I slipped on the spray skirt, jumped into the kayak and turned on the camera. After sealing off my dry bag containing the granola bars, gloves and hat, I placed it inside the cockpit, then attached the spray skirt. I pushed off at exactly 2:00 P.M. The water was calm and the weather was perfect when I left the port. I was very comfortable and it didn’t take long to get about five miles out.

I heard the horn of the Badger sound and 15 minutes later caught sight of it. I was about a quarter-mile south of its path. I couldn’t see any people on it, but I waved my paddle in the air to say hello anyway. The ship disappeared quickly past the horizon and the only thing I could make out was its smoke trail. I decided to paddle in that direction.

Before leaving on this trip, my wife told me that if she did not receive an “OK” message every two hours, she would call the Coast Guard to come for me. I made a point to send out an OK message approximately every hour.

The buoys were doing an excellent job of keeping the boat stable. Even though they caused some drag, they prevented lateral roll and allowed me to concentrate on paddling instead of balancing.

The sun was beginning to set. There was a fairly strong breeze blowing out of the southeast and the water was getting a bit choppy. The Wisconsin shore was no longer visible and I started to feel a little freaked out. Taking a short break, I chowed down a can of peaches and a granola bar. There were no more Powerades left, so I had some bottled water.

My shoulders were sore, so I took an ibuprofen. After sending out another “OK” message, I scanned the horizon and pushed on. I was about 20 miles out.

I kept my course southeast. Not long after the sun set I reached out front with my paddle and turned on the red and green bow light. It was a tricky feat as the button was nearly flush with the housing.

I then reached back and fought the stern light. It kept giving in under the weight of the paddle as I struggled to depress the ON button. I was praying the taped suction cup would not give out. The sun set so I activated a few glow sticks and secured them with the bungees in front of me.

That proved to be a dumb idea as I could not see anything but their glow. I moved them behind me, hanging off each side of the boat. I kept one red stick, covered up with the GPS device, to light up the marine compass. It was pitch black and eerily quiet.

Waves occasionally broke over the kayak and startled me. One wave broke right next to me with a loud hissing sound that made me jump. I hit my sunglasses with the paddle—they were secured by a bungee in front of me but they went flying overboard and sank. To calm myself I sent out another “OK” message. After a granola bar and a few gulps of Monster I kept going.

I saw a small white light on the horizon to the northwest. It glowed brighter and larger with every minute.

It was slowly getting closer. I expected it would pass behind me if it continued on its path. The light split into the bow and the stern lights of what appeared to be a large cargo ship.

At approximately 10:45 P.M. the ship was at my seven o’clock, approximately a quarter-mile away and traveling southwest. It was comforting to know that I’d be able to spot vessels a long way out if I paid attention.

A green flare shot up about 200 meters in front of me, hung in the air for a few seconds then disappeared. I’d never seen a green flare before and I wasn’t sure what to make of it.

An emergency flare would be red in color. White flare would signify a man overboard, or someone trying to illuminate the area. Green flare? [Two Coast Guart stations in the area had no record of reports of a green flare and knew of no special meaning of the color. Alex cited a website ( that listed green flares as signals meaning “OK.” Ed.]

After a moment of sitting there I decided to paddle to where the flare went up. If this was an emergency I would be able to help out. There were no lights and I could not hear anything. If a boat was out there, dead in the water with no lights, I could run straight into it.

I turned on one of my flashlights, stuck it under the bungees and pointed it forward. I would paddle and then stop to listen. 15 minutes passed and I couldn’t hear or see anything. I sent out a “custom” message through my GPS device. Although it would state “Taking a break” it would note the location for the Coast Guard in case someone was in fact in trouble.

Still wary, I stopped from time to time to look and listen.

After returning home from the trip I learned my wife had called the Coast Guard and asked them to track me. My guess is the Coast Guard contacted the passing cargo ship and asked them to check if I was OK. The cargo ship fired off a green flare, which apparently is used to signal either “Everything is OK” or “Is everything OK?” giving you a chance to respond with an emergency flare if you need help.

I saw a glow on the horizon directly ahead. It could only be Ludington. Being able to see something on the horizon lifted my spirits. I opened a can of pears and wolfed it down, chasing it with the remaining energy drink. A bit sore, I needed to stretch. I leaned back on the kayak and looked up at millions of stars. The Milky Way was directly above me. It could have been mere chance, but I knew I was halfway across the lake at that moment. The only sounds were from waves lapping against the hull.

Another hour passed and another glow appeared on the horizon north of Ludington. It was the moon slowly rising. As it rose higher into the sky the waves changed direction.

A breeze picked up from the southeast and waves were now coming at me from the north. It took me a few minutes to adjust the skeg and my paddling, which now required a bit more power on my right to keep me on course. I would adjust my bow to point east only to find it pointing southeast a few minutes later.

The struggle annoyed me. What bothered me even more was the breeze blowing in my face. I was not sure what the weather was doing, but I was beginning to get a bit suspicious. Southeast wind meant there was a storm system building to the west. I am no meteorologist, but I know the basics of weather development—I paid attention in middle school. I looked to the northwest.

A large storm system was building up right behind me with the bulk of it coming out of the north. The heavy clouds were lit up by the moon. I was nervous and paddled with more fervor than ever. If a storm was coming, open water was the last place I wanted to be.

The clouds seemed to move slightly northeast which meant that I needed to paddle more southeast to get out of their path. I raised the skeg and let the waves point my nose in the desired direction. I paddled nonstop, dispite my heavy arms and tired shoulders.

I noticed a flash of light at my eight o’clock. Initially I thought it was moonlight reflecting off the water splashing from my paddle. I ignored it at first, then I saw it again and again. It was lightning, high up in the clouds I’d been tracking. Paddling against wind was bad enough, but I now had to deal with a storm system that would cause large waves.

There was lightning and the highest object in a 10-mile radius was my head and my trusty aluminum paddle. I kept an eye on the clouds as I pushed southeast. By the time the moon was directly overhead I noticed a couple of faint red lights on the horizon.

This meant that the shore might be only about 15 miles away. I calculated that at three miles an hour it would take me five more hours to hit land. I stopped for a break while I enjoyed the last can of fruit. My shoulders were killing me, so I took another ibuprofen and gulped down two surprisingly refreshing V8s. Recharged and freshly motivated, I continued.

The lights on the horizon multiplied and I had about eight of them in my sight. It was difficult to determine which light would lead me to the harbor. Picking the wrong direction would add extra miles that I was not willing to paddle. I began to sing to stop myself from complaining.

A new storm system appeared behind me and rapidly came closer. More lightning kept me alert and I pushed harder. Luckily it soon passed to the northeast. The horizon was becoming lighter and finally the sun appeared, peeking out through the clouds.

I could no longer see any lights, but I could see the faint outline of the shore. I estimated to be about 10 miles out at that point. The sun rose in early September at approximately 7 A.M., which meant I had another three hours or so left in my trip. Those three hours proved to be the longest of my life.

I ate my last granola bar and drank the last of my water. I was feeling extremely tired. Another rapidly approaching storm system was the only thing keeping me going. I was careless at that point and I did not look back. I wanted to reach shore, get out of the boat and take a nap.

It felt like no matter how much I paddled, I was not getting any closer. As the sun rose, I fixed my sights on some sand dunes directly ahead. They were the only landmark I could clearly make out. I started to count my stokes. Each minute felt like an eternity. I noticed a couple of sailboats cruising up and down the coast. I was so close!

A few miles out from shore, I began to feel like my kayak was slowing down. Indeed, I was no longer making much progress. I was not sure if it was the offshore wind or if I was fighting a current. I tried to muscle through it but the kayak came to a crawl. I turned around and saw the left stabilizer had given way.

It had collapsed backward, dragging and causing the kayak to turn left. I had to break it off. I reached out and grabbed the stabilizer and it popped right off. Immediately the boat became unstable. I carefully tucked the broken stabilizer under my bow bungees. I tried paddling forward, but I was going nowhere. The right stabilizer, now unbalanced, dragged and turned the boat to the right. I had to take it off too.

I were extremely uncomfortable doing this. If I was to accidentally roll over and go in the water, it would be extremely difficult to get back aboard—not impossible, but not something I wanted to try after being up for over 24 hours straight. Balancing, I grabbed the stabilizer. I pulled but it would not bend. I then leaned back and pulled the stabilizer straight up. It buckled and collapsed, but didn’t break off. The boat was wobbling as I got used to balancing it. I rocked the stabilizer back and forth until it broke off, then tucked it under the bungees with the other stabilizer.

I paddled toward the sand dunes. After an hour of nerve-wracking paddling I was frustrated and decided to signal to see if one of the sailboats would help. I made three short blasts with the
emergency horn.

There was no sign of response. I tried again, with longer blasts. No response. I paddled for another five minutes or so and tried again. No response. I continued this for another 30 minutes until the horn was out of pressure. By this time the sailboats were only about a quarter-mile away, but there were no signs of either boat responding. I was not making any progress and if there was a rip current, then fighting it head on wouldn’t work.

The only way to defeat this was to paddle diagonally to shore. I would travel a longer distance but I’d get to where I needed to go. I headed northeast toward a large lagoon. It was much farther away than the sand dunes but I found myself making better progress in this direction. I was exhausted but I had to keep moving.

There was a fishing boat heading in my direction. As it came closer I pulled the skirt back and pulled a flare from my emergency signaling kit. I sat there for a minute to make up my mind, then removed the protective cap and yanked the cord. The flare shot up a hundred feet in the air with a loud bang. It glowed for 5 to 10 seconds and then disappeared as I waited for a response. None came.

I was shocked. The lack of response ticked me off. This anger gave me energy I didn‘t think I had left. The boat was gliding well through the water. I heard a distant blast of a horn directly ahead of me. It was the Badger sailing for its morning run. It was 9 A.M.

Shortly after I saw the Badger coming out of the channel, I noticed the silhouette of the small lighthouse indicating the pier. Incredibly I was going in the correct direction all along. I was hesitant to enter the channel as I was not sure where the Badgernormally docked. I decided to make landfall on the small beach near the pier.

I made the last turn around the pier, took a few more strokes and hit the sand. It was exactly 10 A.M. when I reached my goal. I’d paddled 62.26 miles in 20 hours.

I tumbled out the kayak and stood up but nearly fell over. I dropped to my knees in a foot of chilly lake water. I could feel every aching muscle, yet I felt completely relaxed. I finally got out of the water and lay down in the sand. After a few minutes of rest I got up, pulled out the first-aid kit and took my last ibuprofen. I turned off the SPOT 2 GPS messenger.

The rear hatch took on some water during the trip, leaving my spare clothes, including my shoes, soaked. I found my cell phone and keys and I decided to hike to the car barefoot. I tossed the lifejacket, sprayskirt and wetsuit in the kayak.

A group of Coast Guardsmen were busy removing the “No Swimming” buoys from the beach in preparation for the winter. I asked them to keep an eye on my stuff for a few minutes. I walked to my car and drove back to the beach in a daze. I had no energy to carry my kayak nearly 300 feet across the sand so I drove onto the beach and pulled alongside my kayak. I was in no shape to lift the kayak—I needed a break before attempting that. I sat down in the car, closed my eyes and immediately fell asleep. The engine was still running.

I awoke to a tapping on my window. One of the Coast Guards was saying “You probably should not be sitting here…” but stopped when he saw my face. “Hey, you OK?” he said. The only thing I remember saying was “I’m sorry. I normally don’t pull these sorts of stunts.” The guy offered to help and called over a few of his buddies. We tossed the kayak up on the rack strapped it and I drove off the beach. The first restaurant I came across was a McDonalds. I ordered a chicken sandwich with some fries and a coke.

I’d felt I was in no shape to drive but the food gave me a sudden rush of energy and I decided to drive myself home. I’d been having trouble with my cell phone and hadn’t been able to call my wife so I turned on the GPS device and sent an “OK” signal that would show I was on land.

When I pulled into my driveway, I stumbled out of the car and walked into the house. After a long, hot shower, I konked out for about an hour on the couch until my dad, wife and best friend popped in to congratulate me on completing my adventure and of course, for surviving.

Alex Tsaturov lives in Ada, MI, and works in information technology incident management. You can find videos of his Lake Michigan crossing and other pursuits at

 Lessons Learned

This is an unusual story for Sea Kayaker. Alex submitted it at the urging of some of his friends and described it as a tale of “extreme adventure.” After reading his account I was left with the impression that it was as much an adventure as it was an accident that didn’t happen.

Although he was successful in making his crossing, his story had to be presented as a safety article pointing out the mistakes that could have led to an accident. Alex graciously consented to this approach.

The purpose of our safety articles is to offer useful lessons to sea kayakers. The benefit any of us can derive from the Lessons Learned is linked to the degree to which we can identify with and sympathize with those kayakers whose stories are told here.

(Aras Kriauciunas conveys this in his article on risk perception in this issue.) I’d venture that few of our regular readers will identify with Alex any more than Alex thought of himself as a kayaker. There may still be something of value in his story.

Sea kayaking vs. athletic events

Alex had competed in local adventure races, events that combine trekking, bicycling and canoeing. Hosted by Grand Rapids Area Adventure Racing (GRAAR), the entry-level races last from four to six hours. The races are, according to the GRAAR website: “designed to test an athlete’s physical and mental endurance as well as skills in a number of disciplines.

While physical fitness plays an important role in adventure racing, your mental fitness or ability to keep pushing yourself, is just as important.” I didn’t find much emphasis on skills on the website: “The only prior training you might need to undertake is in navigation skills with a map and compass.”

For the paddling stage, canoes, paddles and PFDs are provided. Competitors who don’t have access to paddling gear for training can still enter the races. (There is an open division for advanced racers; they are allowed to use their own paddling equipment.)

Alex’s racing and his training for the adventure racing would have improved his strength and endurance for a long crossing, but wouldn’t have added to his skills as an open-water kayaker.

The kayaking stage of that race took place on the exposed coast of the Bay of Fundy and was intended as a test of endurance. A sudden and violent squall turned it into a test of sea-kayaking skills. As I mentioned in the review: “Had the incident been written up as an article for Sea Kayaker, the Lessons Learned section would have little more than a review of basic safety practices.”

In another racing-related kayaking fatality (“A Race against Time” SK April 2008), two adventure racers in Sweden set out on a March training run. The kayaks they used were designed for fitness paddling and poorly suited for rough water and self-rescue.

They had long cockpits to allow for leg drive and were built without bulkheaded flotation compartments. After paddling out of a lee and into rough water, one of the pair capsized.

The lack of proper equipment and training in rescue techniques led to his death. In both of the incidents cited here, the capsized kayakers made efforts at self-rescue while other kayakers stood by watching, failing to employ assisted rescue techniques simply because they were unaware that such techniques existed.

Athletic endeavors have specific goals and athletes reach them by taking a single-minded focus. Bailouts and back-up plans aren’t part of the mindset, and may even prevent athletes from giving their best performance. With sea kayaking, it’s best to have options.

Long, open water crossings appeal to some because they require commitment. Retreat is an option early on, but when the hardest work has to be done you may have only two options: reaching the goal or calling for rescue.

When kayaking is one of several disciplines of adventure racing and approached as an athletic endeavor, participants can miss the wealth of knowledge accumulated by the sea-kayaking community.

Maritime pursuits have historically been steeped in tradition and with good reason. There’s a lot to learn to be safe on the water and to manage a boat. Training assures that the newcomers safely learn about the risks and acquire the skills to deal with them.

Physical limits

Paul McMullen told us about his attempt to kayak across Lake Michigan. Paul had served as a rescue swimmer with the Coast Guard and he was a world-class track athlete. He rented a kayak (one faster than the one he owned) for the 83-mile east-to-west crossing from Grand Haven to Milwaukee, a route very close to the Muskegon to Milwaukee route Alex had considered.

He set out at 5:00 P.M. on September 7, 2006—the Thursday after Labor Day, a date and a time similar to that of Alex’s crossing. The weather was fair when he set out but in the early hours of Friday morning, the wind picked up. The waves built to three to five feet and the headwinds dropped his forward progress to just two miles per hour.

Seasick, taking on water and still 30 miles shy of his goal, he activated his EPRIB. A freighter traveling north found Paul by chance, not because of the EPRIB, and rescued him.

With Paul we have another very fit athlete, but strength plays only a small part in making a long crossing. There are limits to the kind of power even the fittest person can generate.

If you look at the resistance figures that accompany Sea Kayaker’s reviews of kayaks, you’ll see resistance measured in pounds at particular speeds. The Arluck III that Paul was paddling generates slightly less than three pounds of resistance at 3 ½ knots—Paul’s average speed over the 52 miles he had paddled. The resistance figures are based on towing tank data—straight-line travel on flat water and in still air—but they’re good ballpark figures for paddling in calm conditions.

The three pounds of resistance indicates that only three pounds of propulsive force are required to maintain that particular speed. The results of Sea Kayaker’s early research into resistance concluded, “A fit paddler can maintain a cruising speed at three pounds of drag. Only a few can work against five pounds of drag for long distances.” Taken from the paddler’s side, that means that even exceptional paddlers can generate just five pounds of propulsive force during a long passage. That’s one sixth of the thrust generated by a small, electric trolling motor.

A moderate headwind can nearly double the effort of maintaining a cruising pace. A simple formula for converting wind speed into pressure is: The square of the velocity in miles per hour times 0.0027 equals the pressure in pounds per square foot. If we assume the frontal area of a kayaker is 3 square feet, paddling into a 15 mph headwind at 3.5 knots (4 mph) is meeting 2.77 pounds of wind resistance.

Add that to the 3 pounds of resistance in the water and you’re at 4.77 pounds of drag, very close to the 5 pounds of propulsive force a strong paddler can generate. Keep in mind that increases in resistance are a function of the square of increases in speed. As paddling conditions deteriorate, our limits come up very quickly.

Athletic events are about gauging the strength and ability of one person against another. In the coastal environment, we can fare well if the forces we confront are on a human scale. The power of natural forces can quickly and easily exceed that scale.

Testing mental endurance

The GRAAR website notes: “While physical fitness plays an important role in adventure racing, your mental fitness, or ability to keep pushing yourself, is just as important.”

The ability to persevere is important in sea kayaking, but it most often comes into play when we’ve overreached our abilities. It’s natural to wonder what we might be capable of and athletics provide an opportunity to test that in a structured environment.

Within that context, it’s appropriate to “leave it all on the race course.” If you’ve ever had to resort to your mental fitness to extend your physical limits on open water or along a hostile coast, it’s quite likely you’ve made some serious errors in judgment.

In racing you push your limits voluntarily. You don’t have to continue. Any race that’s a good test of endurance should have a number of entrants winding up in the race results’ DNF (did not finish) column and a safe way to withdraw from the race. Open water crossing without an escort leaves you with no good options for withdrawing.

Equipment and knowledge

Alex found his kayak online through Craigslist. Trying to keep within a tight budget, he opted not to buy a new kayak from Bill and Paul’s Sporthaus in Grand Rapids, the nearest retail store specializing in kayaking gear. Alex purchased a Wilderness Systems Tempest 170 from a seller who’d received the kayak in trade and knew nothing about it.

Alex could have done much worse with his luck online. The Tempest 170 was the Sea Kayaker Readers Choice for Best Day/Weekend Touring kayak. It is designed for the “entry-level enthusiast up to the advanced paddler looking for a seaworthy rough-conditions boat.” I paddled the Tempest 170 Pro (the composite version of the rotomolded kayak Alex purchased) for my review in the Readers Choice article: “The cockpit offers solid connection with the boat through adjustable thigh braces snug hip bracing, solid foot braces and a back band that sits low where it doesn’t restrict the paddler’s range of motion.

The stability of the Tempest 170 is very good and the secondary stability is excellent, providing solid support for edging. The Tempest moves along nicely at a cruising pace: I could sustain 4.5 knots with ease. The fit and maneuverability of the Tempest 170 make it a pleasure to paddle.”

While Alex got a good deal on a good kayak, he got no advice on kayaking. I spoke to John Holmes, an employee at Bill and Paul’s who conducts many of the classes offered by the store.

The sales staff is trained to look for the “red flags” of customers purchasing equipment for activities that they may not be adequately prepared for. There were several sea kayaking classes offered in June and July of 2012. Had Alex purchased a kayak from Bill and Paul’s, there’s a good chance he would have been encouraged by the sales staff to take a class.

He did buy a compass and a pump from the Sporthaus, but that may not have been a purchase that raised a “red flag” about his lack of training. (Aras Kriauciunas’ article on risk perception also notes how we may base assumptions about paddling ability on the gear that people have or purchase.)

In the videos Alex took of himself during the crossing, it’s evident he is a self-taught paddler. There is no torso rotation powering his strokes. While Alex is powerfully built, the lack of training in the forward stroke must have contributed to his exhaustion as he neared the finish of his crossing.

Alex “drooled over the carbon fiber paddles at Bill and Paul’s but couldn’t justify spending 300 to 400 bucks.” The primary paddle he purchased came from a discount sports-store chain that offers inexpensive gear for recreational kayaking. Economy was a chief virtue of the aluminum/plastic paddle: “It cost me a whole $25. Can’t beat that!”

Alex was able to anticipate some problems. Employing a paddle leash was “a lesson I learned from the movie Cast Away,” Alex noted in our correspondence.

He remembered the scene when Tom Hank’s character lost his stand-in companion, a soccer ball named Wilson, to sea. “I thought that could happen to my paddle. A boogie board leash did a good job,” Alex said. In spite of his resourcefulness, naïve as it was, it would be impossible to anticipate everything that can crop up in a long crossing.

Training and sea trials

Alex mentioned that he likes to “learn everything on my own, and I end up being very good at whatever I do: ice hockey, motorcycles, tennis, free diving, etc. “I pick things up very quickly. Same with kayaking. It did not take me long to get a very good feel for it. I did watch quite a few videos online about wet reentry specifically.

I did get a chance to take this boat out to the lake in July or early August to practice reentry. In waves it was nearly impossible. I was able to get on the kayak and balance myself fine, but when trying to slide into the seat, the boat would roll. Without the water being very flat or having some sort of a float, it was extremely difficult to do. For those reasons I made my little
‘anti-roll’ set up.”

Like Alex, I enjoy learning on my own. There’s a measure of pride that comes with being self-taught, but it’s a slow way to learn, and you can develop some bad technical habits. An instructor can solve both of those problems. The word “educate” has a Latin root in “educere,” which means, “to lead out.” It implies two things: that there’s someone to do the leading and there’s something the student needs to be led out of.  That something has to be ignorance. Not knowing what you don’t know makes it difficult and in some cases perilous to educate one’s self.


Alex wasn’t shy about his plans for the crossing when he was shopping for gear. “The reactions ranged from ‘You’re nuts!’ to no comments at all. The only suggestions I received were ‘Don’t do it,’ and ‘Get a boat to trail you.’ I said no to the latter suggestion, as to me that’s no sport.

No one, other than my friends and coworkers took me seriously. Those close to me know that if I set my sights on something, I achieve it.”

If people were not taking Alex seriously, it was because they couldn’t believe that he could successfully make the crossing with the skills, experience and even the equipment he possessed. But his intentions should have been taken quite seriously.

There was no reason to assume that he would not make the attempt and get well out from shore. It would be reasonable to assume that he would fail. There we should feel that we have a responsibility. “Don’t do it” and “Get a boat to trail you” were indeed very sound pieces of advice, but they were not effective.

Alex would make his decision to launch based on what he knew. The shortcomings in his preparation must have been quite obvious. He needed advice and an approach that would help him make a better-informed decision. Aras Kriauciunas touches on the process of swaying someone’s decision in his article in this issue.


Alex’s plan was shifted to a significantly shorter crossing by the refusal of the Lake Express ferry to take his kayak aboard. Paddling the route of the Badger saved him 20 miles.

Had he paddled his initial intended route and reached his point of exhaustion at 60 miles out (as he did on the Badger route), he would have had another 6 hours of paddling ahead of him. It’s very likely he would have had to use his SPOT 2 to send a distress call.

Alex carried a smart phone in a small dry bag. He had intended to use it to track his position by logging onto the website that mapped his SPOT 2 messenger’s “OK” transmissions. That worked for the few messages he sent in the first hour of his crossing, and he was able to get a rough idea of his speed. “It worked for the first two to three miles, then the connection degraded and then finally dropped.

When I left the Michigan shore on the Badger, the cell phone reception was great until approximately 10-15 miles into Lake Michigan. The Wisconsin side did not offer reception as good as that. I checked my phone maybe once or twice when I first paddled off from Manitowoc.

It worked for about the first hour. It did help me get an idea for how fast I was paddling at that time.” Fortunately, his wife would consent to let Alex make the crossing only if he had a satellite messenger that could send a distress call with a location. It would also provide updates on Alex’s progress once he was out of the coverage area of the land-based cell-phone system.

Alex was extremely lucky with the weather. He estimated the winds he faced during the crossing were about 10 miles per hour. The swell “just kind of rolled past,” and the wind waves were minimal.

The videos Alex took while under way show very mild conditions (Paul McMullen, paddling at the same time of year, encountered strong winds and 3- to 5-foot seas that frequently broke over his bow). The weather around Alex was unsettled. Thunderstorms can bring strong localized winds, but while Alex could see storm clouds, he did not have to contend with strong winds or rough seas. His outriggers were never put to a rigorous test, and one of them failed in mild conditions. He was able to break off the other, even though it was in an awkward position behind him.

The telescoping aluminum tubing of the squeegees would have almost certainly failed in rough water. Sea trials, a longstanding maritime tradition, are essential for learning what works and what doesn’t. If you don’t know by experience how your gear will hold up, or how you will hold up, you’re leaving your success to chance.

Looking back on the crossing, Alex said, “I am a huge risk taker and this is not the first time I have done something ‘stupid.’ This was very dumb and unsafe and it could have turned out differently.

Luck was a major factor. Anyone that knows anything about the Great Lakes knows that it can go from calm to ‘the perfect storm’ in a matter of minutes. My self-confidence got the better of me.” The experience of the crossing deepened his interest in kayaking and made it clear that he had a lot to learn. “I plan on going to a kayaking symposium that is held here in Michigan every summer. I am looking forward to the kayak clinics there and it will also be nice to get to know the kayaking community.”

Alex had taken up kayaking as an outsider and neither his web searches nor his encounters while shopping for gear brought him into our community where he could get the advice he needed.

As interest in adventure sports grows, there will be more people like Alex looking at kayaking as a way to challenge themselves. It would be a mistake to dismiss them for their bravado. Their naïveté is good reason to bring them into the fold as quickly as possible.

No Fear of Flying (A Kid in a Kayak)

This story was created by having Isabella tell me about the trip and then I supplemented by asking her questions. The words are hers (including the metaphors, which I found amazing) with very, very minimal editing. I have added some information in parentheses. -Brian Maxey

My name is Isabella Maxey and I am six years old. My mom and dad kayak a lot. I have wanted to go on a sleepover kayak trip for four or five years. This September, I got my wish.

My trip began with a ferry-boat ride to Orcas Island with my family. I had been on a ferry before when I was young, but I cried because I thought I was going to get to ride on a real fairy, not a boat.

My dad and I walked my mom and little brother down to Camp Orkila (YMCA camp on Orcas) and waved goodbye. Then we went on my first overnight kayak trip to Doe Island. I had been in a kayak before at the beach and in the Hudson River in New York City.

We were originally going to go to Sucia Island, but we didn’t have enough people to make it safely. My dad always talks about being safe in a kayak. My dad said that Doe Island was magic because there was a glade on the island where the fairies live.

We met Toby Brown and Desmond at the store. Toby is a grown-up like my dad. Desmond is in his teens. I bet a lot of people know Toby Brown. We went shopping for the food we would need. We bought juice boxes, marshmallows, apple sauce, a hot pepper, tortillas, pesto and milk boxes for my dad’s coffee. And then we drove over to Toby’s house where we were going to get in the water.

We got all our stuff and brought it down to the beach. We had sleeping bags, tools to cook with, tents, clothes, toothbrushes and toothpaste. I brought warm clothes. It was hard work taking the kayaks and the stuff down the trail to the beach. We had to make many trips.

Then I put wood for our fire into the bow of the boat. My dad said he wanted heavy things in the front.

My dad and I were in an orange kayak. I was in the front, which is called the bow. The right side is starboard but I forget what the left side is called. I was wearing pink and black sweatpants, a white rash guard with hearts on it, a purple fleece and my pink raincoat.

I was also wearing my red life jacket, which you always wear in a kayak. Before we got on the water my dad said that if we tipped over, I should hold on to the boat and if I was not holding on to the boat, I should swim to it. He said I should not swim to shore.

Then we paddled to Doe Island. Kayaking feels like flying and the paddle feels like a wing. I paddled the whole way. Paddling is like weaving—I pretended that the paddle was a needle and I threaded the needle back and forth and back and forth on the loom, which was the ocean.

We paddled near rocks looking for sea stars, but we didn’t see any on the way there. We did see seals looking at us. When we first started paddling it was cloudy and the sky was gray. By the time we got to Doe the clouds had moved away and there was a patch of blue.

When we got to Doe Island, we brought all our stuff up to where we were going to sleep that night. There was blue grass at our campsite. We saw a lot of yellow jackets—about 10,000 of them. Toby said that their queen had stopped feeding them and that they were hungry and looking for food.

My dad and I set up our tent. We could see the mountains over the water. There was a seal with a fish in its mouth and a pelican tried to get it from him. My dad and I went for a walk on the island and found the bathroom. The bathroom was wooden and didn’t flush and there was no place to wash our hands—just hand sanitizer. On the other side of the island we saw a great blue heron very close. The next day we also saw a lot of kingfishers and a bald eagle. On our walk we saw a place that had a lot of moss and three tree roots in a circle. I thought that might have been the fairy glade.

We had pesto noodles with pine nuts for dinner. I ate my tomatoes on the side and only Toby and Desmond had the hot pepper. Desmond and I went looking for good marshmallow sticks and then we roasted marshmallows over the campfire. Dad said it was good that my little brother Liam wasn’t with us because he would run off the cliff to see the seals and would be in the fire. That was so funny.

I wasn’t scared sleeping in the tent, but I did miss my mom and brother. We woke up early and I went down the trail by myself to the bathroom. That was brave.

For breakfast we had Toby Brown’s famous tortilla eggs. And I got more marshmallows for breakfast but I am not supposed to tell my mom. After a little while we packed up, kayaked around Doe Island and then headed back.

On the way back we saw a lot of sea stars. Toby picked a purple one up and put it on my lap. I touched it gently and talked to it. Then Toby put it back right where he found it so it would be back home. We also ate kelp candy, which is the pods off of bull kelp. I didn’t really like it. I dragged bull kelp for a while.

When we got back I was tired, but I had a very good time. Then we had to carry everything back up the hill to the car. That was hard work. I put on dry clothes and was warm and safe.

Then we said bye to Toby and Desmond and went to see my mom and brother. I still really want to go to Sucia, but that might not happen until next summer.

My favorite part of the trip was making a fire and roasting marshmallows. My favorite part of kayaking is the flying.

Isabella was born into a kayaking family—Mom and Dad got engaged paddling the Everglades. Her first swing was a whitewater boat hung in a tree. At three she was paddling the waters of New York Harbor with occasional trips upstate to explore lakes.

Now seven, she enjoys paddling on Puget Sound, Green Lake in Seattle, and has been working on her wet exits and hang time during winter rolling sessions. Next summer she hopes to do a longer trip on Vancouver Island and still needs to get to Sucia. She also loves to draw, sing, read and get into trouble with her three-year-old brother, Liam.


The economics of safety

A group of friends from the Sea Kayaking Club were wrapping up a four-day trip in the Apostle Islands. They had successfully avoided a few isolated rain showers, but were caught off guard by the cold nights.

Their sleeping bags were simply not warm enough, and everyone was sleeping poorly. To make matters worse, they forgot to bring coffee, which made each morning a little rougher. As the sun came up on the last day of their trip, tempers were short, and while it had been nice to be out in the wilderness for a few days, everyone was ready to get back to the mainland.

The weather radio indicated a forecast that was near the limit of their skills, with rain expected for the afternoon and evening. Everyone was a bit edgy, and the decision to launch was made with minimal discussion since no one wanted to spend another day camping. Halfway through the crossing, they realized that they were in over their heads and wished they had stayed ashore.

Nearby, Adventure Kayaking Club paddlers had enjoyed a weekend out on the water. They had camped close to the group from the Sea Kayaking Club. As the sun rose on a crisp Sunday morning, the group started to move around, enjoying a hot cup of coffee and some breakfast to start the day.

A warm fire provided welcome relief against the cold. Enjoying breakfast together, they listened to the weather forecast. Conditions were within their abilities, but with a minimal safety margin.  Their campsite was in a protected cove with a nice view of the surrounding islands, so they were in no hurry to leave. After some discussion, they declared it a “wind day” and made plans to go hiking while the new weather front moved through the region. At midday, from a viewpoint at the apex of the island they saw that the water was quite rough and were glad to be ashore.

Economics of Decision Making

In these hypothetical examples, why did the Sea Kayaking Club launch while the Adventure Kayaking Club opted to stay ashore?  In most discussions of the mistakes kayakers make, the focus is on understanding the risks faced by the paddlers on the water and their ability to correctly evaluate and/or overcome them.

This line of inquiry is incomplete because it does not account for how risk is perceived and it fails to take into account how we actually make the decision to launch.

Most paddlers would agree that the efforts that go into getting ready for a trip are, in economic terms, an investment, and the pleasure of paddling is a return on that investment.

If you’ve spent a week getting ready for a big trip and then drive five hours to the launch site, you’re going to be very eager to get on the water—paddling is the return on your investment. During a long cruise, each successful launch during the trip brings you closer to your goals and improves the return on your investment.

If being out on the water seems like the best use of our time, we launch. Since every kayaking incident starts with the decision to launch, it follows that our safety on the water is influenced by the alternatives that are available to us at launch time.

While reading reports of kayaking incidents in the past few years, I became convinced that something fundamental was missing in how kayakers made decisions to launch in marginal circumstances.

Having recently completed my MBA, it occurred to me that concepts from economics and consumer behavior could be applied to better understand how we make our decision to launch. I realized that things we consider to be optional when preparing for a trip should actually be considered as playing an important role in safety.

It also became clear why many attempts at discouraging kayakers from launching into deteriorating conditions are unsuccessful, and how that can be improved.

There are some economic terms that you might be able to apply to decision making at the start of a paddling day:

Before their respective launch discussions, both groups had the same potential value (returning from the trip) and the same perceived risk (weather forecast and skill levels), so the perceived value of launching was the same.

The Sea Kayaking Club had a lower opportunity cost, so they stayed in the blue “launch” zone—their incremental value remained positive.The Adventure Kayaking Club had a higher opportunity cost, which moved them farther to the right into the tan “don’t launch” zone.

Their opportunity cost exceeded their perceived value, resulting in a negative incremental value. This meant they should forego the launch and stay on land, since that was the more valuable of the two options.

Potential value: The amount of enjoyment you might have or the goals that you’ll achieve by paddling today.

Perceived risk: The downsides of paddling today—the things you will not enjoy or that might harm you.

Perceived value = potential value minus perceived risk: Is the payoff worth the risk or effort you take on? If the potential value clearly outweighs the perceived risk, the perceived value is high.

Opportunity cost: What else could you be doing if you chose not to paddle today?  Could a day ashore be time well spent?

Incremental value = perceived value minus opportunity cost: How much more will you enjoy paddling over whatever else you could be doing? This is the difference between perceived value and opportunity cost.

Potential Value

The potential value is where we typically focus when deciding whether to launch. This includes both the experience of being out on the water—seeing cool sea caves, surfing in moderately sized waves—as well as what might be gained from achieving the day’s objective—getting to the campsite, completing the trip on time.

Economic theory says that the effort we put into getting ready for a trip should have no bearing on the launch decision. It is referred to as a “sunk cost,” meaning that we have already spent our time and resources in such a manner that it cannot be undone.

As paddlers, we often view the work of packing and getting to the put-in as an investment, which puts additional pressure on us to “protect” that investment when we arrive at the launch. This is a dangerous perspective. No matter how much we’ve invested in getting to the water, a bad launch decision is still a bad launch decision; it is in no way excused because we worked hard to make it possible.

Perceived Risk

When evaluating conditions, the skill level of the paddler is important because a heavy reliance is placed on previous experiences. Thus, risk assessment is subjective in nature because it is the perception of risk that drives our decision. There are two factors that affect how we perceive risk.

First, we are much more willing to accept a risk when it is voluntary.  Voluntary risk is why people believe they are safer driving cars versus flying in an airplane, even though the airplane is statistically much safer. It turns out we feel comfortable with  significantly higher risks when we feel in control of our fate.

This is important, since it distorts how we evaluate risk. I have happily launched in conditions when I felt it was my decision to make, but was opposed to launching in similar conditions when someone else was pressuring me to do so.

Next, we evaluate risk by comparing it to something we know, and extrapolating when it lies beyond the boundaries of what we have already experienced. Unfortunately, we tend to underestimate significantly the additional risk that lies outside of our experience.

Experienced paddlers know that key variables for paddling difficulty are wave height, wind speed and the paddling direction relative to the wind and waves. We listen to the weather forecast and try to extrapolate the conditions based on what we have already experienced.

When evaluating conditions, I might think, “Hmm, that’s kind of like a crossing I did last summer, but the winds are going to be a bit stronger so it will take longer.” The smaller the gap between what we have experienced and what we are considering, the more likely we are to correctly evaluate the new situation.

Since we underestimate risk when extrapolating, novices are especially bad at assessing the risk associated with adverse conditions they encounter for the first time.

Evaluating the additional risk when moving from paddling on a small city lake in calm conditions to making a two-mile crossing with 15-knot winds and three- to four-foot waves is a jump beginners simply cannot make. As a result, the weather forecast may have limited value because new paddlers cannot comprehend the associated risk.

Making matters worse, they may not be aware of their limitations, which can make it very difficult, at best, for a concerned paddler to have a conversation with them about the risks associated with launching in challenging conditions. The result may be an “I know what I am doing” response, since they may not even be aware of the fact they can’t fully understand the situation. In such a situation, the perceived risk associated with launching is low for the new paddler, since they lack the knowledge needed to correctly interpret what it will feel like on the water once they launch.

Note that I use the term “perceived risk” here to signify possible negatives associated with the trip. Large waves may not be a negative for everyone, but the possibility of having to call for a rescue certainly is.

Perceived Value

Perceived value starts with how much we might enjoy paddling today and accounts for the associated risk. The result is how much we reasonably expect to enjoy paddling today.

Bringing the components—potential value and perceived risk—into play makes it easier to bring our traditional kayak-focused discussion of risk into this economic framework.

Opportunity Cost

Although an accurate assessment of risk is a key step when deciding to launch, the opportunity cost is always considered—either explicitly or implicitly. This explicit discussion is often missing when discussing the launch decision at the beach.

As mentioned above, the opportunity cost is what the alternative use of our time will be if we don’t go paddling now. The higher the opportunity cost, the higher my requirements are for a fulfilling time paddling. The experience of staying on the beach has some level of value and the better prepared you are to enjoy the time you spend ashore, the higher that value is.

Giving up something that has a high value implies a high cost for the activity you choose. Good alternatives to paddling have a high opportunity cost.

In the example I created at the beginning of this article, the Sea Kayaking Club was cold and tired, and staying at their campsite to wait for better paddling weather was going to mean more of the same, creating a low opportunity cost. They could imaginebeing uncomfortably anxious paddling in marginal conditions, but they knew staying ashore surely meant even more discomfort because of the cold.

A few miles away, the Adventure Kayaking Club had a great campsite, where all were warm and well rested. They were quite happy, and staying in camp would continue to be enjoyable. For them, there was a high opportunity cost associated with launching, since they knew they would be leaving a good thing behind. Since the opportunity cost of staying (warm and happy) exceeded the low value they saw in launching (high degree of anxiety), it was easy for them to opt to stay on land for the day.

Incremental Value

Understanding perceived value and opportunity cost brings us to the idea of incremental value. A decision to launch goes through these steps:

How much are you going to enjoy or gain from going padding?

Weigh the negatives associated with the paddling (e.g., potential for strong winds and large waves, or the chance of rain).

Compare your experience if you go paddling to what else you might do instead.

The gain you might realize by going paddling versus doing something else is your incremental value. The larger the incremental value, the more likely you are to launch.

Consider when launching whether the incremental value is high for the right reasons. Is it high because the paddling conditions are great, or because your current situation is miserable and almost anything would be better than staying where you are? The incremental value should be high because the expected value is high—anything else is a red flag.

Wind Day at Pukaskwa National Park

A few years ago I was paddling with a group of friends at Pukaskwa National Park on Lake Superior. We were five days out and had not seen anyone since launching. Everyone in the group was an experienced paddler. The winds had come up overnight, and it was clear that there were significant waves (five to six feet) and whitecaps out past the protection of our cove.

We discussed the pros of launching—we wanted to make some miles to reach a specific point in the park in order to complete the entire trip within our allotted time. Paddling in big waves all day was going to be challenging and introduced some risk, but it was within our abilities (albeit with various individual safety margins).

Finally, we began to discuss the alternative. “If we stay here, what are we going to do today?”  The group grew quiet, since the opportunity cost was low. No one was excited by the prospect of spending the day just “sitting on the beach.”

One person in the group noted that the wind was blowing into the cove, so the waves were coming in as well. It would be an excellent day to go play, since in the event of a wet exit the waves at the mouth of the cove would simply push us back to the calm water inside.

Not moving camp would allow for some free time: an enjoyable happy hour later in the afternoon complete with freshly made guacamole by our resident gourmet chef. With those observations the opportunity cost increased dramatically, causing the incremental value of launching to become negative.

A few moments later, everyone enthusiastically agreed that staying at the campsite and playing in the cove was the right decision to make. The perceived risk of the situation never changed, only our awareness of the alternatives available to us if we did not launch. By considering those alternatives, the incremental value of paddling went from marginal to negative, making the smart choice clear.

The opportunity cost is important to keep in mind when planning a trip. Think of good food, an interesting book, and comfortable accommodations as your insurance policy. These “luxuries” will help protect you from being forced into unsafe decisions by a positive incremental value for paddling that is elevated simply by discomfort and/or boredom in camp.

Chain of Events

Safety on the water is important, but the situation off the water has a huge influence on our decision to be out on the water in the first place. The better the situation on land, the higher our opportunity cost. The higher our opportunity cost, the less likely we are to launch in marginal conditions.

A low opportunity cost at the time of launch is an often overlooked link in the chain of events that leads up to an incident. Too often the focus of accident analysis is on gear or skills that failed to meet the challenges that arose on the water. The decision to leave the beach is always at the root of an incident and the conditions we make for ourselves on land play a large part in that decision.

The following all contribute to the chain of events that lead to a low opportunity cost at the time of launch:

Good Planning and Preparation

Wind day options: What will everyone do on a wind day? No one should be itching to go because they’ve worked hard to get to the put-in or are bored after spending a day or two at the same campsite. While you are home making plans, be sure to investigate the alternatives available if conditions are poor when you arrive at the launch site, making it unwise to launch. Prepare yourself to spend your wind days comfortably in camp. A very experienced kayaker I know once told me that a good book is his most important piece of safety equipment, because it prevents him from launching in marginal conditions simply because he is bored.

Scheduling flexibility: A pressing reason to be back on the expected date of return skews the incremental value of launching before the kayaks are ever loaded. The perceived value of completing the outing at a certain time to meet family or work obligations dramatically inflates the perceived value of launching.

This frequently leads to trouble. Wind days must be accounted for, and a plan should be in place if the group is running a day or two late.
I was on a trip recently where seven- to nine-foot waves were forecast for Saturday night into Sunday morning.

The winds would subside Sunday around noon, but it was unclear when the seas would settle enough for safe paddling. We’d planned to spend that night at an island offshore, but because my friend had to be back at work on Monday, we opted to forgo camping on the island. It was a tough decision to make because the water was still flat late Saturday afternoon when we had to weigh our options.

We stayed on the mainland and did some day trips rather than force ourselves into a bad situation Sunday afternoon if the conditions were marginal.  This turned out to be the right choice when the wind began to blow that night.

Happy Group

Personalities: When the personalities get along well, everything else seems easy. When they don’t, your group has lowered the opportunity cost, since paddlers would rather be out on the water than stay in camp with people they don’t like.

Communication: Talking is the key to staying in sync as the trip evolves. I find that setting aside a time of day (at dinner, over the campfire) to talk about the day and expectations for tomorrow keeps everyone in tune with the situation. Poor communication can quickly create a situation with lots of drama, lowering the opportunity cost at launch time.

Good Campsite

Site: Avoid choosing a site where you have to move the next day simply because you can’t stomach the idea of spending an additional day there.

Explicit discussion: What will we do if we call a wind day tomorrow? Is this where we want to be, or is a different campsite the better choice? On a recent nine-day trip, the forecast indicated 12- to 15-foot waves with 40-knot winds for the next day. That afternoon, we specifically chose a campsite with those conditions in mind. It ended up being a great choice, since we were protected from the wind and had lots of room to move around.

Influencing the Launch Decision for Others

It’s one thing to make better decisions as a group, but what can you do when you come across other paddlers (especially those you don’t know) getting ready to launch in questionable conditions?

You might try to initiate a discussion that focuses solely on the risks involved. This is ineffective with new paddlers, because they lack the personal experiences required to assess risk correctly. A better approach is to influence the perception of risk, and the opportunity cost associated with launching.

My friend Dave came across a paddler getting ready to launch near Meyers Beach in the Apostle Islands.  Conditions were windy, and Dave knew that several paddlers have died exploring the sea caves in that area when their boats flipped and they found themselves in the water.

Dave tried to explain that capsizing in Lake Superior without at least a wetsuit is a bad idea—the 45˚F water quickly leads to hypothermia, making it nearly impossible to get back into the boat. The paddler was not convinced. Dave asked him to stand in water up to his knees while they continued their conversation.

After a minute, Dave asked if he could still feel his legs and was told “no.” Dave then asked him how effectively he would be able to get back into his boat if his whole body felt as numb.

The paddler now had a new personal experience that made the knowledge gap much smaller, allowing him to assess the risk more effectively. His potential value remained the same—the sea caves are cool—but his perceived risk just increased, resulting in a reduced perceived value.

In the example of the exchange between the experienced kayaker—Dave—and a novice, the conversation began with Dave’s effort to increase the novice’s existing perception of the risk (a to b) by discussing the dangers of falling into the water without a wetsuit.

The novice’s perceived risk increased slightly, resulting in a lower perceived value. The trip maintained a positive incremental value, so Dave had him stand in the cold water. This imparted a direct and personal understanding of what capsizing in those conditions would be like, raising the perceived risk more, which further lowered the perceived value (b to c).

Unless the opportunity cost is addressed, Dave faces a monumental task of increasing the perceived risk to a level high enough to eliminate all perceived value—he must convince the novice that launching will result in a rescue or worse. In practice, that’s not likely to happen because the novice simply cannot understand all of the risks involved.

Faced with the option of being bored, most people will downplay the risk and opt to launch. The novice may have considered sitting on the beach and watching the waves for a while, but that only shifted him partway to the “don’t launch” zone (c to d).

Dave provided a more attractive alternative to the proposed launch, which raised the opportunity cost enough (d to e) to convince the novice to abandon the original plan and launch in more protected waters. Although Dave’s focus was on the safety of the novice, explaining the risk was only part of the eventual solution.

The paddler was new to the area and had no idea what else he might spend the afternoon doing, so his opportunity cost was pretty low—just sitting on the beach was of little interest. The incremental value was still positive, but had become marginally so.

Dave next addressed the opportunity cost. He suggested checking out the Bark Bay Slough, about five miles down the road. It’s sheltered from the wind and an interesting place to explore via kayak. This sounded interesting, so the opportunity cost provided by the alternate destination went up.

The incremental value of exploring the caves became negative and not launching made the best sense. The alternative destination was now the better choice. The paddler decided to load his boat back onto the car and drive down to Bark Bay instead.


The decision to launch is the last decision in a chain that starts with trip planning at home and continues on to our environment at the time of the launch. By focusing on each step along the way to ensure we always have an enjoyable backup plan, we are more likely to avoid launching in marginal conditions.

Understanding the components of this process also enables us to be more effective at helping others understand the implications of launching in poor conditions.

Discussing risk is a good starting point, but the incremental value will be decreased more effectively by suggesting interesting alternatives. It is the awareness of those alternatives that may persuade both new and experienced kayakers to come back and paddle on a better day.

Kayaking the Island of Antarctica

When my Danish friend Olaf Malver rang me up and asked me if I wanted to join a select group of paddlers going to Antarctica for an exploratory sea kayaking trip, I ran to pack my cold-weather paddling gear.

Olaf personifies the spirit of his Viking ancestors, having climbed over 200 mountains on three continents. In recent years he has turned to sea kayaking, with a special passion for leading trips to remote regions and extreme climates.

Any paddling adventure with him was bound to be fun. It had long been a dream of mine to explore the islands and the Southern Ocean surrounding the continent of Antarctica, yet the time, expense and logistical problems involved in reaching this remote wilderness had made this dream unreachable.

Where there were previously few options for transportation to Antarctica, the situation has now changed. With the end of the Cold War, many highly specialized resources have become available for scientific expeditions and adventure travel.

For example, the MS Academik Shuleykin, a 235-foot Russian research vessel with a hull strengthened for ice and an Arctic-seasoned crew, recently appeared in Argentinian waters and began offering its services to eco-travelers and research teams wishing to travel to Antarctica. This ship would provide the passage for our group to this previously nearly inaccessible landscape.

In January 1998, the midpoint of the austral summer, I joined a half-dozen paddling friends of Olaf in Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world. Jonathan Calvert came from Texas, Larry Rice from Illinois, Dana Isherwood, Lou Gibbs, Phil Rasori and I came from northern California, and Olaf’s old friend Jan Jantzen flew in from Copenhagen. Stowing our folding boats onboard the Russian ship, we set off down the rain-swept Beagle Channel, bound for Antarctica.

That night we entered Drakes Passage, long regarded by mariners as one of the most dangerous places in the world to sail a boat.

But in the steel-hulled Shuleykin, equipped with powerful twin engines and modern navigational equipment, we felt safe. We set a course toward South Georgia Island, 1125 nautical miles to the southeast.

We soon discovered that the stories we had all heard about this Southern Ocean were not exaggerated. These seas seemed charged with conditions more immense, more powerful than those through which any of us had ever drawn a kayak paddle.

Only here, between 50 and 60 degrees south latitude, does a continuous band of open water encircle the earth. Vast tropical seas stand face-to-face with the frigid polar ice, unrestrained by any land mass. To further intensify the situation, these winds and currents become constricted as they squeeze between the southern tip of South America and the north-thrusting Antarctic Peninsula.

The next morning I emerged on deck and gazed out over the tempestuous vista that surrounded us. A seemingly endless succession of ocean waves, some four or five stories high, raced along with us in an easterly direction. I wondered how the Shuleykin would handle these gigantic waves when it was time for us to return west and face the onslaught head-on.

The scene conjured up memories of rapids on a white-water river, on an oceanic scale. The words of explorer Robert Meithe came to mind, who once observed, “Cape Horn is the place where the devil made the biggest mess he could.”

For three and a half days and nights we surged along at 12 knots, the powerful wind, waves and currents at our backs. For those of us who were heading to Antarctica for the first time, the ocean around us seemed vast and utterly wild. From my favorite vantage deck at the bow, I gazed out over the ever-changing panorama of seething seas and sky for hours.

In the evenings I would go down to the lecture room on the second deck to learn more about this fascinating world from lectures and slide shows that the American and European naturalists and historians onboard presented. There was also an extraordinary series of videos, Life in the Freezer, that the British had produced about Antarctica.

Up on the bridge deck there was a library stuffed with books about natural history and the exploration of the area. When I could absorb no more information, there was a sauna back down on deck two that the crew kept super-heated, hotter than any sauna I had ever known.

There the Russians introduced me to their custom of rubbing honey on their perspiring bodies, claiming that it was great for the skin.

At about 54 S, we began to sense a drop in the air temperature, a sign that we were crossing the Antarctic Convergence. The naturalists explained that this is a region where deep currents from the north collide with frigid, denser polar ones, forcing the nutrient-laden waters to the surface.

The variety and concentration of aquatic and air-borne wildlife confirmed that we had entered one of the richest feeding grounds in the world. Pelagic birds, some of which I had never seen in the northern hemisphere, were much in evidence here: pintados, prions, southern giant petrels and royal albatrosses with a wingspan of up to 12 feet.

Three hundred sixty million birds of 20 to 30 species are estimated to migrate through or live fulltime in Antarctica, including six species of albatross and countless flocks of agile, swift-moving penguins.

The penguins displayed remarkable teamwork as they darted, dove and leapt along the surface of the sea in pursuit of prey. We also spotted fin and humpbacked whales, seagoing fur seals and pods of orcas and bottlenose dolphins that had come to join the feeding frenzy.

Paul Konrad, an editor from Wildbird magazine who was also a passenger on the Shuleykin, explained how the whales and dolphins came here to feed on the immense quantities of krill that swarmed invisibly through the water around us.

The day before we were due to arrive at South Georgia Island, Olaf announced, “It’s time to put our boats together!” But a 20-knot, near-freezing wind was whistling outside, so we tried assembling the first of our three folding kayaks inside the ship’s bar. Alas, the big doubles proved much too long for that cozy sanctuary.

We moved out onto the wind-swept deck, clutching the various pieces of our craft tightly to prevent them from being blown overboard. The ship had slowed down now, and big waves were rolling up and overtaking us from astern.

A Russian crewman cautioned us always to keep a firm grip on a guardrail whenever we moved near the edge of the rolling, pitching deck. A glance at the seething sea racing past and no one required a second warning. The aluminum pieces of the boat frames were a struggle to fit together with our numb fingers, but by nightfall our three kayaks, as well as a unique collapsible white-water canoe of Norwegian design that photojournalist Larry Rice had brought along, were all lashed down securely on the aft deck, ready for launching.

Later that night, I visited the bridge and found the officers on watch gathered around the ship’s radio, following the weather reports closely. A big cyclonic depression had developed 250 miles to the northwest, but it appeared to be moving away from us.

Small icebergs were scattered across the radar screen, and a sizable one loomed about six miles out at 2:00. At 12 knots and surging even faster in these following seas, even the Shuleykin with its hull strengthened for ice, could not risk a collision with something that size.

Back down in the lecture room, Russian-born naturalist Peter Ourusoff began briefing us about the wildlife we would encounter around South Georgia Island. “Leopard seals are widely regarded as the most dangerous killers of wildlife in Antarctica, yet it’s the big fur seal bulls in herds on the beaches that tend to be aggressive toward anything, including human beings, who wander into their territory.”

We would soon find out that he was not exaggerating.

By dawn the next morning, the Shuleykin was at anchor in Grytviken Bay at 54 17′ S, 36 30′ W, offshore from an historical Norwegian whaling station long since shut down.

Years of Antarctic storms had battered and crumbled the row of wooden structures ringing the little cove. Long before the seal hunters had come, the great British navigator Captain James Cook had anchored here when he discovered South Georgia Island in 1775.

The sky was overcast, but the wind was light and the weather seemed to be holding steady. At a signal from Olaf, we pulled on our dry suits and launched our kayaks from a landing platform that the crew had lowered down to the water.

We gathered into formation and began to paddle towards shore, where a jagged range of ice-clad mountains loomed above. A flock of swift macaroni penguins dove and leapt nearby, porpoising to get a better look at us. My paddling partner, Lou Gibbs, and I landed our kayak on a narrow strip of sandy beach near the crumbling remains of the whaling station, while the other paddlers explored the waterfront by kayak.

We knew that the legendary Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton was buried here somewhere. In 1915, after his ship the Endurance became ice-bound in the Weddell Sea and was ground into splinters, he and his men subsisted for months on pack ice.

When the pack ice finally broke up, they sailed their two lifeboats to uninhabited Elephant Island, where they found scant shelter from the Antarctic weather in a rocky cave. Shackleton then took a few of his men and sailed 800 miles in the most seaworthy of the two boats, through the storm- and iceberg-filled Southern Ocean.

Their long sea journey climaxed in a surf landing on the blustery west coast of South Georgia Island. Even then, however, their trials were not over. Protected only by the tattered rags that remained of their clothing, they climbed across the glacier-covered mountains to reach the whaling station at Grytviken. Incredibly, not one of the Endurance crew perished during the eighteen months they were lost in Antarctica.

When a journalist back in England asked Shackleton if he considered his expedition to be a success or a failure, he replied, “A successful expedition, sir, is one from which all hands return alive.”

Story and Photos by Michael Powers

Nature’s Course: A scene from San Ignacio

In the early morning fog, the only sound I hear is the dip of my paddle into the water and the cry of seabirds huddled on the sandbars. As the sun parts the mist, birds will begin to hunt, and I will take a panga full of excited tourists out to see whales; but this gray before sunlight is my own. It is when I become part of the landscape.

For fifteen years I have worked as a resident naturalist in the gray-whale sanctuary of San Ignacio Lagoon, in Baja, Mexico, working to educate and enlighten people not just about the whales that migrate there, but also about the fragile ecosystem that encompasses the entire lagoon. I work in a panga, an open, outboard-powered fishing boat, but I spend my off hours in a kayak.

For me it’s the most unobtrusive way to experience one of the last wildernesses on earth. San Ignacio Lagoon lies within the confines of the Viscaíno Biosphere, a two-million-hectare nature preserve that covers almost a quarter of Baja and stretches from the Sea of Cortez to the Pacific Ocean.

It is a model for environmental protection. Most people see only the exotic and adventurous side of my job, but there is also occasional heartache. In February 2011, I had one such experience.

Private boats of any kind, including kayaks, are not allowed in the channels the whales frequent, but the labyrinth of mangroves that surrounds the lagoon, while open to the public, is rarely visited and has become my private place. Weeks may pass without another person entering this area.

It is so isolated that the countless seabirds that occupy this land have ceased taking flight at my approach. Coyotes asleep in the ice plant barely acknowledge my presence, and even a skittish desert fox sat and watched with curiosity as I glided past him.

Once, while stopped to have a sandwich, a brown pelican landed next to me to inspect and peck at my deck bungee before becoming bored and leaving. It is the silence of a kayak that gives me this access.

The sun was making inroads, burning off the sea mist, and I pointed my bow across the channel to head into work when I spotted a rare sea lion with its flippers stretched above the water.

These sea mammals get cold quickly while in the water and must hold their very thin flippers up, out of the water, to catch the sun’s rays between dives. While thermal regulating in this way they appear to be waving at passersby.

I quit paddling and drifted right alongside this sea lion. It was not just sleeping, but snoring quite loudly. I floated by within inches, trying not to laugh and startle him, and passed without him being aware of my presence. Had I disturbed the water with my paddle he would have crash-dived long before I reached him.

Midway across the channel I saw an all too familiar sight, one that I always hate to see: a dead whale. The carcass had been brought into shallow water by the tide. We naturalists call them floaters.

They’re sometimes victims of a ship strike or predator attack, but most likely they’ve died of natural causes. The position and condition of this body offered me no obvious clues to the cause of death. I had seen numerous floaters over the years, but always in the main channels, never here in the shallows.

Since we record all such incidences, I paddled over and could see from the deterioration that this whale had been there a couple of days. The sun, crabs and seabirds make quick work of such bounty. At high tide it had floated, then had run aground at low tide, coming to rest on its side in about three to four feet of water.

I took a couple quick photos before I noticed a baby whale approach from behind the carcass. It was almost barnacle free, meaning it was a newborn. It was too young to have been weaned, a process that can take several months. Gray whales are not known for adopting orphans as humpbacks and especially orcas do, so this one’s fate was pretty much sealed.

Grays are born with little natural instinct and must be taught by their mothers how to survive and socialize. This baby must have been in agony with hunger and exhaustion. It was emitting a wheezing sound I had never heard from young whales.

It head-butted its mother in a hopeless attempt to coax her back to life. There are no predators within the lagoon, so it didn’t need it to be protected, but without its mother, it would quickly starve to death.

It swam back and forth past its mother’s body, clouding the water as its tail stirred up the sandy bottom, nudging her, then coming toward me.

I was about ten feet away in water that was slightly deeper, yet still shallow enough that a live adult whale never would have gone there. High tide had brought the body in, and the baby had followed.

There was barely enough water for the baby to swim in, and the tide was still receding. My first instinct was to back paddle from the carcass and get clear of the baby. I had no idea what a grieving calf would do, especially in such limited space, but I could not bring myself to leave.

In San Ignacio Lagoon gray whales regularly approach boats. This learned behavior is something mothers pass on to their offspring. I thought this whale too young to have learned this, and as it swam up to my kayak I decided it simply needed attention.

Gray whales are the most affectionate of almost 80 species of cetaceans. I have seen countless examples of the bond between mothers and calves. Mothers constantly nuzzle their young while showing them off to people who come out to see them in tour pangas.

They place the babies on their stomachs or hold them up on pectoral fins as if to say, “Look what I created!” They bring them up to our boats to be petted. There is no other place I know of where this interaction between wild animals and humans exists.

When babies tire of swimming, they climb onto their mothers’ backs to sleep, but only for a couple minutes. A mother gray whale will spyhop—stick her head out of the water to look around—and estimate the time it would take a predator to reach her from the horizon, and that is how long she will allow her young charge to sleep.

The calf came directly beneath my kayak, staring up at me while I stroked its head. It did not push or threaten to capsize me. It was simply a youngster who had lost its mother and sought any affection it could get.

I ran my hand along the curve of its mouth, as this sometimes makes them open and allow their baleen to be stroked, a touch they seem to enjoy, but this youngster would not cooperate. It had a deep nick on its back, telling me it had already met a boat propeller, a common occurrence for such friendly animals who have grown accustomed to power boats.

I have petted hundreds of whales over the years in this lagoon but it was always in the context of my job, taking people out to interact with them in controlled areas. On this morning I had become a surrogate mother—or at least my kayak had. I guessed this infant was young enough to equate the size and shape of my boat to its mother.

I felt helpless. There was nothing I could do. This sad situation was the law of nature.

I thought back to the morning when my own mother had died and soon had tears streaming down my cheeks. I watched the young whale quietly lying on the surface next to me, seeking whatever solace I might give it. It rubbed against my hull, and I stroked its head.

I lost track of time as the young whale swam back and forth from its mother to my kayak, looking up at me with eyes I saw pleading for me to do something. Eventually I had to turn away or be overcome by the situation, so I paddled into very shallow water where the youngster could not follow me, although it tried, and looking back I saw it resume its vigil around the carcass of its mother.

I had to leave because I had clients to take out on the water. I got on the water early the next day and paddled back to the shallows, expecting to find a second floating body, but there was none.

I paddled the shoreline for miles searching through binoculars until I found the young whale. It was swimming from female to female. Most had calves of their own, and the orphan was being turned away by all of them. In all my years on the water I have only seen one female gray whale with two calves and have no idea if one was adopted or simply being tolerated. I have never known of another naturalist who had documented a gray mother with an adopted calf.

On the third morning I paddled out expecting to find the calf weak and starving. I quickly spotted and identified it from the prop-strike scar on its back. It was swimming alongside a young female, going into the deeper channels where I was not allowed to paddle. The pair headed toward the mouth of the lagoon and the entrance to the vast Pacific.

I have no words to describe what I felt at that moment. All logic aside, I wanted and needed to believe that young whale had found a new mother.

1,200 Adventurous Miles Down India’s Yamuna and Ganges Rivers

Dhera Dun, India – I had never known an Indian train to leave on time, so I was shocked when I missed the 10:20 express to Yamunanagar. I was five minutes late and it had left on schedule.

I had just finished a three-week trek to the glacial sources of the Yamuna and Ganges rivers, and was eager to start my kayaking trip down the Yamuna river. Carrying 100 pounds of folding kayak and equipment, I summoned a bicycle rickshaw to take me to the bus station.

I planned to paddle 1,000 miles down the Yamuna to its confluence with the Ganges at Allahabad and then continue 200 miles down the Ganges to Varanasi. I had come up with the idea a few years previously, on my first trip to India.

While arranging to take a tourist boat in Varanasi, there had been much haggling over the price and someone said, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have your own boat? You could go anywhere!” The seed was sown. Now, three years later, I just had to find the river and start.

While waiting for the bus, a group of young, neatly dressed Sikh pilgrims with brightly colored turbans asked me what was in the big red bag. When they learned of my plans to kayak to Varanasi, they insisted, “You must come with us to Paonta Sahib. It’s a very holy temple on the bank of the Yamuna.” A quick look at my map showed it to be 50 miles upriver from Yamunanagar and still in the Himalayan foothills-but they told me there were no rapids.

We were soon rolling down the road in a rickety old green bus with the boat securely lashed to the roof-a good thing, considering the jarring potholes. From the hill above the town of Paonta Sahib, Vicky, one of the Sikhs, pointed out the gleaming white marble temple. I pointed out the rapids.

The pilgrims invited me to stay with them within the temple compound. We stayed on the second floor of a bare concrete dormitory overlooking the ornate white marble temple. I spent the day learning about the history of Sikhism and assembling the boat. By nightfall I was tired, excited about starting-and a bit nervous about the rapids.

The next morning just after sunrise, we carried my boat, Moganga (a conjunction of my wife’s name, “Mo,” and Ganga, Hindi for the Ganges), down the winding stairs, across the mosaic marble temple compound and down to the water.

As we neared the river, a fisherman in an inner tube bobbed past, bumping down the rapids. I felt confident that Moganga could handle the rapids if an inner tube could. I waved good-bye and paddled out of a slowly moving back eddy. With a yank, the swift current grabbed the front end and nearly capsized me. I made a quick, flailing recovery and sped down the first of many sets of class I and II white water.

Although the Moganga occasionally bumped over smooth stones, the kayak handled the bumping unscathed.

The current swept me along at a quick pace and, by mid-afternoon, after paddling past heavily forested banks, I came to a dam. An engineer there told me, “You’ll never make it to Delhi by boat.

It’s impossible. Better you take a bus.” I thanked him for his advice and portaged with the help of a group of chattering young boys and a bossy adult who yelled directions at them, to no effect.

Over the next few days there was very little activity along the river. Vast expanses of tall, swaying grass with wispy white tips were punctuated by a few dusty villages and occasional fields of bright yellow mustard. The villages were small and few had shops.

When I inquired about restaurants, people took me into their homes and fed me. An apple farmer visiting his nearby orchard explained to me, “The people share because they want to-after all, you could be a god.”

Five days into my trip, in the village of Tanda, I was brushing my teeth near the river with a group of 20 onlookers when a young man came over and invited me to stay at his house. At the age of 18, Iftakar was already a doctor, Urdu poet, chicken farmer and English student.

We spent the evening on charpoys (string beds) set outside the chicken shed talking about the river, discussing his poetry and eating fiery vegetarian food prepared by his mother. His family’s house is ten feet from the edge of the brown earthen cliff overlooking the river.

Later, when Iftakar’s friends arrived, I learned that one of them, Masquel, used to live in front of Iftakar. The now calm river had claimed his family home during the last monsoon. I suddenly realized that the strange circular stone and brick tubes I’d seen sticking up from the river were the remains of wells from washed-away homes.

The following night I camped and was up by 5:30 a.m. to start my paddle to the capital of New Delhi. A wrinkled old man with a stubbly gray beard helped me get the boat into the water.

As I was sitting with my feet out of the boat, intending to wash the thick, dark mud off, the old man came over and gently scrubbed each foot. I floated away looking back, and he bowed once before struggling up the bank and walking away.

I paddled past increasingly developed areas, and was on the northern outskirts of Delhi by noon. Paddling up to a dam with the city’s water intake plant nearby, I approached a rusted perimeter fence to ask a group of curious workers if I could come through to portage.

“Are you from Pakistan?” one of them asked. I was in for trouble. Two guards and a crusty old sergeant who was wearing faded khakis that were a size too small marched me to the guard house, a small dark concrete building.

I panicked at the thought that my trip might be over after just seven days. Luckily, after a few minutes of rummaging through my belongings, I found my passport, proving that I was indeed an American.

Faces brightened noticeably and old Sarge now brought me a cup of tea and wanted to know if I had met his brother in California.

The officer in charge, whose right arm was in a cast-maybe because he’d been fighting other kayaking terrorists-explained that they had detained me because the dam was a restricted area. I asked how I could know this, as there were no signs posted. “Of course there are no signs, it is a secret.”

After another hour of questioning they helped me carry the boat up to the road and flagged down a truck that took me to Delhi.

In Delhi I stopped by the city’s Water Board. A helpful man told me, “The rivers of India are for everyone, so you may go where you please.” He explained that ten dams protect the city from floods and that I should start from below the last of these at the southern suburb of Okhla.

The following day, I left a duffel bag of trekking gear behind to be mailed home later, and hired a bicycle rickshaw to Okhla. In Okhla, there was a police post next to a set of steps leading down to the river, but the two officers just waved and went back to their newspaper as I carried the big red bag to the concrete steps at the river’s edge and assembled Moganga.

The now lighter boat handled better as I paddled toward Mathura, 200 miles away. It saddened me to see that the river banks were strewn with plastics and rotting garbage, and I recalled a newspaper article I had read that said that the E-coli count here was 9,000 times the safe limit.

Yet, several hours later, in the countryside, as I paddled past fishermen who were sitting in inner-tubes and casting their nets over the side, the river seemed in much better health.

I had forgotten to get water before leaving Delhi, so I stopped at an isolated farm and asked two men repairing a motorcycle if I could draw water from their well. The next thing I knew I had been invited to lunch. The wife of one of the men brought roties with ghee (unleavened, round bread with clarified butter) and vegetarian curry while my hosts looked on with wide, kind smiles. Following the main course, one of the farmers peeled apples for me.

Afterwards, as I paddled back out into the current with my new friends waving from the banks, I felt quite spoiled.

Throughout the afternoon I played leapfrog with a wide wooden boat also headed downstream. At 4:00 we both stopped for the night, and a well-dressed farmer from the boat encouraged me to stay in a tiny, nearby village. He didn’t live there, but he talked to people in the village, who happily took me in. After he left, there was no one who spoke English, so I struggled with my very limited Hindi.

The five older men quickly returned to the business of smoking tobacco through a large hookah. The women were nowhere to be seen. Then, one brash old lady appeared and loudly demanded to know what I was doing in her village. Her questions were punctuated by wildly gesturing hands. She didn’t buy my story about arriving by boat. I motioned for her to follow me, but that wasn’t going to happen. Instead, like the Pied Piper, I led a group of small giggling children to the boat.

With their help, we carried it back to the village to show her. For the next 15 minutes her questions flew at me. My not speaking Hindi didn’t matter-she wanted answers. That night, I fell asleep under the stars covered in a thoughtfully provided dusty, dark-brown blanket while the men sat around their hookah, which was still bubbling away. In the morning the old woman brought me a lassi, a slightly salty yoghurt drink, before I set off. Her suspiciousness from the previous night seemed to have dissipated, and I appreciated her kindness.

On my final afternoon before reaching Mathura, several older women carrying baskets of produce began prostrating on the high river bank while calling down to me, “Baba, Baba!” (holy man, holy man!). Unsure of how to respond in a holy fashion, I gave them a big cheery wave.

Minutes later, a white catfish jumped out of the water, up my sleeve, flapped down my belly and then slithered into the sea sock. I managed to stay upright, but I dropped my paddle in the panic. I freed the slimy, 8-inch fish and retrieved my paddle before continuing on my way.

Night had fallen by the time I entered Mathura. I used the lights of the city as a guide to find my route along the river. Suddenly, a power cut plunged all into darkness.

Within minutes, the dirty orange glow of hurricane lamps again helped me on my way. Old pages from a guidebook led me to the Hotel Agra, less than 50 meters from the water. The staff seemed a bit confused by my paddle and somewhat muddy appearance, but when they saw the boat they were most helpful, and I was soon checked in.

The next day, I leisurely paddled along the town’s waterfront where Krishna, a Hindu God, was born 3,500 years ago. I spent an hour watching seven men build a wooden, flat-bottomed boat completely by hand.

Their tools included a string-and-bow hand-powered drill. They told me it would take them a month to build the 30′ x 7′ craft at a cost of US $300. Before leaving, they offered me water, which I politely declined-having seen them gather it straight from the polluted river.

After a week-long break from paddling, I took all of my extra equipment by overnight train to Varanasi, 800 miles downriver, in an effort to lighten my load. There I found a small lodge on the bank of the Ganges, Kumiko Pension, run by a friendly Japanese lady and her somewhat eccentric Bengali husband, Shanti.

He told me that I would never make it from Mathura to Varanasi, because, “One, you will be eaten by crocodiles; two, you will be murdered by bandits; three, it is impossible; and four, you will be eaten by more crocodiles.”

Still, Shanti kindly locked my bags away for safekeeping after I promised him there were no bombs, weapons, guns or illegal drugs in them.