Big lake safety

Picture of kayak guides getting safety training

We want you to come back.

By Jack Stone

As our summer winds down we always reflect back on what went well and where can we improve. Every year we discuss our policy of not allowing our visitors to rent watercraft for use in Lake Superior. We know we disappoint some with this policy, along with our age requirement for big lake tours. In light of some recent events, we feel the need to further explain our policies.

Using watercraft on Lake Superior requires training, experience, and common sense. One should not go out on the lake alone unless you are highly trained for paddling on the lake. If you were to capsize or take on water, you need to know first how to get out of your spray skirt and then how to empty the boat of water and reenter. Self-rescue is a basic skill that needs to be practiced over and over. The water is cold, especially in our area. Most of this summer, the water temperature has been in the 40s which means that even with a PFD, if you are not wearing a wetsuit, you will not survive for long. If you aren’t wearing a PFD you may only have 20 minutes. With a PFD, you could live for an hour before dying of hypothermia. Swim to shore? Maybe, but your legs are going to lose all strength very quickly. Then all you can do is wait until someone sees and rescues you or you lose consciousness and leave this world. Conditions can change quickly on Lake Superior. Watch the forecast and weather carefully, but be extremely careful with open water crossings without quick access to the shore.

We do not want to appear preachy but we live with the lake on a daily basis. We hear the stories of people being rescued in our area, whether it be in the harbor or in the lake. And then there are the young kids. We have parents who tell us their kids swim in the lake all the time with no problem. That may well be on the shoreline or up to only about 10 feet from shore. They can get out quickly. If we take them out in a kayak or a parent takes them out and they capsize, the window for survival is small. Kids will become hypothermic in a very short time. It is best they stay off the lake. Take them inland where the water is warmer and they can have a much more enjoyable time.

A few closing thoughts on Lake Superior. Always wear a PFD. Never paddle alone and, unless the air temperature and water temperature added together equals 130, wear a wetsuit or dry suit. Take a safety course and when paddling with others, make sure you or your paddle partners can efficiently do rescues. This is something you can practice on inland lakes. We require anyone who guides for us to consistently be able to get someone back in their boat in under a minute. And it goes without saying: refrain from drinking alcohol before or during your paddle. There is plenty of time for that later.

Many other rental shops up and down the shore have many of these same requirements. In order to feel confident in the folks you are working with, look for something that shows they belong to the ACA (American Canoe Association), PNA (Paddlesports North America, formerly BCU, British Canoe Union) or Paddle Canada. This means the establishment adheres to the requirements of one of these groups and make safety their number one priority.

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