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July 4 Weekend Tragic for Canoeists

I read in the national news recently about three canoeing accidents that happened over the fourth of July weekend. Two of the incidents were fatal, the other wasn’t but easily could have been.

In the first news article I read, three teens were paddling a canoe on Basswood Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA)when their canoe went over Upper Basswood Falls. One of the teens was caught under a log for hours and suffered a broken ankle and hypothermia.

Details are sketchy, but what first came to mind was had these teens researched the area they were paddling? When I paddled the BWCA, I had USFS maps with me so I knew where the lakes, campsites, rivers, and portages were located. I also did planning before I left on my trip to determine any obstacles I might face, like weather and terrain. Were there signs near the falls warning paddlers of the dangers ahead, and did these teens simply ignore the warning signs?

The article states that there were three teens in the boat. Any canoeist who has run Class II rivers and above knows that communication and coordination are critical on fast moving rivers. Coordination is tricky enough between two paddlers, but in this situation they had a third paddler. That extra paddler could have made coordination near impossible.

I can only surmise from the article that each teen was wearing a PFD because the outcome wasn’t tragic. However, even wearing a PFD doesn’t necessarily protect you from harm if you get caught in strainers or pinned against rocks. In fact, a PFD could make the situation even more dangerous because straps can get caught on limbs, which is why paddlers should carry a knife with them to cut the straps in such a situation.

My takeaway from the article is that these teens clearly weren’t experienced enough to be paddling where they were. Proper training would have taught them to pull to the shore well ahead of the falls, scout the area up ahead, and if too dangerous for their level of paddling skill portage around the falls. Upper Basswood Falls appears to be Class IV-V and should have been avoided by all but the most experienced whitewater paddlers.

The second incident, which did turn out to be fatal, could have been easily avoided. No one seems to know what precipitated the canoe capsizing, only that three Hispanic adults—two males and one female—and a six-year-old boy drowned because they weren’t wearing PFDs. All too often I hear about Hispanics drowning in the rivers in Oregon because they don’t know how to swim and aren’t wearing PFDs, and I have to ask myself, why? Is it ignorance, culture, or bravado? More needs to be done to educate Hispanics about the importance of wearing a PFD, especially for those who aren’t good swimmers.

Initial eyewitness reports stated that the young boy was wearing a PFD. However, he was not wearing a PFD when his body was recovered. So what does this tell me? It tells me that the PFD he was wearing wasn’t properly sized and fitted for him. Either that or at some point during the paddle trip someone removed the boy’s PFD. The drownings took place in Texas, which gets pretty hot this time of year. Wearing a PFD in hot weather can be uncomfortable, so the boy or one of adults might have removed the PFD to make him more comfortable.

I have seen people wearing PFDs that look like they’re two sizes too big, and indeed probably are. In other cases it’s that the PFD wasn’t properly adjusted. You know your PFD is sized and adjusted correctly if you pull up on the shoulder straps and the PFD barely budges.

The article didn’t say what size or type of canoe was involved. The article did say the victims rented it from a resort, so I suspect the canoe was either an Old Town Discovery—popular with liveries—or an aluminum canoe. Depending on the size, the former can hold up to 1,100 pounds, the later around 800 pounds. Still, three grown adults in a Discovery is pushing it because of concerns with weight distribution, center of gravity, and trim. I have to believe the boat was overloaded. All it takes is for one of those adults to shift his or her weight just enough to cause the canoe to flip.

The third incident turned tragic for two adults who, with a young boy, were out fishing on a lake in Canada and wound up drowning. The young boy survived because he was wearing clothing with sewn-in flotation. The men were not wearing PFDs, maybe because the lake was only eight feet deep and they didn’t foresee any danger. However, paramedics and lifeguards will tell you that a person can drown in just a couple inches of water.

This tragedy could have been avoided with or without the men wearing PFDs if they had exercised common sense. Their canoe capsized because both men stood up in the canoe to celebrate catching a fish. Now I have stood up in my canoe to fish and can maintain my balance pretty well, but that is because I only have to worry about my balance. In the situation involving these men, they both stood up without taking into account the balance of the other person. It only takes one person slightly shifting his weight to cause the other to lose his balance, which in turn causes the first man to also lose his balance. This tragic event happened simply because of stupidity or inexperience with canoeing. Perhaps this trip had been the first time either of the men had ever been in a canoe. If that’s the case, they never should have brought a young child with them.

Lessons to be learned from these tragic events: wear a PFD if you can’t swim or are in unfamiliar waters, make sure the PFD is properly fitted, and don’t rock the boat. Take a course or at least read a “how-to” book in canoeing if you’re not familiar with the sport. Properly plan and prepare for a canoeing trip, even if it is just for a day. I never lead a paddle trip without thoroughly researching and scouting the area where my paddle group will be paddling. Canoeing is safe and fun as long as you use common sense and take reasonable precautions.

Even with the best planning, obstacles can come up. I recently led a trip up a creek. Getting to the creek required crossing a small coastal river. I know the river fairly well because my mother used to live in the town the river flows through. I had checked weather conditions and winds weren’t expected to get above 11 mph. We set out across the river and paddled up and down the creek without incident. However, unbeknownst to us while we were on the sheltered creek, the wind had started to pick up. As we approached the mouth of the creek, we started encountering rolling swells a foot tall that by the time we reached the river were two feet tall and more irregular. The wind was clearly blowing faster than 11 mph. We made our way safely across the river by traveling at a 45 degree angle to the waves. I mention this because proper training and years of canoeing taught me how to safely handle tall waves in a canoe. Inexperience and stupidity could have put me and those with me at risk.

Leave stupidity to the Hollywood producers and directors cranking out cheesy comedies and reality shows. Water isn’t very forgiving of stupidity.


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