Years ago, during my teenage years my step-grandpa took me, my younger brother, and my dad to Shoshone Lake in Yellowstone National Park to do some fishing. We began our trip at Lewis Lake by entering our 15-foot flat bottom aluminum boat with outboard motor at the dock. We motored across Lewis Lake to where the Lewis River inlet, the connection between Shoshone and Lewis lakes. From this point motorized boats are not allowed so we removed the motor from the boat, carried the heavy beast about 20 yards up a forested hill and chained it to a tree and covered it with branches. From here we paddled and sometimes pulled the boat upstream to Shoshone Lake where we began a fun-filled two days of fishing.
I relate this story because when we were unloading the boat at the Lewis Lake boat dock, we saw a few U.S. Park Service boats moving around lake close to the shore. We asked what was going on and were informed that a man capsized his kayak the day before and drowned, and they were searching for his body. I remember my step-grandpa and father asking questions of the rangers regarding the events leading to the apparent capsizing and drowning. I also remember learning that the victim was a male in his 20’s, a relatively experienced kayaker, and that wind suddenly came up producing waves on the water that were ultimately responsible for his demise. This experience left me with a powerful memory of the event and a “must have” respect for any outdoor water activity in which one may choose to engage.
Since this time, I have taken up kayaking, not serious kayaking, but I nonetheless enjoy the sport, even as a self-proclaimed novice. Yet in my “student in training” status I have learned much and witnessed much regarding kayak safety and enjoyment. I hope the following safety tips will be helpful to other novice category kayakers like myself.
Safety Tip: If you plan to purchase a kayak, consider the following:
- A sit-on-top kayak won’t swamp if you tip and can be much more easily re-entered (climb back upon) should you tip. Another point of consideration is that these types of kayaks more commonly come in tandem models allowing you to kayak together with a friend or family member.
- A sit-inside kayak if tipped can swamp as it fills with water. The skill needed to 1) drain a kayak filled with water while in the water, and 2) re-enter (climb back inside) is difficult to master, takes a lot of practice, and can require a significant amount of energy. If you choose to buy or use a sit-inside kayak, select one with a bulkhead, which is a separating wall that creates compartments within the kayak and dramatically reduces the likelihood that the entire kayak will swamp if you flip.
Safety Tip: Get a little training, even if at the launch site, before your maiden voyage as a kayaker. This requires that an experienced kayaker be in attendance and willing to provide the training. The training can occur right next to the shore of a lake or river. Training should include how to right your kayak should you tip and how to re-enter your kayak. Again, a sit-inside kayak takes a lot more training and skill to become competent in these maneuvers.
Safety Tip: When traveling on the water in a kayak there is always the possibility of tipping and becoming submerged. Therefore, plan on being submerged at some time during your adventure. Because cold or even cool water poses a threat for hypothermia, the American Canoe Association (ACA) has published the Cold Water Survival Guide to help outdoor enthusiasts be better prepared for such conditions. These guidelines decree that if water temperature is below 60° Fahrenheit, you should wear a wetsuit or a dry suit. Another suggested guideline states that if the combined air and water temperature is above 120, a wet suit is not needed.
Safety Tip: Choose to enjoy your kayaking on 1) gentle and smaller rivers, or 2) on calm lakes staying close to the shore. These conditions are better suited for the skills of a beginner or the once-in-awhile participant. These situations are low risk for tipping your kayak, and yet if you do, you are within an easy swim to the shore, if needed. I believe this can also be a declaration of one’s respect for the water and the unique challenges water activities present and the swiftness in which an adverse event can occur.
Safety Tip: Regardless of the gentleness of the water, which as I learned from my teenage experience in Yellowstone can change dramatically and rapidly, always wear a life jacket that is comfortable and snug fitting and yet unrestricting. The ability to keep your head above water and your body mostly upright is important should one fall into the water. You will also expend a lot less energy being buoyed up by your life jacket verses treading water to stay afloat. It will help reserve your energy for climbing back on to your kayak or swimming toward shore.
Safety Tip: Do your research pertaining to the conditions of the water you will be navigating and any special considerations unique to the adventure you plan to take, including forecasted weather conditions. Consider the following:
- Are the waters your plan to kayak blocked from wind? Can a storm suddenly arise and turn calm waters to wind tossed waves? Are there potential obstructions (for example, submerged tree stumps or rocks that are near the surface, or branches from a riverbank tree jutting out into the river) on a river that could pose trouble and the need for charting a better course when passing that part of the river. Obtaining correct and pertinent knowledge of your kayaking destination is a wise strategy toward a safe and fun filled trip.
- How crowded is an area likely to be? If there more kayakers in a given area than you are ready to navigate around to avoid collisions, possibly consider another location or a day/time in which the numbers are more manageable. Also remember that if an emergency situation does occur, having others around to help in the process is valuable.
Safety Tip: Plan for the unexpected. No one expects to lose a paddle, to take on water, or need rescuing, but planning for it is another demonstration of a wise decision made. Consider the following accessories that may prove helpful in the event of the unexpected.
- An extra paddle, especially for river trips where if your grip is lost a paddle can be swept downstream.
- A whistle, especially if you find yourself swamped or otherwise in need of help and are further from the shore than anticipated.
- A towrope, for when you may have to tow someone or something to shore.
- A headlamp to provide light for when your adventure lasts longer than expected, or when a late-night trip is planned, such as a leisurely paddle down a bayou in Louisiana. This was a favorite of mine when my brother lived there, and our headlamps would light up the eyes of small alligators before they ducked under the water as we drew closer. Good for a little adrenaline rush as well.
Safety Tip: As with any outdoor adventure, wisdom suggests that you go it with a friend (or multiple friends), someone or many with whom to make the experience more enjoyable, and safer should there be the need for a rescue or to simply reduce time if an unexpected task is required.
Conclusion: I have found kayaking to be a fun and rewarding experience with family and friends. I have also found it to be a good source of cardiovascular exercise, some quality “think time”, and an activity that gets me to some beautiful locations unreachable by hiking. I am also aware that a mishap in the environment of water holds the possibility of a tragedy. So, be safe and have your intended fun that kayaking should be.