I respect adventurous spirits, especially when it comes to outdoor recreation. But every now and then, I’ll hear a disheartening tale of someone’s misadventure.
These tales will almost always have two things in common: one; they are almost always tragic, or very nearly so, and two; they almost always could have been benign adventures with more planning or preparation.
The tale I’m about to relate is true. I’m leaving out the names of those involved; they’ve learned their lessons the hard way and their names are not important to the story.
Yesterday, April 9th 2011, a trio of adventurous young men set out from a beach on the Texas side of Toledo Bend Reservoir, in a trio of open-topped kayaks. The kayaks they had were well equipped and in good shape, but again I must point out that they were open topped. Since a picture is worth a thousand words, I’ll find an image to put in here rather than bore you with what would be an inept description. Their kayaks were similar to this:
They were not the inherently buoyant, rotomolded ocean kayaks, nor did they have skirts around the paddler’s torso to keep out the water. They weren’t the same brand as this one, and I am in no way saying that the brand of the kayak was to blame. The kayaks were very good, if used for their intended purpose. That’s where a bit of the trouble starts.
To get back to the beginning of the story, these young men set out from the Texas bank of Toledo Bend Reservoir, near Sam Forse Collins Recreational Park. They had a great deal of fun riding the wind driven waves due north towards South Toledo Bend State Park on the Louisiana side of the lake. The wind is the thing here: the wind was blowing out of the south at 18mph, gusting to 24mph, all day long. So again, they had a great time riding that north.
At some point during the day, they ended up on the shore of an island off the banks of the park. They then decided to paddle back to the Texas side of the lake. Their view would have been something like this:
That last mass of trees on the left was their destination. It is almost exactly 3 miles distant from the place where they left the park, across open water varying from 40 to 72 feet deep. Yesterday, however, the lake didn’t look like that…it looked like this:
And their route looked like this.
Just a hair east of due south, almost exactly straight into 18-24mph wind and the waves that go with it.
To make a long story a tiny bit shorter, I spoke with the gentleman who pulled them from the water. He was a fisherman, out in a deep vee hull “bay boat” that looked to be about 24 feet long. Just before sunset he was headed home when, by sheer luck, he saw the trio. He told me that when he found them, two of the young men were clinging to one kayak and the occupant of that kayak was trying his best to paddle towards shore, which was still around a mile away. He also said that when he pulled them into his boat, he saw that the lone kayak was almost swamped. As it turns out, the other two kayaks had gone to the bottom of the lake.
Not one of these men had on a personal flotation device or possessed so much as a scrap of anything buoyant.
Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying that life jackets would have been panacea in this situation. Not even close. These young men apparently didn’t give a thought to the sheer stamina it would take to face a 18-24mph headwind in small kayaks for 3 miles. Their decision to go was a bad one on a number of levels. But had they had suitable (read: inherently buoyant) craft and had they been wearing good PFD’s, then the probable worst case scenario would see them washing up, exhausted but otherwise safe and sound, back on the shores of the park. Where they could have arranged some other way to get back to their truck and come retrieve their kayaks.
I suppose that in being around and working on this lake, I have gained respect for its treachery. It may seem odd for me to say that a body of water as seemingly innocuous as an inland lake is “treacherous.” After all, it’s not the ocean, or one of the great lakes; it is almost sixty-five miles long, but it only three miles wide at its widest point. Very possibly, its seeming harmlessness is the root of its treachery. Whatever the case may be, I’m willing to bet that those three young men now have that same respect for the lake that I do…but they almost paid for it with their lives.
Now, as I said before, I can respect a taste for adventure. I’ve been accused of having an adventurous spirit myself. But people, there’s adventurous, and then there’s…well, I’ll call it reckless. I don’t have time, and you probably don’t have interest, for me to get into some long tale of all the outdoor adventures I’ve had. But if I had been standing on that shore, or sitting in a kayak very near that shore, contemplating the journey south across that body of water with those winds and waves…it would have looked to me like staring into the jaws of almost certain death.
I am by no means saying that everyone should sit safely on their couches. By all means, get outdoors. All the best adventures are out there. Hike as far back in the backcountry as you want. Circumnavigate the globe by yourself in a small sailboat. Skydive, go whitewater rafting, trek across the Amazon rainforest. I think you get my drift. Have any adventure you want, but be prepared. That way, if the unexpected rears its (sometimes ugly) head on your trip, you’ll have a good story to tell…and rescue personnel like myself won’t. And that’s the way we like it.
After all, they do say “all’s well that ends well.”
Not that we mind helping out – on the contrary, we live for it. But every time we get a rescue call, the gravity of the possible consequences of failure weigh heavily on us until everyone involved is safe and sound. So for us, a quiet day at work is a great day at work.
I’m sorry if all this sounds a bit harsh, or overly critical or like I’m on some kind of high-horse. I don’t mean it to be, and I don’t mean to sound holier-than-thou. Heaven knows I’ve made my share of mistakes, and then some. If I sound critical, it’s only my desperation showing a bit around the seams. It’s me asking you, “Please be careful out there.”
Stay safe, and I hope to meet you out there somewhere, having a grand adventure.