Monday, June 09, 2008

I stand by my opinion, but will air others

I got a couple of these emails and while I stand by my opinion (as does a kayaker friend of mine) I thought I’d share these very good points with my readers. My job is to forestall death and my opinion and comment are to that goal:

Dr. Keller,

I am writing to you regarding the recent drowning of Ms. Connie Alton, the kayaker recently found on Lake Michigan, and specifically in regard to the statement attributed to you in the Daily Herald article, in which you are reported to have stated: "We've seen certainly more than one kayaker from Lake Michigan," Keller said. "With the conditions in that lake, it is certainly not a good place for kayaking." I am a paddlesports instructor, certified by the American Canoe Association, and serve on the Board of Directors of the Illinois Paddling Council, which is an umbrella organization of paddlesports clubs, retailers, providers, and individuals in the State of Illinois. At the IPC home page, you can find in the left margin, “Safety”, and under that “Lake Michigan,” where we describe many of the hazards & safety precautions necessary for safely paddling Lake Michigan.

Much has been made of Ms. Alton being an avid kayaker, who paddled Lake Michigan often. I won’t dispute that she may have been an avid paddler, but as a certified paddlesports instructor, I can tell you that “avid” does not necessarily translate into “skilled” or “knowledgeable.” I myself was an avid paddler for decades, before I learned how few skills I actually had.

(This) photo was taken from the Chicago Sun-Times web site.

There are many different kinds of kayak available for sale these days; each is designed for a different purpose. In the photo, it’s easy to see that this particular kayak is what we in paddlesports refer to as a “Recreational” kayak. It is designed for use on small, protected lakes, such as the lake at Independence Grove Forest Preserve, where the Lake County Forest Preserve District rents these kayaks to the general public. The LCFPD rental at that site is an appropriate use of this type of kayak, but this kayak was not designed for use in large bodies of water, like Lake Michigan. Experienced, knowledgeable paddlers know this. I would p osit that anyone who takes this type of kayak onto Lake Michigan is very unaware of the hazards to which they expose themselves (i.e., is both unknowledgeable and unskilled).

Another detail that illuminates this discrepancy is that she reportedly was not wearing her Personal Floatation Device (PFD, aka life vest). Experienced, knowledgeable paddlers always wear their PFDs, with the possible exception of what we call “pool sessions,” which are instructional events in very controlled, indoor pools, where multiple “safety boaters” and rescue-trained instructors are readily available.

There are other issues with this incident, which do not appear consistent with Ms. Alton being a knowledgeable or skilled paddler:

--I have seen no indication in the news articles that she had a companion along. Was she paddling alone? That’s never a good idea, especially on big water. A knowledgeable kayaker would typically paddle with a group of not less than three people, as a “safety net.”

--She was paddling on a foggy evening? This is never a good idea, as no other boat on the water will be able to see a kayak in fog. Knowledgeable paddlers are aware of this.

--The water temperature was around 50 degrees, which is cold enough to make somebody hypothermic in a very short time. A knowledgeable paddler would be wearing a dry suit, with multiple (not cotton) insulation layers inside it: He/she would be dressed for immersion in the water, not the air temperature. I don’t know what she was wearing at the time, but the answer to that question may shed additional light on Ms. Alton’s level of kayaking expertise.

I’m aware that Ms. Alton isn’t the first kayaker who has drowned in Lake Michigan; just last fall, one Mr. Doroba of Waukegan suffered a similar fate. A review of Coroner’s Office files should reveal if there have been others. As I recall, however, Mr. Doroba had just purchased his kayak, wasn’t wearing his PFD, and obviously had few, if any, of the appropriate skills for paddling Lake Michigan. I think it is also significant that neither of these victims were members of, or had any apparent contact with, any of the responsible paddlesports clubs that are organized in this area. Members of these clubs learn very quickly the limitations of their skills and equipment.

I will suggest that Lake Michigan is an excellent place for kayaking, provided the kayakers’ knowledge, skills, equipment, and experience are appropriate. In these two cases, the individuals’ knowledge, skills, equipment, and experience were clearly not adequate.

The point of this letter is not to highlight the probable shortcomings in these victims’ kayaking abilities. I do not, however, think it’s appropriate for a public official to be making uninformed and blanket statements to the media about the safety of kayaking on Lake Michigan. I’ll also note that many local jurisdictions, including the Lake County Forest Preserve District and many villages along the lakefront, support kayaking as a safe and ecologically friendly activity. That list of local jurisdictions also includes the US Navy, which provided the access for Ms. Alton to enjoy the lake.


Anonymous said...

Dr. Keller,
Thank you for your efforts to prevent drowning. I too am an avid kayaker [and surfer] on the Michigan side of Lake Michigan. I completely agree with the comments of the paddlesport instructor.

With the lack of lifeguards at most of our municipal beaches I feel it is important for all kayakers [surfers, kitesurfers, fishermen etc...] to have basic rescue skills to help prevent these tragedies.

A group of Great Lake surfers is working to educate other surfers in rescue techniques. We [as well as kayakers] are often in the water and around piers and break-walls during high surf. Several of our group have made dramatic rescues of civilians. Our website is:

We are looking to expand this education to kayaking groups, kitesurfers and other water users.
Please join us.

Anonymous said...

Safety, training and the promoting the practice of safe sea kayaking are a priority for the Chicago Area Sea Kayakers Association. As vice president of CASKA, representing a large membership of responsible paddlers, I want to let you know that many paddlers are working hard to promote safe paddling and access to Lake Michigan. CASKA has sponsored safe paddling outreach to the paddling community, sporting goods retailers and park districts.

I was disappointed to to read your quote in the Daily Herald, "We've seen certainly more than one kayaker from Lake Michigan," Keller said. "With the conditions in that lake, it is certainly not a good place for kayaking." I find this troubling because this quote can be used as an argument to deny access to Lake Michigan to kayakers. Now there is public record of a local doctor saying that kayaking on Lake Michigan is a bad idea. Obviously there is inherent danger in any water sport and any body of water. And special precaution are required to safe guard against sudden violent weather and colder water temperature even in June. But Lake Michigan is lethal just as say, Chain-o-Lakes where there is a higher density of speedboats and alcohol.

Several paddling organizations have worked together to gain access to Lake Michigan launch sites. I would really hate to see any or our efforts jeopordized. Additionally I would like to invite you to participate in discussions on or blog. This can be found at Also we have created an online safety center at Of course we would be happy to provide any safe paddling info to distribute thru your network and online blog.

Thank you for your time and consideration,

Alexa said...

Dr. Keller,

Thank you for taking the time to voice your opinion about kayaking safety. Kayaking is a wonderful sport that I have enjoyed all my life with my family and friends. Unfortunately, I have lost dear kayakers who were my close friends. I encourage like you have for people to understand the risks and have a basic knowledge of safety measures to help prevent these tragedies.

I work for - a kayaking shop. We offer a variety of dvds and books for paddlers to learn. I am not trying to make a sales pitch here but more let paddlers know there are educational material available for them to read and learn.

Again, thank you for bringing to light the importance for all kayakers to know safety basics.

Happy Paddles,