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Beautiful, but deadly: Tips for safer kayaking on Lake Superior

Sep 07, 2018 08:28AM ● By Editor

By Keith Uhlig of the Wausau Daily Herald - September. 7, 2018

BAYFIELD - Lake Superior can be as deadly as it is beautiful. The kayaking deaths of a father and three children among the Apostle Islands last week tragically underscored that reality.

Eric Fryman, 39, and his wife, Cari Mews, 29, and their three children, Annaliese, 9, Kyra, 5, and Jansen, 3, of the town of Loyal were vacationing on Madeline Island on Aug. 30. They set out to explore the area on a 13.5-foot, sit-on-top style kayak that capsized about a mile from Michigan Island, said Justin Stickler, a boatswain's mate 1st class and second in command at Coast Guard Station Bayfield.

The Coast Guard was one of several agencies to respond after Cari Mews texted her sister, who then called authorities. It also is the lead agency in the ongoing investigation of the incident. Stickler said the family was wearing life jackets and had other safety equipment with them, including the cellphone, maps and, notably, a flashlight.

The flashlight helped save Cari Mews, who got separated from her family. She was rescued around 10 p.m. on the west side of Michigan Island by a United States Geological Survey research vessel based in Ashland.

By the time the search began, the waves were between two and four feet high in the area and winds were blowing approximately 18 to 28 mph, Stickler said.   

Boating can be dangerous anytime and anywhere, but Lake Superior can be particularly treacherous.

It has deadly cold water, which, outside sheltered areas, ranges from 54 to 66 degrees during the warmest time of the year, with an average annual temperature of 40 degrees, according to the National Park Service. Hypothermia can lead to exhaustion or unconsciousness in one to two hours in water temperatures ranging from 50 to 60 degrees, according to experts, and death can occur in one to six hours.

Volatile weather patterns can also buffet the Apostle Islands. "There can be clear, sunny skies to a torrential downpour and 40 mph winds within 10 minutes," Stickler said.

Kayakers and other adventurers will still explore Apostle Islands' nooks and crannies. Stickler said hundreds of paddlers enjoy the area throughout the summer. Most enjoy their trips without incident. But no one in any water craft is completely safe on Lake Superior, Stickler said, and there are actions to take and equipment to have that minimize the risks.

Before heading out

► Consider using an outfitter. These businesses offer kayaking tours — along with the equipment required — ranging from a few hours to multiple days. The tours offer basic safety lessons and are led by guides who are trained to deal with emergency situations.

► File a float plan. A float plan is essentially an outline of trip, including the times of departure and arrival, and route to be taken. Arrange to contact someone after the trip is complete. Give the plan to someone who will not be involved with the trip. Set a time for that person to call authorities if you haven't returned by the agreed upon time.

► Have a whistle or air horn. These should be strong enough to be heard for a half mile for four to six seconds. They are required by law for all boaters.

► Check the weather forecast. Stickler recommends the National Weather Service's Marine Zone Forecast, which is offered through the service's Duluth, Minnesota, office. The forecast includes detailed predictions about the wind and waves.

Safety equipment

► The boat. The National Park Service at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan, which has similar conditions to the Apostle Islands, recommends using only a sea kayak on Lake Superior. Sea kayaks are usually between 14 and 18 feet long, have a deck covering the boat and a cockpit with a lip for a spray skirt to help keep water out of the boat.

► Wet or dry suits. Stickler said kayakers who ply cold waters should consider wet suits or dry suits. Wet suits allow water to come between the suit and the body, and body heat warms that water to insulate the body's core. Dry suits keep water out, and are typically used in colder water. Neither will prevent hypothermia completely, Stickler cautions, but they extend the time a person can stave off the impacts of being in cold water. The Coast Guard uses wet suits in water below 60 degrees. If the water is below 50 degrees, Coast Guard sailors use dry suits.

► Marine radio. A marine radio typically will be more effective than a cell phone. A marine radio also will aid rescuers in their search. Mariners not affiliated with government agencies also typically monitor marine radios, Stickler said, and often will respond to distress messages.

► Personal locator beacon. This device is a simple-to-use device that emits a signal that rescuers can cue in on when responding to an emergency. "It works pretty much anywhere," Stickler said.

► Flares or a visual distress signal. A visual distress signal is basically a strobe light, Stickler said.

If you capsize

Stickler said that under most circumstances, it's best to stay with the boat, if possible. "Think about it: It's so much easier to spot a 13-foot craft than it is a 1-foot head," he said.

And if you are wearing a wet suit, or even clothing that can act slightly like a wet suit, it will keep you warmer if you are not swimming, Stickler said. Moving in the water brings fresh, colder water into the suit, he said.

You can help

People can donate to Mews and the extended family through a fund at three Partners Bank locations: 201 W. Clark St., Spencer; 907 N. Central Ave., Marshfield; and 307 N. Weber Ave., Stratford. People can mail checks to any of the three branches as well, said a bank spokeswoman. Donors should write the checks to the "Fryman-Mews Benefit Account."

For more on this story and to see related articles with links, follow this link to the Wausau Daily herald website.

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