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An Icy River
It was the first week of February, and our paddle club members were anxious to get into the water for an Ice Paddle. The temps were very low. Overnight lows below zero with mid-day highs in the low teens. It was "ice making weather" my grandfather would always tell me when I was a child. We had scheduled the paddle for 1:00 that Saturday even though I knew it was a slim chance of happening. I preferred not to paddle if we would need to portage freeze overs - sheets of ice across the river. It was as inconvenient as it was dangerous. Roughly 80% of the people that flip or swamp a kayak will do so getting into or out of the kayak. Temps needed to rise, and the river would need to melt a lot of ice to get the boats into the water.
Friday, the day before the paddle, I scouted out my usual places to see if the ice had opened up on any part of the river. My first stop was a point that usually froze over first, and it was frozen over for about 200+ yards. I checked six points in all, and they were all frozen over. When I returned home, we looked over the list of paddlers that were planning to attend, four of the eight could handle the river, but the others I wasn't so sure. I postponed the paddle for three weeks in hopes the temps would rise and open up the river once again.
Saturday afternoon, the day of the original paddle. I was at a Gun & Knife show with a friend when my phone started loading up with text messages and emails. After leaving the show, we met my friends' wife for dinner, and she explained that a kayaker was missing in the Rogue River. I quickly went through my messages, and they all sounded the same… "Where are you?" "Are you on the river?" "Who is paddling today?" "Are you okay?" Once I returned home, I started to look into what had happened. The news report stated, "The search for a missing kayaker has been called off for the night…" A vague description of the two kayakers, "two males in their early to late 60s", fit the general description of a couple of club members that had planned to attend the paddle that day. I immediately had the feeling that they were unaware that the paddle had been postponed and had shown up to paddle, and did so on their own. My wife and I began to contact everyone that had signed up for the paddle in the effort to determine who was on the river. Once we accounted for all the paddle members, I posted on my Facebook that my wife and I were safe and dry and that the missing kayaker was not a member of our paddle or paddle club. I then received a message from a Facebook friend that he knew both of the kayakers and to give him a call. After the phone call, I learned that one of the men was a member of our paddle club but was not signed up for the paddle, therefore, didn't get the notice of the postponement. The body of the second kayaker was found in the river the next day.
In the days following the tragedy, I had received an unbelievable number of emails and text messages offering sympathy, thoughts, criticism, and prayers. One stood out from the rest. It was an anonymous email from a gentleman that identified himself as a member of our paddle club and a detective with the County Sherriff. He was thanking me for postponing my paddle and in turn, asked that I cancel it. I didn't want to be told what to do because of someone else's mistake. I canceled the paddle a few days later knowing that if I went through with it, I would simply be rubbing salt into a big wound.
A couple of days after I canceled the paddle, I received another email from my anonymous club member that thanked me for my cooperation. He told me that the case was about to be closed and that the official determination was that “...a series of poor decisions resulted in death.” He went on in his email to describe the situation and some conditions of the incident.
“The survivor was in his mid-50s, a former rescue swimmer in the United States Navy. The victim was in his late 60s and a veteran of Viet Nam. Both men are experienced kayakers and had paddled in the current conditions in the past. Both men were wearing wet-suits and, told by the survivor, because of the air that they trapped in the suit they did not wear life jackets. The victim at the time of his death had flipped his boat trying to exit the vessel and swept under a shelf of ice.”
The survivor was successful in exiting his boat onto an ice shelf. Once he noticed his friend was missing, he began looking for him in the water before going to a nearby home to call 911. The survivor was later treated for exposure and hypothermia.
The detective went on in the email to inform me of their suspicions in what led up to that day. They felt that the survivor, being a member of the paddle club, had “stalked” our event calendar looking for paddles but did not want to take part in the paddle as a member of the group. In this circumstance, the men saw the Ice Paddle on the calendar and made their plans to paddle the same stretch of river at nearly the same time. The scheduled paddle time was 1:00 and they took to the water at approximately 12:30. Having not signed up for the planned paddle the men were not aware of any comments, updates, or the postponement that had been posted to the paddle.
Because our sport is inherently dangerous as it is, we need to keep our abilities in sight when we push the envelope. Over estimating our skills, and underestimating our environment, are primary causes of paddle accidents and fatalities. Push the envelope, don’t rip it open, and learn as you go. Paddle safe, enjoy nature, and always wear your life jacket so you can return to paddle again.