I’m really shaken up. This morning I got this email from my good friend and teaching partner-in-crime, Bonnie Perry:
Is the paddler who died just the other day [on Lake Superior] the same fellow from Madison who was in our Paddle Canada Level 2/3 and BCU 3 star [last August]?
I clicked through to Dave Olson’s always entertaining blog, The Lake is the Boss where I confirmed what I had been fearing; that Robert (Bob) Weitzel was a student on the advanced kayaking course that Bonnie, Erik Ogaard and I taught at Naturally Superior Adventures last August (2011).
The news hit me like a sack of bricks. This wasn’t some yahoo paddler out in a short, fat recreational kayak in jeans; this guy knew what he was doing. He was prepared.
I have been reading regular drowning and accident reports in the press since this site went online six years ago and I have probably read what seems like 200+. I feel bad for people but it has never really hit me like this one did as I taught him some of the skills to get out there.
It’s not that I have survivor’s guilt or that I’m second guessing our teaching by asking myself, “Did we do everything we could for him?” In this case I believe we did. The course went really well and we worked through all the required skills for the certification.
But still, I’m shaken by the news in two different ways.
Firstly, Bob was a good paddler. I remember when he first came on the course he was in a very twitchy Greenlander Pro. That’s a crazy boat that only 3 people in the world can paddle with confidence so it’s no wonder he looked nervous on that first day. Once we got him in a different boat Bob’s confidence increased and his skills quickly developed over the week which was great to see.
All day today I have been asking myself, “If it could happen to Bob, could it happen to me?” Of course it could. As we move up the ladder of paddling competence, we sometimes feel that we are more invincible. The problem is, as we get better, to keep things interesting, we push the envelop and go out in bigger conditions or take different risks. There is nothing wrong with that of course. Paddling (and life) would get boring but we need to remember that risk management is just as important to you today as it was on the first day of your paddling career.
In Bob’s case we will likely never know exactly what happened. We do know the reported weather conditions which were roughly 30mph wind, 42F water and waves around 2-4'. The conditions were up there for sure but he had also good skills. It’s impossible to say what was going though his head when he was standing on the beach that morning deciding to go out or not.
The other part that has had me shaken today is the realization that as an instructor, it’s critical to make sure that you teach the skills to the highest possible standard. You owe it to them to teach the paddling skills for their level but even more importantly show them how to critically evaluate their skills as well as the conditions they can paddle in.
If you have a student on your course that just isn’t getting it (but maybe just enough to pass the certification), you owe it to tell them that they passed but they still have a long way to go before going out in slightly rougher water. Your students don’t know what they don’t know and it’s our job to show them the way as well as set proper expectations for when they are on their own.
I just feel terrible for Bob and his family and I want to express my deepest sympathies for their loss. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.
PS - Bryan over at Paddling Light also wrote a very good article on risks in the outdoors that you also need to read. It's very good.