By: Tom Bamonte
The recent news of the tragic death of a young kayaker in Lake Superior has prompted lots of discussion in the paddling community. Kevin Dammen sounded like a great guy. The reporting on his death portrays someone who was fully engaged in life. His obituary summed up his life as follows:
He was a member of St. Augustine Catholic Church, co-founder of the Winona State University Ski Club, member of the Winona State University cross country team, and co-founder of the J.C. Hormel Nature Center Ski Race. Kevin enjoyed running, skiing, unicycling, storm chasing, kayaking, slack lining, online electronic repair, hiking, camping and spending time with family and friends.
When the news of the incident reached the university a large group of his fellow students gathered spontaneously to mourn. Clearly, he will be missed.
The news reports indicate that Kevin died in an honorable fashion. Kevin, his brother and two others were paddling together in the Apostle Islands and ran into trouble when they traveled from sheltered waters to the open lake. There was a small craft advisory that day. One member of the group went in the water and Kevin tipped over when he tried to turn his kayak around and come back to aid his companion. With Kevin and his paddling partner both in the water Kevin urged the two kayakers remaining in their boats to rescue his partner and come back for him later. As a result he died alone in 47 degree water. His paddling partner lives.
It is important to analyze what went wrong on this trip and learn from the mistakes. The lack of a marine radio, not wearing one's wetsuit, the evident lack of self-rescue skills and equipment (e.g., paddle float) all deserve mention. There may have been a failure to consult the marine weather forecast. Surely, there was a point when the group left protected water and first encountered the full force of open lake conditions where they could and should have turned back. The decision of the two rescuers to take Kevin's direction and tow one swimmer to shore while leaving Kevin alone in the open water is debatable.
The lessons of this kayaking death and others go beyond technique and judgment, however. Let's face it, death and the risk of death permeats kayaking, or at least the "serious" form of kayaking to which many paddlers aspire. Many of us are probably inspired to kayak because it is precisely the risk of death that awakens in us that special kind of alertness that makes us feel truly and fully alive.
If we aren't considering the prospect of our death and the death of our paddling partners each time we kayak then we are fooling ourselves. So much can go wrong. A boat roars out of the fog and collides with a kayak. Dehydration, cold and exhaustion at the end of a long day make one tippy just as the waves pick up and you're over. The grab loop tucked in the cockpit holds one under just long enough to panic and gasp. A sudden off-shore wind tips you over and blows your boat away and you had the bad luck to chose to chance it without your wetsuit that day. An unexpected breaking wave pops your sprayskirt and suddenly you are sitting in cold water in an unstable boat miles from a landing spot. The list goes on and on. As we learned from Kevin's death, even a group of four able-bodied kayakers not that far from land is not enough to prevent a death.
The meaning of a kayaker's death is akin to the meaning we draw at Halloween. Halloween is the time of year when the boundary between the dead and the living supposedly becomes thinner, even permeable. In a similar fashion the death of a kayaker is an opportunity for us to acknowledge and come closer to Mother Nature, the Forces of Nature, God's Creation (pick your metaphor) and take special note of its relentless ability to thrust death upon the foolish, the smart, the innocent and the deserving alike. As the deputy sheriff involved in the incident so aptly observed, "Lake Superior is unforgiving. . . people underestimate the power of the cold and the power of this majestic lake."
Death gives the sport, the way, of kayaking its meaning. If no one died kayaking then we would be practicing something like tiddlywinks or knitting. Interesting and enjoyable, even useful, no doubt, but not something that engages body and mind so completely as kayaking. The risk of death gives kayaking a sort of mythic dimension that these more routine activities lack. Each time we put it on the line with a lengthy crossing or by challenging big surf or taking a long trip along unfamiliar shores we are reenacting in our own way the great nautical adventures chronicled by Homer, in the Bible, and by fleets of novelists and adventurers since then. Their words and our practice come down to trying to make sense of a world where people like Kevin are snatched from life way too soon.
However tragic and unnecessary their deaths, we should thank the kayakers who died for reminding us of Death, our ever-present paddling companion. Obviously, we should study the failings that may have led to their deaths and adjust our techniques, equipment and risk-tolerances accordingly. We should go beyond that, however, and ask ourselves each time we paddle the ultimate questions--are we ready to die and are all the good things associated with kayaking worthy of death.
We don't know if Kevin asked those questions as he floated alone in Lake Superior, the life-giving heat draining from his body. I would like to think that he considered the richness of what he had received and given back to his family and his community and felt that he had lived a full life in his 20 years. I hope he had faith that his two companions in boats would be able to get his buddy back to shore alive. He may well have understood the heroic nature of his decision to stay in the water and give his buddy a better chance to live. In that moment of reflection Kevin might well have decided that he had no regrets about dying.
Shouldn't we use the stories about kayaker deaths as an injunction to live our lives and paddle our kayaks in a way such that if death comes to us on the water we're ready and reconciled to its arrival. We want to be able to say, as this young man hopefully said to himself, I've lived a full and responsible life and I've done the best I can on the water to make the right decisions. The rest we must leave to the forces as powerful and as mysterious as Lake Superior that determine our fate.