When Paddling Trips Go Awry: Can We Prepare for the Unexpected?

We paddle because we love it. We love being on the water, being in nature, combining it with other outdoor activities like camping and hiking. It’s relaxing…it’s exhilarating…it’s fun.

Paddling trips don’t always go perfectly smoothly, but they usually leave us daydreaming about our next time out.

But sometimes the unexpected happens that causes an emergency or means a drastic change of plans. How do we handle that?

Here are two stories of men who faced an emergency situation on a paddle trip. They tell what happened and how the trip proceeded…

Dan Arbuckle’s Story: Losing a Good Friend

Dan and his 4-year old daughter, Kenzie, went on a 5-day paddling trip on Lake Powell in the fall of 2017 with a group of friends. About halfway into the trip tragedy struck when Dan’s good friend, Glen, one of the group members, suffered a cardiac arrest.

Glen doing what he loved

Because they were with an outfitter with a motorized boat, they were able to get Glen to a nearby bait shop where an EMT helicopter flew in. Unfortunately, they were unable to revive him. Dan said:

“We all decided to continue on with the trip and ended up being rewarded. It was a deep spiritual journey for our group. It forced us to reflect on our lives and process loss in a unique way. I wouldn't have changed a thing.

“It was hard to say good bye to Glen. But at the same time I can't think of a better way for him to go: 73 years old, on the adventure of a lifetime with good friends, and to simply collapse over and leave this earth in an instant.”

Here’s a video Dan made about their week at Lake Powell (he starts to talk about what happened to Glen at minute 6:15):

I asked Dan to share a little more about his experience:

Is there a way you could've planned for this?

DAN: I don't think so. We had everything we needed to handle the situation besides a defibrillator on the boat. The rescuers went to work and provided excellent first-level care. Unfortunately for us it was just his time.

How has this experience changed the way you look at paddling trips?

DAN: I realize that things can and will go wrong if you spend a lot of time on the water. I’ve decided to take a Wilderness First Aid course to gain further tools to deal with these kind of situations. Being aware of what can happen will make me more prepared and alert on future paddling trips.

What have you taken away from this experience that you consider a life lesson?

DAN: Life is so precious. Spend as much time as you can following your passion and being with the ones you love. Also educate yourself so when something bad does happen you’re mentally and physically prepared to deal with the outcome. Watching my parents and the guides jump into action was so impressive and a moment of heroism that will stick with me forever.

dan arbuckle and family canoeing
Dan and his family participated in a paddle tribute as a memorial for Glen

Hans Martens’ Story: Storm of the Century

(Hans shares his story in his own words…)

Going to the Boundary Waters had become an annual event for the Martens. There is nothing we do as a family that knits us together more or builds more memories than the BWCA wilderness camping.

Boundary Waters canoeing
A moose encounter on one of the Martens family canoe trips in the Boundary Waters

The trip we took in 1999, however, had more than its share of memories. It was my tenth trip up there. Three of my children and the family dog were along on this one, Jesse at 16, Britta was 13 and Emily was 11. My two oldest were experienced BWCA campers by then and this was Emily’s first trip.

After portaging through eight lakes we had set up base camp at dusk on Thursday, July 1st. We would spend the next two days day portaging to other lakes looking for adventure and fish.

That Sunday morning, July 4th, we woke up to a very warm, muggy day. We made time for a family church service of prayer and scripture reading which turned out to be a very wise investment.

Around noon a thick, very black wall cloud came over the tree tops at the far end of the lake. We had weathered many storms up there over the years, but this cloud and the menacing deep turquoise color behind it was not anything I had seen before. We immediately went to work staking down the tent and rain fly and sealing the packs.

It’s not possible to accurately characterize the next 35 minutes. The wind topped out at 100 miles an hour. Our west-facing island campsite was facing the incoming gale. That turned out to be Divine protection from all the trees falling down around us. The sound of gale-force winds saturated with water from sky and lake is not something you can even imagine, much less forget.

The canoes, rain fly and equipment were all blown from the campsite into the woods. We took shelter behind a 12-foot tall root system that had been a standing, healthy 36-inch tree 15 minutes earlier.

When the wind subsided we peeked out from our shelter to see an utterly transformed landscape. The hillsides, along with our island, were completely barren of standing trees. Everything was on the ground neatly laid in the same direction.

The lake was a full 6 inches higher with trees, leaves, roots and all floating past our little island. It was difficult to take in. We were all a bit shaken, but no one was hurt.

We spent the next two hours collecting our things, assessing the damage and putting the camp back together. We found everything—even a life preserver that had been blown across the lake. The rain fly was shredded, but everything else was undamaged, even the canoes.

I wanted to leave, but the day was too far gone by then to get out before dark. It was good we didn’t leave because the portages were impassable. We would never have gotten out without a full day of cutting our way through them.

There really isn’t any way to prepare for a hundred-year storm like that except to be somewhere else! Fortunately there were no deaths during that storm, although many people were injured. It could’ve been much worse given the level of destruction.

(NOTE: Later weather stories reported tens of millions of trees leveled by this storm, now known as the Blow Down. Almost half a million acres in the Boundary Waters were affected.)

Has that changed the way I look at paddling trips? Sure…I was all done with wilderness camping after that! I was ready to get myself a nice RV and sit in a campground somewhere with showers.

But my children would have none of that. By that fall they were already talking about next summer’s trip. They made me “get back on that horse.” We’ve since added at least another 15 trips to our list of not-quite-so-memorable BWCA camping adventures.

a martens family canoe trip
Hans with some of his kids and friends on a BWCA canoe trip several years later

There are two life lessons I’ve taken away from this experience: First, God is in charge no matter where you are. And second, you can’t protect your children from life experiences because you’re afraid of what “might” happen.

What my children have gained from the hard work and rich experience is worth the effort and the risk. They now plan and lead trips of their own and still tell the stories of their many BWCA adventures.

I, on the other hand, am looking at RVs….!

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