Loss on Lake Superior
Lessons learned from a recent circumnavigation gone wrong
By Conor Mihell
There’s a scene in the one and only YouTube video that Bob Weitzel created on his solo attempt to sea kayak around Lake Superior — an expedition that ended in June with Weitzel’s tragic death — which captures the character of a great man. In it, Weitzel grins mischievously about the can of beer that “floated in” on the churning waters of Lake Superior, on Minnesota’s rugged north shore. He recounts an epic tale of a pint he purchased a few days before. Weitzel, a 57-year-old high-school guidance counselor from outside of Madison, Wis., knew few greater pleasures than drinking an “almost cold” beer after a day of paddling.
CanoeKayak.com was about to publish a story about Weitzel’s 1,200-mile expedition when the sea kayak blogosphere revealed his death (read our original story, below). Weitzel came up with a plan to paddle around the world’s largest expanse of freshwater in 2006, when he made a trip around its perimeter by bicycle. He boned up on his sea kayak skills, taking a series of skills courses close to home and on the lake’s Canadian shore near Wawa, Ontario. As a Paddle Canada instructor, I was lucky enough to meet Weitzel over the course of five days in June 2010, and offered him an intermediate skills award.
A few more courses later and Weitzel figured he was ready to take on Lake Superior in 2012. He dedicated the expedition to his late brother, who passed away prematurely to pneumonia at only 18 months, he launched a website and endeavored to raise funds for Big City Mountaineers, a non-profit program that organizes wilderness experiences for at-risk and inner-city youth. Weitzel was almost $4,000 into his goal of raising $5,000 for BCM when he set off in his Nigel Dennis Explorer sea kayak from Bayfield, Wis., on June 3.
The first two weeks of his expedition involved near-freezing water temperatures and persistent fog — all in all typical conditions on Lake Superior in June. His online blog and first YouTube report, filed while laid over in Grand Marais, Minn., revealed some insight into his journey. Weitzel was lonely and missed his wife, Debra, but he was still doing his best to have a good time.
Shortly after leaving Grand Marais, Weitzel approached the Canadian border. On June 16, he camped on the American side at Grand Portage. He wrote in his journal, “I am very nervous — scared about this next section. So many islands and deep dead-end bays. The weather especially the fog has been bad. I hate fog. It’s one thing to follow a coastline. It is another to try and navigate in open water crossing. The only weather station I can get is for the Keweenaw Peninsula and I only vaguely remember the next couple of days for this area. I looked online and mostly the winds are in my favor, but there are some 15-20 [knot] winds included. I’m really hoping that Isle Royale gives some protection from big waves … I guess too, the lack of easy landing areas has me worried. Wind, waves, fog are problems, but combine those with no place to land and that scares me.”
Weitzel’s kayak was loaded with two weeks worth of food and gear when he launched the next morning at 6 am on June 17. Weather data indicates that he would have encountered 29-knot southwesterly winds as he rounded Pigeon Point, with 4- to 6-foot waves marching across 42-degree water. His personal locator beacon was triggered at 9:30 am. It took a Canadian Coast Guard vessel two hours of searching in challenging seas to find Weitzel’s wetsuit- and paddling jacket-clad body bobbing in the waves about 1,400 yards off-shore. Later on, a coroner would determine that Weitzel died of drowning, with hypothermia playing a key factor.
Weitzel’s tragic death has loomed large over the Great Lakes paddling community. On his blog, Toronto-based sea kayak instructor David Johnston, who taught Weitzel last August, described him as a “good paddler” who was “prepared” and “knew what he was doing.” “The news hit me like a sack of bricks,” wrote Johnston. “This wasn’t some yahoo paddler out in a short, fat recreational kayak in jeans.”
For many paddlers, Johnston, and myself included, the lessons to be learned from Weitzel’s accident amount to an awareness of why we’re drawn to explore rugged shorelines in the first place: the sheer thrill of accepting risk and the mind-blowing rewards of overcoming physical challenges in spectacular environments. Had Weitzel survived his transit of Pigeon Point I’m sure he would’ve regaled his friends about it over a couple of pints of beer. Instead, he rolled the dice and paid for it. His tragic story drives home the often-unmentioned perils all paddlers accept when they venture onto the water.
“I have been asking myself, ‘If it could happen to Bob, could it happen to me?’” blogged Johnston. “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 envelope 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.”
[The following is Conor Mihell's original Q&A with Bob Weitzel for CanoeKayak.com. Conducted just prior to his departure, the piece went unpublished after we received news of his death. — Eds. ]
Lake Superior, Inside-Out:
A midlife journey around the biggest lake in the world
This summer, sea kayaker Bob Weitzel will attempt to fulfill a dream that’s been a long time in the making: to paddle 1,200 miles around the largest freshwater lake in the world. Like many paddlers in the Great Lakes region, Weitzel is drawn to Lake Superior’s raw power, rugged beauty and isolation. “There is something about the lake itself that has burrowed in my psyche,” he says. Though he’s dedicating the expedition to the late brother he barely knew and raising funds for Big City Mountaineers, a nonprofit aimed at introducing the outdoors to less fortunate youth, Weitzel says the trip is also a personal journey. “It is my Everest of sorts. Part of the issue I’m dealing with is growing older. When I’m forgotten in some nursing home, I want some hard won memories to entertain me instead of Lawrence Welk reruns.” We caught up with Weitzel in the final days before he launched his clockwise circumnavigation. — Conor Mihell
C&K: What do you think will be your biggest challenge out there?
Bob Weitzel: By far my biggest challenge on the trip will be being patient with the weather and knowing when to stay on shore and read a book [and] not worrying about making miles just for the sake of being farther around the lake. I need to be more Zen-ish about this. That’s a goal for myself this trip—to stay in the moment and enjoy it.
What are you most looking forward to?
I’m looking forward to time by myself. There are issues at this stage in my life that need extended time and solitude to resolve or to even understand and accept. I’ve come to realize that I have fonder—or at least clearer—memories of the trips I’ve soloed. There are no distractions [and] I’m more mentally present in every moment. I’m also a bit selfish in the sense that I want to be the sole “owner” the trip and the accomplishment … and to be only one to blame if things go south.
Another important aspect of solo travel for me is the people I meet. When you’re by yourself, people seem more welcomed into the adventure [and] more approachable … I’ve already had a lot of help on this trip from people I’ve only contacted on the phone or email, both in the States and Canada.
Tell me a bit about the prep that’s gone into this.
I started preparing for this trip six years ago when I realized I’d have to learn how to kayak if I wanted to do the inside of the lake. I’d done a lot of canoeing in the Boundary Waters and the Quetico. I bought a used sea kayak, took private rolling lessons and went to as many regional symposiums as my schedule allowed.
Two years ago when I began planning in earnest. I developed a webpage. I want it to document as my adventure and also to serve as a guide for others who might be considering the same trip. This last year, preparation has gone into high gear. Starting in January, I began dehydrating veggies, fruits, sauces and beans. I have a 10-meal, one-pot dinner rotation for each two-week resupply period every 200 to 250 miles. I have five resupply points around the lake. I will also take four freeze-dried meals per two-week period.
Luckily it was a mild winter so I was able to paddle Lake Michigan once or twice a month with kayaking group in Milwaukee. I’d wait for [challenging] conditions. It was good practice in big water with other experienced paddlers. I was also able to do a spring trip to [Lake Superior’s] Apostle Islands at the end of March.
Why is it so important for you to have a cause for this journey?
I was seven when my little brother, Greg, died at 18 months from pneumonia. It seems the older I get the more I miss the possibility of the companionship we might have shared—much like an adopted child must always wonder what their biological parents were like. Early on in the planning, I dedicated this trip to the memory of Greg. After so many years the family just doesn’t talk about him … I wanted him to be a member of the family again. I wanted to talk about him, and to hear his name and see it in print.
I also felt I wanted the trip to have a broader meaning and significance than strictly personal. I figured the way to do this was to use the trip as a vehicle to raise funds for a charity or foundation. I am a school counselor and work with many at-risk kids who could benefit from a week out of the ‘hood and in the woods. The trouble is, finding a program that the parents can afford. Big City Mountaineers is free … it doesn’t get better than that.
I contacted [BCM president] Jeff Weidman and told him of my interest in getting a trip together. It was after our talk that I realized that BCM was the cause I’d been looking for. The symbolism could not be stronger: My brother Greg never got the chance to grow up and have adventures of his own or to share mine; BCM gives at-risk kids a second chance to grow up. Helping them do this seemed to me to give Greg a life of sorts … or to give his short live a broader meaning.
How has your partnership with BCM worked out?
The BCM people I’ve been working with couldn’t be more helpful and supportive, not to mention appreciative of my efforts on their behalf. They provided all the logistical support I’ve requested. They featured the trip/fundraising effort on their Facebook page and monthly e-newsletter. As of [late May], I have raised $3,300. I hope to close in on $4,000 before I launch and $5,000 total, enough to send 15 young people on their own adventure.
How long do you expect the circumnavigation will take?
Assuming reasonable weather and no injuries or malfunctions, I’m thinking anywhere from 65-85 days. After all, “It’s the style, not the mile.” I’m in no hurry. I have all summer. [And] I told my boss I wouldn’t be back until I’m finished.