From the CPA Coordinator: Perils of Miner’s Castle

Perils of Miner’s Castle

From the CPA Coordinator

Perils of Miner’s Castle

I know it is summer, but I cannot help thinking of a story I recently read in Paddler magazine. The story is about three long time friends who meet yearly to go on an outdoor adventure together from backpacking to kayaking. This year they chose Pictured Rocks National Park along the south shore of Lake Superior in Michigan; they had already paddled other sections of Lake Superior and decided this was the year to paddle the challenging Miner’s Castle trip.  Miners Castle is about three miles of sheer cliffs with zero places to land for over five miles. This trip was held in mid-September, but Lake Superior is always cold, and the weather can bring anything at that time of year. The water temperature was 62 degrees during this trip.

The three men are all around 50 years old and in good physical condition. They all had sea kayaks and all the safety/cold weather gear you would expect to take on this type of trip. The morning began with a light drizzle and fog but cleared by mid-morning. The three launched and headed toward the cliffs with some small waves and light wind. The weather forecast did call for building winds later in the day, but we all know how that can change.

As expected, the winds did build as predicted but they did not stop at the estimated 10 knot winds and grew ever stronger. The waves also went from 1-2 feet to 3-4 feet but none of them considered turning around since they were making good time.  A sudden change came about with the winds hitting over 20 knots and the waves topping 6 feet. The three were sticking close together until one of them went over.

The three had practiced self and assisted rescue but not in the conditions they were experiencing so every time the swimmer climbed into his kayak it was full of water making the rescue nearly impossible; pumping was useless because the boat was filling faster than they could pump. The rescuer was holding the submerged kayak in place until the T-grip handle tore away from the boat. As the rescue continued, they were being pushed ever closer to the sheer cliffs until a rogue wave knocked the rescuer over as well. The two paddlers were finally able to re-enter their boats, so they rafted them together and paddled canoe-style since they were both full of water. It was then they noticed that the third kayak had also capsized but they were unable to paddle to his rescue with the pair of boats loaded with water, uncontrollable and headed toward the cliffs.

At this time, they finally tried calling for help on their marine radio but being under the shadow of the cliffs they were unable to reach anyone. (The National Park Service monitors channel 16 and 9). About this time, they capsized again and when they were attempting to reenter the boat the lone radio was lost along with a cell phone. After reentering they tried paddling up wind about a quarter mile to get out of the direct wind but the water-logged boats would not budge in that direction. Looking for an alternative plan, they noticed a narrow ridge along the base of the cliff that appeared to go up about 90 feet above the water, so they made for the ledge but were disappointed to find out the ledge was being pounded by waves and almost impossible to climb onto. After making their way along the cliff one of them found a branch hanging down and was able to pull himself up but when he tried to pull up his partner and the boats the T grip let loose and they were washed away-they were soon separated by a few hundred feet and growing.

They now had two swimmers and a third stranded on a narrow ledge, out of sight of each other and each worrying about the fate of the other two. The one on the ledge happened to notice his boat near the ledge so he slid down to his boat and was able to get a drybag with clothes out of the hatch. With dry clothes he now worked his way up the cliff; the area above the cliff is a popular tourist stop and he could hear car doors slamming as people viewed the scenery but all the yelling he could muster was not enough to attract anyone. The third swimmer came into view, so he motioned to him to try and give him direction to the third swimmer, but the swimmer misunderstood and swam away in the opposite direction. The first swimmer had finally made it around the point to the east, so the wind was partially blocked but he still had a lot of swimming to get on dry land. The third swimmer finally made enough progress to get to a trail where he could walk out; he soon encountered some tourists who called the ranger for help and rescue was now underway. The third swimmer was soon rescued by boat, and they were able to relay the location of the one trying to climb a cliff. A Coast Guard helicopter was summoned to pluck him off the cliff which proved to be difficult since the rescuer had to be lowered from a few hundred feet since the pilot did not dare get too close to the cliff.

The story does have a happy ending since all three were rescued and after treatment at a local medical facility were released’ The three were able to retrieve their lost boats since they washed up near a beach where they launched.

Time to paddle! See you on the water

Bill Smith

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