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WEDNESDAY, MAY 2, 2012, 8:48 A.M.

Insight offered on Rock Lake kayaking tragedy comments

PADDLING -- Today's S-R news story with details about the Gonzaga University student who died on an April 1 kayaking trip at Rock Lake was balanced by two men willing to step forward and talk about safety issues involved with cold-weather/water paddling.

No one involved with the accident would speak on the record for one reason or another, but Jerry Cessaratto and Dennis Andrew of the Spokane Canoe & Kayak Club allowed me to interview them on the protocols for a group paddling trip in cold conditions.

Take the 10 minutes required to view the video on cold-water immersion (above), Andrew suggests.

My editor had to shorten the newspaper story to fit the layout puzzle in the paper. In doing so, it may have left the edge that Andrew was criticizing the city parks trip leaders. While many people will do so, Andrew was not criticizing, he was analyzing and offering the perspective of what he teaches in the annual three-session sea-kayaking class he coordinates in late June.

Click "continue reading" below for the unedited ending my story published today. Keep in mind that even this was boiled down from two 15-minute interviews and does not include their comments on the need for outdoor groups to:

  • Check weather reports.
  • Assess the situation in the field
  • Assess the gear and experience of everyone on the trip.
  • Factor in remoteness and conditions.
  • Have a contingency plan.
  • Stay together
  • Have a toolbox of options for emergency and rescue.

Dennis Andrew, who teaches the Spokane Canoe & Kayak Club’s annual June kayaking class, said the first thing they show students is a video about the dangers of hypothermia.

“It’s called Cold Water Boot Camp’ and it’s on YouTube,” he said. “That’s where we start before we talk about paddling.”

Jerry Cesaratto, the club’s paddling safety chairman, said the “100 degree rule” is decades old: “If the combined air and water temperature is 100 degrees or less, use caution and wear a wet or dry suit,” he said.

“I think that concept is being lost in a lot of the pick-up type paddling groups.

“Cold water immersion is high on our club’s list of concerns,” he said, adding that paddlers should dress for enduring immersion regardless of the air temperatures.

“Cold water really zaps you, and the fittest, strongest, leanest people might be the most susceptible to going numb and helpless in minutes.”

Cesaratto, an American Canoe Association certified instructor, said he’s heard good comments about Spokane Parks outdoor recreation program trips over the years.

“A lot of judgment calls are made in paddling,” he said, noting that paddling close to shore in windy conditions – or changing the trip to another lake are options groups must consider. “But there’s no guarantee.”

“A group needs a lot of different tools for getting people out of cold water,” Andrew said.

“If the paddlers aren’t trained or the conditions are too bad for getting back in their boats (after capsizing), you try something different. You can’t spend 20 minutes trying to get somebody into a boat if you can tow them to shore in 10. You have to focus on getting people out of the water as fast as possible.

“But I’m warm and dry while I’m telling you this,” he said. “It’s a lot easier to think clearly here than in a miserable situation where everything’s going wrong one thing after another.”

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Rich Landers
Rich Landers writes and photographs stories for a wide range of outdoors coverage, including a Sunday feature section and a Thursday column. He also writes the Outdoors Blog.

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