Night Paddle, Devil's Lake State Park

Dancing In The Dark

As we all know, a lot of work goes on behind an event, even a small one. As kayak coaches and guides we often talk about what we need to do to assure the safety of our charges out on the water. We also discuss what THEY have to do in order to take part. Usually at the level where students pay to take a class or a trip it’s rare to get someone fight us to avoid safety precautions. Out in the day-tour world, it happens all the time!

Summer day tours bring in a range of participants from experienced & responsible paddlers to good ole boys in camo with a six-pack and spotlight loaded and ready to go.  In between are the many first timers & families looking for a safe introduction to paddling or just a family friendly way to spend a few hours.  The trick is to balance it all out.. Which isn’t really that easy.

While I understand there are many ways to view the world and everyone comes at paddling from a different space, I still never cease to be amazed at how hard some folks with fight to be “unsafe” as if stubbornness and stupidity is the crown of their kingdom..  And sometimes, it may well be.

Many of us inside the sport of paddling think we’re heard when we talk about safety. That the ACA, BCU and other paddling groups have real influence on people’s behaviours.  Maybe, but not much.  Heck, even law enforcement, rangers, etc., are usually only listened to when they have a ticket book in hand.. As soon as they are out-of-the-way.. off go the life jackets.. That’s the real world.. the one outside of the paddlesport bubble.

Beyond the stubborn are just the uninformed. It’s like those person-on-the-street interviews you see on late night television. Pardon me sir, do you know what a life jacket is?  “A whaaaaa?”  Can you swim sir?  “I don’t really know, I’ve never tried. Is that a new thing?”  Boating, like geography is alien to most.  Heck, many folks who spend their whole lives boating and whizzing off of the side consider a life jacket just another name for a seat cushion.

That said, when we do tours locally, 90% of folks are geared up and ready to go. We can’t wait to get out there and exploring the world with them. But nearly every time you’ll have to deal with someone that will do or say anything to avoid wearing a life jacket. Others will baulk at the idea of not being able to take their beer with them.  My favorite recently,

Guide: Ms. We can’t have you drinking alcohol on the tour.

Participant: What?

Guide: You can’t take your beer on the tour.

Participant: Oh. Um. OK. I can slam it before we start.

(Insert facepalm!)


Then there’s the guy who lies and says he has a life jacket that doesn’t fit. (It’s almost always a guy) Of course after you insist and let them know they won’t be going without wearing the life jacket, it suddenly fits them just fine.  AND you know full well that as soon as you’re not looking it will either be unzipped or come off again….

OR the young guys who say “We never wear life jackets. We left them in the garage.”  OK, but in Wisconsin you must have a life jacket with you by law… AND you can’t go on the tour without wearing it… Blank stares all around please…

Now for what it’s worth of course, we have a great time and most of the folks that come along on these sorts of tours are excited to go and pleased, or at least cooperative when you ask them to wear their PFDs and not drink on the tour. That’s what makes it fun.

Still.. In the world of sea kayaking it’s rare to have to push someone to put away their beer… only to then have them light up their cigarette as you paddle away…


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