Kayaking Niagara: Always Be Prepared

September 16, 2018

Kayaking Niagara: Always Be Prepared

Kayaking Niagara: Always Be Prepared
By James Ryan

“Survival was my only hope, success my only revenge.” – Patricia Cornwell

As I sheltered myself from the impending thunderstorm, tucked beneath the branches of a big 'ol hickory tree located somewhere along the rocky shoreline of Lake Ontario, I knew right then and there that getting myself off of the water when I did was the only smart thing that I had done all day. Up until that point, I exercised some pretty poor judgment at just about every opportunity. Good thing I learn from my mistakes.

Here's what I did wrong (for your benefit) and what I should have done differently (for mine):

1. A few hours before I headed out to go kayaking, I checked on the status of Lake Ontario, only to find out that it was relatively calm and flat. In hindsight, I should have checked again before I left the house, as a few hours had passed by since my original inquiry. Something else that I should have done (and always do) is check the local weather report, but since the weather predictors rarely get it right anyway, I decided not to bother. Those were my first two mistakes.
Lesson 1: Always check the weather forecast, especially when you're going out on a larger body of water.

2. I stepped outside where despite the instant humidity, I noticed that the sun was hidden by some slightly ominous clouds up above. Is it gonna rain? I wondered. After driving down to my launching point, I then made a few critical errors in judgement, which ended up affecting me for the whole remainder of the day. For starters, I placed my QikPac rain jacket into my deck bag, only to hesitate and immediately remove it, as I felt fairly confident (wishful thinking) that it wasn't going to rain. In fact, I was so convinced, I also decided to leave both my Tilley hat and my t-shirt behind in the truck, which looking back, is something that I NEVER do. From the moment that I stepped out of the house, I had a gut feeling it could rain, but for some reason, I ignored my initial instincts.
Lesson 2: Always pack a drybag with extra clothes, rain gear, food, etc. because... well... you just never know.
Lesson 3: If you get a sense about something weather-related, listen to your instincts, even if it seems unlikely. Better safe than sorry.

3. Thunder and lightning seem like pretty good indicators that the weather's about to go sideways in a hurry. Lake Ontario was calm, yes (as per my lake report), but on the opposite side over by Toronto, the sky was dark and stormy. I immediately saw lightning, so I stopped, considered going back, but assessed that the southern-directed wind was pushing away from shore, which in my mind meant that the storm was moving further North, not South. I decided to go for it as there were plenty of other watercraft out on the lake. Maybe they knew something I didn't?
Lesson 4: If you see lightning, get off the water, as the wind can change at a moment's notice.

4. Keeping a close eye on the storm as it ripped its way over the northern part of the lake, I eventually noticed a slight shift in wind direction, which was now blowing from directly behind me. I quickly turned and noticed a new set of storm clouds making their way in my general direction. They weren't there a couple minutes ago, I thought. Again, I debated on turning around as the breakwalls in that area would have made landing on shore far too dangerous (I also forgot my helmet), but figured I'd run straight into the storm if I did. Instead, I opted to go to a little beach that I knew of about 10 minutes up the shore where I figured I could land at. With the wind and the waves at my back, I hoped I could make it in time. The race was on!
Lesson 5: Don't mess with Mother Nature. She's faster than you.

5. The sky began to spit down when I was only about a minute away from my secured destination. A couple of girls who had been sun-bathing, immediately packed up their stuff just as I landed on the beach. With little time to spare, I quickly assessed my surroundings for the safest (and driest) possible shelter. I dragged Delvia (my 15-foot Perception kayak) up to the base of a tree and took cover under the enormous canopy of leaves. That's when the wind, waves, rain and lightning all began to pick up.
Lesson 6: Never sit under a tree during a lightning storm. Pretty sure I learned that one as a kid. Duh!

6. As the rain poured down, the temperature quickly dropped around 15-degrees in a matter of seconds. I was freezing. Why didn't I at least bring my t-shirt? I thought. With no other clothing options to keep me warm, I removed my spray skirt, draped it over my head and shoulders, and sat on Delvia's top side under the protection of the tree's leafy shelter. I remember looking out into the lake as the torrential rain began to fall, observing a dozen or so birds all perched together on a large rock not far off-shore, thinking to myself that the storm might not be that bad after all. If they can tough it out, I thought, so can I. Two minutes later, they were gone. Dagnabbit! Lesson 7: What doesn't kill you, makes you stronger.

Long story short, the storm passed by, I lived to tell the tale, and I vowed never to go kayaking again without a dry-bag full of what I would consider to be the basic essentials. Here's a list of what they are in case anyone out there's curious and would like to follow suit. Also, please feel free to customize it however you'd like depending on your personal tastes or even the time of year (winter kayaking for example is a whole other ball game).

[Shown in photo, from left to right]

  • Petzl headlamp (extra batteries also recommended)
  • Wind/Waterproof storm matches
  • Flint striker (for starting fires)
  • Sweatshirt (wool or synthetic preferred over cotton)
  • Small medical/first-aid kit
  • 100 ft. of paracord rope
  • Small pack towel
  • Fire starter/tinder (UST Wetfire recommended)
  • Emergency blanket/tarp
  • Qikpac rain jacket and pants
  • Bug spray
  • Toilet tissue and trowel (for when nature calls)
  • Merino wool baselayer shirt/pants, socks, and toque
  • Lifestraw water filter
  • High-visibility BUFF
  • Mitts (not gloves)

[Not shown in photo, as it's a given you should have these items anyway]

  • Rescue knife
  • Compass
  • Sunglasses
  • Safety kit (whistle, rope, and bailer)
  • Small signal mirror (optional)
  • Hat
  • Wide-mouth water bottle (Nalgene)
  • Life jacket
  • Energy bars/snacks
  • A book (in case you're stranded for a while)
  • Cell phone/camera (in a waterproof case)
  • Spare paddle