Police Boat
Credit: Kevin Callan

I was on CBC Radio last week talking about safety and wilderness travel. The interview was spawned by the news of two canoeists drowning in Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park.

Four paddlers capsized in the frigid waters of Lake Opeongo; two made it to shore but the other two didn’t. It’s a sad story, and one that we seem to be hearing more and more lately.

It’s good to know that canoe tripping has increased in popularity. The sad part is that drownings and other accidental deaths have increased as well. The radio host asked me why. I gave a solid pause after that question. It’s a good question. It’s one I think we all ponder over when we hear of a death out in the wilderness. The interviewer filled in the blank pause with another question, “Is it the lack of experience?” It was live radio, so I had to respond with something.

“I think that’s part of it,” I replied. I followed up by rambling on about how our society is wanting more outdoor experiences but not willing to give the time towards gaining the skillset and ethics needed. I see this a lot with the students I take out in the woods. My last group all wanted to be extreme whitewater paddlers but failed to spend the quality time needed to become proficient at it. They’re was a great deal of frustration, blaming, anxiety and even some injuries. Not one of them continued. It truly is a plague amongst us. 

This problem isn’t new. It’s cyclical. How we deal with it seems different though. In the 1950s, when canoe tripping increased dramatically, there was surge of deaths and an escalation of unethical acts. Take a look at the 1954 film Wilderness Day, produced and directed by Roy Dale Sanders for the Minnesota Foundation. The production was put out due to the same issue we’re having today. Education seemed to be the answer back then. I believe that’s still the best idea.

Some other options have been talked about lately. Some groups are talking about exams being given on-line; a kind of canoe tripping licence. I’m worried about that one and definitely don’t think it’s the answer. I took the boat exam for Ontario online and it did nothing to make me a better and safer boater. It was smokescreen, plain and simple.

Albert Einstein once said, “It’s not that I’m smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.”

Last week I paddled Algonquin Park and left the Opeongo dock while the police were preparing another day of searching for the two bodies. At the same time, three young guys packed their 14-foot tippy canoe, complete with a piece of ply-wood to sit on. None of them wore a PFD. They didn’t even own one. The waves were big, the water was frigid. I made mention to them about the two recent deaths and suggested they rent a better canoe, or at least rent and wear PFDs. I got the common answer back. “We know what we’re doing; we did this last year and nothing happened.”

I left for my trip feeling they’ll soon become another statistic.

Watch "Wilderness Day" Here: