Canoeing and kayaking are great ways to enjoy our lakes this summer, but when operating any watercraft, safety is a key component of that enjoyment.
In light of two recent drownings involving canoes — one on Wooster Lake near unincorporated Ingleside and another on Loon Lake near Antioch — the Lake County Journal has chosen to explore canoe safety.
Paddling is permitted on all waters in Illinois unless it is private property with no trespassing.
Though it is not mandatory to take a safety class before operating a canoe or kayak, it is highly recommended.
“I’m a fan of taking some sort of class where you get a basic knowledge of what you’re about to get into,” said Frank Palmisano, Jr., recreation program manager for the Round Lake Area Park District, and longtime boating instructor.
“We have a large number of paddling opportunities that we offer for free," Palmisano said. "You don’t have to be a resident. Our idea is to get people out here and try a new sport in a safe, responsible manner.”
The Round Lake Area Park District offers free paddling clinics at Round Lake on June 27, July 11 and Aug. 22, along with a Sunset Paddle on Aug. 28 and 50+ Paddling Day on Aug. 29. Call 847-546-8558 or visit www.roundlakeareaparkdistrict.org for more information.
Use common sense
Before heading out for a day of canoeing, let someone know where you’re going, Palmisano said, and try not to go alone. Bring an extra paddle (because they can break), along with a first-aid kit, plenty of drinking water, sunscreen, a hat and sunglasses to prevent glare.
By law, life jackets or life vests must be available for each person aboard a boat or other watercraft, according to Illinois Conservation Police. State law also requires that anyone under age 13 must wear a life jacket while aboard any watercraft under 26 feet in length at all times a boat is underway, unless they are below deck in an enclosed cabin or operating on private property.
“I’m a fan of everyone wearing one, the reason being you may be confident in your abilities, but somebody else could do something they’re not supposed to,” Palmisano said. “It’s also important to have a life jacket that fits properly so it’s not going to slide off if you do go in the water, or be too tight where it’s not helping you be as buoyant as you need to be.”
If people would wear their life jacket, the number of boating fatalities would drastically be reduced, said Sgt. Rich Riedel of Illinois Conservation Police District 2, which includes Lake, McHenry and Kane Counties.
Until this spring, there have been no canoe-related deaths reported in Lake County in recent years, Riedel said. Neither victim in this year’s canoe-related drownings was wearing a life jacket.
Ingleside resident William A. Anderson, who drowned May 24 on Loon Lake trying to save a cat that had jumped overboard his canoe, was three times over the legal alcohol limit and tested positive for cocaine in addition to not wearing a life jacket, Riedel said.
“We’re always in favor of promoting safety and trying to save people’s lives, especially when it can be avoided,” Riedel said. “Use common sense and avoid alcohol and drug use and dangerous water and weather conditions.”
Rule of 100
Water and weather conditions can greatly affect your outing, so it’s important to plan ahead and be prepared for any changes.
Palmisano recommends observing the “Rule of 100,” in which the combined air and water temperature add up to at least 100 to ensure conditions are not too cold for paddling.
High winds can also make paddling and maintaining your intended direction a challenge, especially if the heavier person is sitting in the back of the canoe, Palmisano said.
If the front end of the canoe goes up a bit, it actually acts like a sail, making it hard to steer where you need to, Palmisano said, adding "you'll exert yourself very quickly."
“Paddling on a calm day on a calm body of water is very forgiving. Paddling in a moving river or creek can be a little more difficult," Palmisano said.
Another rule to follow, unless you’re a paddler in training and the conditions are safe, is to have the more experienced paddler sit in the rear where steering control is greater.
It may sound simple, but remember to remain calm if a situation arises where your canoe flips and you go in the water, Palmisano said.
“I’ve heard stories where people in canoes have been in rivers or creeks and have gone under their boat and panicked, when really all they had to do was stand up," Palmisano said.
If you do fall out, Palmisano said, "Try to stay with the boat and hold on to it. If you can stand up and stay with the boat, the boat’s going to float. You can have a canoe full of water and it’ll still float.”
When you consider water conditions and motorized boat traffic, some lakes are safer than others for paddling, even though it’s permitted on all bodies of water that are not private property.
“As watermen, we love the lakes, but we understand that they can be very dangerous,” said Bob Pratt, director of education for the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project.
“Paddlers should begin paddling safer waters, and as they gain experience and knowledge, gradually move to more dangerous waters," Pratt said. "Taking a lesson or paddling with more experienced paddlers is a great way to learn in a safer environment."
Inland lakes tend to be a safer choice because they’re less likely to have high waves and strong currents, Riedel said. Also, lakes and streams that are prone to flooding can have dangerous debris that a paddler could get wedged on.
Palmisano said he’s not a fan of paddling on the Chain O’Lakes because there is more boat traffic, which generates more wake.
"It can also be difficult for bigger boats to see canoes and kayaks until they’re nearly on top of them," Palmisano said.
However, Riedel said there are certain days and times where canoeing on the Chain O'Lakes can be a wonderful opportunity if you plan accordingly. The busiest times are typically 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday through Sunday, Riedel noted.
Boating of any kind on Lake Michigan can be challenging because weather conditions can cause the lake to change quickly, Riedel said, recalling recent training exercises conducted by the Illinois Conservation Police.
“It was calm, then an afternoon storm came," Riedel said. "The winds changed and the lake became very rough.”
Waves and cold water are two big factors in water safety for Lake Michigan in Lake County, Pratt said.
“The wind direction can also be problematic on what otherwise seems like a safe day," Pratt said. "Winds that are blowing offshore can push a paddler into deeper water and away from shore. The further from shore, the stronger the winds become, and the larger the waves.”
Pratt said canoes are a very poor choice for paddling on the Great Lakes.
“The open design and the narrow beam make canoes prone to tipping over and swamping," Pratt said. "They are particularly dangerous if there are waves present. Kayaks are generally safer, especially if they have a spray skirt that keeps the water out.”
Experts agree that because of the dangers of tipping over or swamping, paddlers should always wear a life jacket.
“Wearing a life jacket increases your safety margin more than any other precaution," Pratt said.