Risk and the great outdoors

A while ago I posted a journal of a trip I did with three other Y Canoe Camping Club members in Algonquin Park in late November. You can read the whole thing but the jist of it is this: we had planned a canoe trip, but found the lakes too iced over for paddling and so we went hiking instead. And some people were pretty outraged by that.

A while ago I posted a journal of a trip I did with three other Y Canoe Camping Club members in Algonquin Park in late November. You can read the whole thing but the jist of it is this: we had planned a canoe trip, but found the lakes too iced over for paddling and so we went hiking instead. And some people were pretty outraged by that.

I often use a guestbook with my trip logs so people can give their comments. I usually get “nice site, looks like fun” comments from my friends who are so polite.

This time, however, I got a lot of highly critical comments about how stupid we were, accusing us of corrupting the youth of the nation and jeopardizing the entire Ontario Parks backcountry camping system.

An example:

Has any one suggested that all of you should have your heads examined. This is beyond dumb!

I’m going to leave all of it up there – no reason not to – but I felt I should respond.

What were we doing that was “beyond dumb”

Most critics pointed to the following:

  1. We spent an hour or so trying to break through ice while in our canoes, and then with us (mostly) on shore, we tried to drag the canoes across the ice.
  2. We carried canoe packs for a couple of hours while we were hiking to our campsite

Ice breaking

To be honest, the ice-breaking felt safe-ish to me. The boat was stable, I was kneeling and we were never more than 20m from shore. Capsizing is always a problem but it’s a bigger problem when the weather is cold.

Nevertheless, I think we could have handled it. The cars were less than 2km away, some cottage owner would have been pissed off that we’d made a fire on their property (or if we were desperate, had broken in to their cottage (which is annoying even if we make amends).

We were all experienced paddlers and most of us had Wilderness First Aid certificates.

The one thing I would not repeat was something no one mentionned. I wasn’t wearing my PFD. I don’t usually, on flat water, but for this I should have made an exception.

Hiking with canoe packs and rubber boots

Packs: Well, it was only a two hour hike. Only half of us had canoe packs. The others had real backpacks. We did switch packs from time to time to share the pain.

Boots: My rubber boots had felt insoles and are supposedly rated to -20C. Leo was the only one whose boots had no insulation. He just wore lots of socks. All of us had warm feet. I’ve hiked the Bruce Trail, in the Adirondacks, in Killarney, and Algonquin. The Western Uplands trail is easy. In summer you could hike it in running shoes. Ankle support is not an issue.

Risk is inherent in everything outdoors

Some people trip in cold weather wearing a wetsuit. Some people don’t go paddling after the water’s too cold to swim in. Some people carry satellite phones. You do what you’re comfortable with. You weigh the likelihood of success against the consequences of failure and you go or you don’t. You equip yourself, get the training you need and you keep in mind that your ultimate goal for any trip is to come back.

In this case, we tried to get to clear water, we couldn’t, so we turned back. We came up with another plan that would work and which entailed much less risk.

Direct responses to criticism

I want to respond directly to some of the stuff said, mostly because some of the responses are just so funny and I need to get stuff off my chest, but there’s also some legit stuff that I want to acknowledge.

Your food packing was not what winter campers would plan since you burn off 1000’s of more calories in the cold

We did, actually plan to be cold. We brought lots of food, and fairly high-calorie stuff at that. And we had the clothing for it too. We were using three season tents, but overall, I for one was much better equipped for winter camping than I was when I did it in high school.

You could have died from exposure while camping on the hiking trail

You did look at the photos, didn’t you? We weren’t out there in speedos and sunhats. We were head to toe in long underwear, fleece, shell pants, down jackets, hats and mitts.

I find it hard to believe that people who live in Ottawa, so close to Algonquin Park, did not see ice on the lakes while driving to Canoe lake.

We didn’t, actually. We saw a lot of clear water and transparent ice, the kind that breaks easily. In fact we didn’t see any snow at all coming out of Ottawa (it had been a really mild week, with temperatures in the 6 to 10C range). Once we got to Renfrew, though, the picture changed.

Someone else (I assume sarcastically) suggested a visit to the Weather Network and I think what they meant was that we should have been following the actual temperatures for Barry’s Bay or some other city close to the park. I wasn’t. If I had been, I would have seen that the park had had a couple of days of -10C, and snow.

Knowing that might have changed our plans.

Have you ever thought of planning a trip when the weather is warmer and that there is no risk of ice forming on the lakes.

Yes indeed. That would describe most of the trips I take and that the club plans.

You could have made it to your destination have [a] freeze up and have to stay weeks before you could leave when the ice would be thick enough to hike out.

Well, yes. That’s why we turned back.

It is scary to think that anybody in this group is associated with children and young adults at the YM/YWCA.

You will be relieved to hear that none of us is involved with Camp Y or any of the Y’s youth camping programs. Membership in the YCCC is open to adults only.

It is people like you that will ruin it for the winter campers if you would have died.

People drown, fall from cliffs, die from exposure, have fatal heart attacks every year in Algonquin Park and still the park continues to welcome tens of thousands of visitors each year, almost all of whom come home safe. The number of fatalities is statistically insignificant.

At the cost of the taxpayers they would have sent in a helicopter to air lift you to safety.

We pay taxes too. Arguably an airlift might have given us our money’s worth – finally, after all these years.

But I question your assertion that “the taxpayers” would pay for it. In Ontario we pay if we need an ambulance. I can’t imagine that an airlift would be free either. The Killarney Canoe Camping guide suggests that costs for airlifts are billed at a minimum of $1000.