The fateful kayak ride off the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior that killed all but one member of a Wisconsin family Thursday would have been strenuous for even a highly trained kayaker, regional experts said.
It was a sobering reminder of the vastness and danger of the great lake, and of the precautions visitors must take when choosing to paddle it, Bob Krumenaker, the superintendent of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, said Saturday.
"This is a good place to learn. In some ways, it's probably the safest part of Lake Superior to do this in," he said. "That doesn't mean it's Lake Minnetonka."
Cari Mews-Fryman, Eric Fryman and the three children, who were vacationing in Madeline Island in the South Shore, set out aboard a 13 ½-foot, open-top tandem kayak Thursday afternoon.
They had decided to paddle to Michigan Island, 4 miles away in open water far from the protected shoreline. When their kayak capsized somewhere between Stockton and Michigan islands hours later, they tried to swim to shore.
They never made it.
Only Mews-Fryman, who was separated from her family by the waves and found by rescuers that evening, survived. The bodies of the other family members were recovered from the waves in the midst of an overnight thunderstorm.
All of them wore life jackets. Coast Guard officials said hypothermia probably played a large factor in the deaths, especially of the children.
Authorities from the Ashland County (Wis.) Sheriff's Office could not be reached Saturday.
Krumenaker, whose small staff assisted with the rescue efforts, said the islands are mostly undeveloped and forested, with rocky shorelines and long distances between each island.
"Some of the places that people want to go kayaking are incredibly attractive but also deceptively dangerous," he said. "This particular incident happened in a place that is not often traversed by people on kayaks, and for good reason."
When paddlers are in open water while crossing between islands, they are exposed to strong winds and waves, he said. Storms can also come fast, but are usually predicted, such as the one that happened Thursday night.
Gail Green, the director of Living Adventure, an outfitter in Red Cliff, Wis., that specializes in kayak tours of the region, wrote about the mercurial nature of Superior Lake in a 2013 article, "It's Not Just Another Lake Up North."
"When it comes to making recommendations about paddling the Apostle Islands, local outfitters and agencies are in a bit of a dilemma as they walk a line between cautious warning and wholehearted encouragement," she wrote.
She referred to the lake as an "inland sea," susceptible to strong winds and tall waves.
"When people come up here, they have to really shift their frame of reference," she said. "Once you leave land and head out to the islands, everything steps up."
Paddlers need to be aware of weather conditions, the length of their trip and their own level of experience, Krumenaker said.
A red flag that immediately stood out to Green from Thursday's incident was the type of boat the family used. Open or sit-on-top kayaks and canoes are good for sunny days along the shore, but they don't fare well against the elements and can fill with water and capsize.
Both Green and Krumenaker recommend sea kayaks, which have spray decks surrounding the body that keep water out. Some even have rudders to guide the kayak against strong winds.
Paddlers also should wear proper clothing, such as wet suits that can help protect against hypothermia.
Krumenaker said lake crossers should practice capsizing, something Green's company does with paddlers before overnight trips. "You need to have a healthy respect for how cold the water can be," he said.
Emergency supplies such as food, flares and a radio are also recommended for longer trips, Green said.
'Sad and somber'
Thursday's tragedy deeply affected shore residents. "There's just this kind of sad and somber feeling," Green said. "It's such a tragedy in our [field], that on the other hand can bring so much joy and exhilaration."
Living Adventure once rented kayaks to people who completed safety courses, she said. It stopped renting kayaks altogether when more people of different experience levels wanted to paddle in the region.
"We can't give people enough information in three hours to make them safe out there on their own," she said. "It's so worth just paying for a guided trip your first time."
For those who want to learn how to kayak and explore the region on their own, she recommends research.
"There's a big reward for paddling up in Lake Superior," she said. "But it's not free. You need to do the work to be safe."
Labor Day weekend is generally the second most popular period, behind July 4th, for the Apostle Islands, Krumenaker said.
"We want everyone who comes here to kayak to come here a second time to kayak," he said. "Knowing that the lake is dangerous, I think, is really an important part of the experience."
Miguel Otárola • 612-673-4753