Rebecca Collier was a veteran paddlesports enthusiast. She spent so much of her time on the water that her father used to call her his “little mermaid” when she was growing up. On all accounts, she was a professional at getting in and out of the water with ease.
Growing up outside of Kalamazoo, Michigan, there was never a question of if she was down by the river or at the lake, but rather which one she was at. During the summer she worked at the local supply stores and marinas — watching boaters come and go with slight envy. If you asked her mother, it was her second home. She never wanted to be far from the water. When forced to leave on a family vacation, she would only be happy if she could trade the familiar waters of home with new ones — sometimes a hotel pool had to serve.
Boating is a very inclusive activity, and depending on where you are in the country, boating can mean very different things. The average person likely thinks of boating as a recreational activity involving a powerboat, sailboat, or a personal watercraft (PWC). However, anyone who’s been around boating long enough knows that it also includes man-powered vessels.
She studied biology at the University of Michigan, became captain of her kayaking team, and volunteered as a paddlesports instructor in her free time. After graduation she was hired by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and continued to teach paddlesports safety instruction. If you asked her about her work, the excitement and joy in her eyes told you more than the endless statistics and information that consumed her day.
Kayaks, canoes, rowboats, inflatable craft, and stand-up paddleboards all fall in the category of paddlesports. The Northeast region has the highest ownership rate for these types of crafts and highest canoeing and kayaking participation rates according to the United States Coast Guard's (USCG) 2012 National Recreational Boating Survey. Across the country, the popularity of paddlesports is growing. That means boaters need to be even more aware of how they're navigating the waterways.
In 2012, there were more than 19.2 million paddlesports participants, with canoeing and kayaking leading the way at 9.8 million and 10.3 million people, respectively. Paddlesport boaters have to adhere to their own safety guidelines because being on the water is just as dangerous — if not more so — when you move slower.
In early 2014, Rebecca took a solo kayak trip down the Clinton River. There’s an expression that says, “You never step in the same river twice.” But she had traveled the river a thousand times; she knew the river.
It had rained earlier in the week, but the river looked relatively calm from the shore. No signs of anything she couldn’t handle. She pressed on for about an hour before the current started to pick up. She matched its pace, thrusting her paddle down into the water to push her forward. She knew there were rocks ahead but not the fallen tree that had raced its way down the river a day before and was now submerged just below the surface, its branches a snare waiting for her. The current lifted the kayak up awkwardly and set it down within the tangles of the tree, turning her around. She tried to act quickly to point the craft in the right direction, but then she met the rocks.
Hazardous water is the number one cause of accidents for paddlesport craft and was responsible for 82 incidents in 2013, according to the USCG. Other leading causes of accidents were operator inexperience and alcohol use, with an additional 34 accidents caused by unknown reasons.
The size and lightweight material of paddlesport craft are a part of what makes them attractive to recreational boaters. They can easily maneuver in depths that would be impossible for powerboats. In a survey recorded by the Outdoor Foundation, participants who choose a form of paddling are motivated by the ability to exercise, to be closer to nature, and to experience excitement and adventure, among other reasons.
What was happening to Rebecca was no longer exciting. Her kayak had crashed into the rocks with such a power, air was forcibly expelled from her lungs. She tried to focus and regain her bearings, but the rushing water was relentless and she was pinned against the boulder. She had to get out.
She breathed deep to keep her mind trained on freeing herself from the kayak. She lifted herself up and let the current take her down the river. Exhausted, the life jacket kept her afloat as she remembered to make sure her feet didn't drag the bottom. She looked for exit points — a rogue tree branch she could use to pull herself to shore. With some effort, she swam to the remnants of a fallen tree and gingerly crawled to shore. A sigh of relief escaped her as she let the rest of the adrenaline wash over her. She slowly sat up and began to assess her injuries.
In 2013, canoers and kayakers incurred the most injuries with 70 and 40 reported, respectively. As we mentioned before, operator inexperience is a common cause of accidents. If you're interested in participating in any paddlesport, it is highly recommended that you seek professional instruction from someone who knows the area.
For more information on paddlesports, visit the American Canoe Association’s website to find educational courses.
The story depicted in this post was created to illustrate a very real situation that you could find yourself in while enjoying a paddlesport. The statistics are real data from the United States Coast Guard and the Outdoor Foundation. Always follow safe boating guidelines while out on the water.