Tag Archives: Great Lakes

Escape the Urban Travelogue: Sinking a Kayak

26 Jun

I had a new experience last weekend – an honest-to-goodness rescue where I played the role of hapless and helpless paddling victim. I managed to sink my kayak, beyond the range of self-recovery, while paddling three foot Lake Michigan swell and chop. In 54 degree water and 1500 feet from shore, the boat swamped in less than a minute. Fortunately, the rescue came relatively quick, and my pride sustained the worst of the damage. I was never in (much) danger, as one or two smart things I did ultimately made up for a variety of bad decisions and worse luck. Learn from me, oh avid kayakers, to avoid such a fate:

Get The Right Gear

I decided to take the kayak out on whim while visiting my in-laws in southwestern Michigan, so I had brought none of my own gear. I borrowed their little Pelican Pursuit kayak, an old beat-up life vest, and plastic-aluminum paddle because they were convenient, not because they were the best gear for my route. The smartest thing I did on the trip was wear that embarrassing 1980’s yellow and day-glo orange vest, instead of going with nothing and pining for my tight Stohlquist kit I had left at home. The old vest may not look sexy, but it did it’s job.

The Pelican comes with a flimsy spray-skirt that I elected to leave home. In retrospect, it wasn’t an entirely dumb decision. At least I was aware the boat was filling with water – I could see it flooding between my knees, and could mentally prepare to sink. The prime gear issue, and my major mistake, was taking a short, tame flat water kayak on a Great Lake, and not thoroughly checking it out before I did – I probably sank due to an unnoticed faulty plug in the stern of the kayak that let in a portion of each swell I rode. I was in conditions I had paddled many times in an open-top self-bailer, or long enclosed sea kayak. It was the gear/water combo that did me in.

Scout Your Route

A loose plug on a short kayak on a flat, shallow stream is no big deal. That same plug on the same kayak out of its element is a problem. But I was cocky – I have been visiting this area of Michigan for years, and so my route, when reconing it on a map, seemed feasible simply because it was familiar.

I wanted to paddle up the St. Joseph River, a significant waterway with a respectable flow (4500 cfs (cubic feet per second) this summer). I also wanted to paddle through the charming beach/resort town of St. Joe, an artsy haven for half of Chicago on pleasant summer afternoons. As I wasn’t going to be picked up at a take-out, I needed to find a loop, or at least a way to finish where I started. Paddling upstream is obviously more challenging than moving with the current, so I wanted to do that first. Staring at the map with all of these requirements, the most convenient put-in seemed to be the beach itself.

I would launch at the beach, paddle around the end of lighthouse studded pier, and work my way upstream. Once I got tired, I could turn around, and have an easier return. To be cheap, I’d launch at the public beach a bit to the south, rather than private Silver Beach (with (the horror!) parking fees) on the north end. Moving the put-in an extra half mile, however, meant I needed to do a 4000 foot crossing of open Lake Michigan surf and cross-currents to reach the end of the pier. No problem.

That familiarity breeds complacency proved most true in regards to the St. Joseph River itself. I have driven over it dozens of times, and regularly saw kayakers enjoying its tranquil waters . . . above the Berrien Springs Dam. I only found out later (from my rescuer) that the dam was in full release – the maximum possible flow was pouring out of that mouth between the piers. Against that unknown current I was planning to paddle.

Change Your Plan When the Situation Changes

A moderately experienced kayaker such as myself is safe in familiar conditions, and most situations that just push the limit of skill and experience. Trouble brews when an unexpected twist upsets your up-to-the-edge plan, and forces you beyond your personal performance/safety zone. Trouble came for me at the mouth of the St. Joe River.

At first, the water crossing went fine. I pointed the nose into the surf, rode the waves up and down, and paddled through. The kayak was a bit squirrelly and slick, and shifted a bit too easily under my weight – a rogue wave could tilt me preciously quick while I righted my balance. However, the kayak was also fast, and I was making good time. I estimated I could do the crossing in less than 20 minutes, even against the surf.

But my comfort level dropped the further I went. My efforts to avoid harmonics and standing waves off the piers were not entirely successful – the combined waves produced from power boat wakes, reflections, and surf were confusing and irregular. I had trouble keeping the nose square against the crests, and I didn’t trust the kayak (it was too short and unstable) to take them on sideways.

Halfway through I got nervous. Three-quarters of the way I completely regretted taking the route at all, and swore I wouldn’t return the way I came. I’d make the turn around the pier, paddle up the St. Joe, and on the way back, take out my kayak at any dock or marina I saw before the piers. It was better to carry the kayak on my shoulder a mile back to my car than do that open water crossing again.

I caused a great stir among curious pedestrain onlookers, the strollers along the pier and lighthouse more used to speed boats than kayaks, as I reached the mouth of river. Good, I thought, I’m finally safe. That open crossing was dumb, but I made it, and I don’t have to do it again.

I entered the river and stopped dead in my tracks.

Paddle, paddle, paddle. Six inches.

Paddlepaddlepaddlepaddle. A foot.

There was too much current. I wasn’t going up the St. Joe – I had to turn around and go back the way I came.

Test Out Your Gear

I won’t lie to you – I knew turning around was a bad idea. The shake in my hands and twist of my gut confirmed it. But I had put myself in a situation where I had no other option. If I had brought a rope, I could have tied up the kayak to the pier and gotten out there. But without one, coming along side that much steel in big swells and cross-currents was dangerous as well. The easiest paddle back was the way I came, at a less steep angle to take out at a closer beach.

I got the kayak out into the open and the tidal surge rocketed me towards the shore. Riding the waves in requires a sixth sense over your shoulder, to anticipate the coming wave and get your back end square to it, to avoid boat flips and enable maximum propulsive power. Once again, the swells came from odd angles, and I had trouble maintaining my line. The kayak shifted alarmingly at each cross-current. Even so, I covering the distance quickly, and I seemed I would be back to the beach in no time, none the worse for wear. Maybe speed will make up for safety? Never a good plan.

I don’t remember when I first noticed the stern riding low. Or when I saw that the water in the bottom of the boat had grown from scattered puddles to child’s bath level. I turned around and saw that half of the back end was riding under the water. I shifted my weight forward and paddled faster. The boat rode lower and lower with each passing wave. I turned the kayak directly for the beach, but it was hopelessly far. I would never make it. I spotted a pleasure power boat fifty yards away, and signaled with my paddle. They raised their bottles of beer and saluted me back. Three more strokes and the whole kayak went under.

When I hit the water, the cold barely shocked me – sinking seemed a worse fate than hypothermia initially. I don’t remember exfilling the kayak, but it took a couple swim strokes to make it back to the half-submerged form. A self-bailing, open top kayak obviously would have been more appropriate for such conditions. My bucket boat would do, though, if it would self recover. I turned the kayak over, pushed from underneath, and tried to tip the water out. Nothing happened.

I had never taken this kayak to the pool and rolled it. I also had never sunk it and tried to remount. If I had, I would have known my efforts were useless. This kayak was dead in the water, and I was more than a quarter mile from shore.

A passing jet skier that was more aware and less drunk soon came up on me, tossed me a rope, and towed me to shore. A nasty bruise under my left arm when I wrapped the rope (while I hung on to kayak, paddle and new dry-bag – that morning’s Father’s Day present) is all of the lasting damage I have from the experience.

I am lucky. If I had taken on water at the mouth of the St. Joe, I would have been pushed out into the lake – several tourists die each year from this unexpected hazard. Instead, learn from me – pick the right gear, test it, investigate your route, and don’t put yourself in a situation where one minor change pushes you over safety’s edge.

The Great Lakes Compact

23 Sep

The states and provinces bordering the Great Lakes, which represent a full 20% of the fresh water on the Earth’s surface, negotiated an interstate compact to ensure that this resource cannot be diverted for use outside the watershed area. Both houses of Congress have given their nod, and President Bush has already said he’d sign it into law.

All eight regional governors and two Canadian provinces, Quebec and Ontario, signed the compact in December, 2005. The push to protect the lakes came after a Canadian firm sought approval in 1998 to send tankers of Great Lakes water overseas, causing an uproar.

Among other things, the compact allows any governor to veto a large-scale diversion outside the basin.


Under the agreement, countries or remote states are barred from tapping into the lakes from their natural drainage basin with rare exceptions. It also requires states to regulate their own large-scale water use and promote conservation.

The Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec have enacted similar measures for the lakes, which contain more than 90 percent of the fresh surface water in the United States.

“For the first time ever, the Great Lakes will be truly protected from water depletion,” said Andy Buchsbaum, who leads the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes office.

Hey, people in the parched Southwest – lower taxes might be swell, but you need water to live. Just sayin’.

Meanwhile, in California

7 Jul

A proposition

The proposal to build an 800-mile system of 200-mph trains linking Southern and Northern California, by way of the Valley, has made a great deal of sense throughout its two-decade gestation. Proposition 1, the $9.95 billion bond measure, is the necessary first step.

High-speed rail will be an engine of economic development that we badly need in this state, creating tens of thousands of jobs in both its construction and its operation.

It will have a dramatic impact on our environment, removing thousands of cars from California’s highways. Less congestion will make the remaining vehicles more efficient for those that remain on the road. Conservative estimates suggest millions of barrels of oil could be saved annually, and as much as 22 billion pounds of carbon dioxide kept out of the atmosphere.

The rail system would also reduce the need for many short- and medium-haul airline flights, which pollute the atmosphere at an astonishing rate.

Now, with gasoline at $4.50 a gallon and rising, high-speed rail is no longer just a good idea. It’s imperative.

High speed rail with Buffalo as a hub connecting Cleveland, Detroit, Toronto, Albany/Boston/New York would be a pretty dandy thing now in the days of $4.50/gallon gas, hourlong TSA lines, and Amtrak dreck-o-rama.

Perspectives and Expectations

20 Apr

Upon departure from Fort Lauderdale Saturday at 3:00 p.m.:

Upon arrival in the Buffalo area at 5:30 p.m.:

We spent most of our time down in Southern Florida, but did relent and take the kids to Disney on Wednesday. We stayed overnight at a Radisson in Lake Buena Vista. After checking out, I went to retrieve the rental (Dodge Grand Caravan base model through Thrifty – there were 6 of us – which was ok, but a touch underpowered for a 6-cylinder, and managed only 20 MPG). Parked next to me was a Ford Taurus with three bumper stickers; two enjoining the reader to join the taxpayer revolution, and one for Free NY. That was random.

I watched only some local Florida news and had generally zero internet access while down there, which was fine by me. I’ll note that what passes for a newscast on Miami’s Channel 7 makes any one of Buffalo’s local newscasts seem like the BBC by comparison. I have no idea what’s been going on locally, nor do I really care.

I’d like to wholeheartedly thank Paul Wolf, Chris Smith, and Dr. Kevin Hardwick for babysitting the blog and keeping it fresh all week.

I saw more Bentleys down in South Florida than I’ve ever seen in my life, and I kept thinking to myself that each one costs more than 99% of the homes in Western New York. The traffic is bustling, construction cranes are everywhere, shopping is world-class, and South Beach has managed to do the whole architectural tourism thing without apology or excuse.

South Florida is no shangri-la, and I wouldn’t want to live there unless I was stinking filthy rich, but upon return to Buffalo I realize we have become collectively quite content in our perpetual mediocrity. While I was away, ArtVoice held its “Best of” party. Someone texted me that I did not win this year as “best blogger”. That’s fine. I purposefully did not campaign for anyone to vote for me in that category. I’m past the point where I crave that sort of approval. Buffalo Rising’s Newell Nussbaumer won, and congratulations to him. He writes his pieces there at least daily, and they serve their purpose. The SMS also mentioned that he won “best cheerleader” for Buffalo.

Which got me thinking.


We spend a lot of time patting Buffalo on the back for its two steps forward that are inevitably met with that step back. Should every neighborhood have an Elmwood Strip? Maybe. But Elmwood is successful by Buffalo standards.

Glaeser received his greatest applause when he stated “Population growth is not the right measure for success. the right measure is how well a city is delivering basic services and providing a quality of life.”

The quality of life here is great, but let’s face it and admit that part of what makes life here good is its slow pace, bereft of urgency or hustle. You know what? A little hustle never killed anyone. Are basic services being delivered well? Adequately? Considering their cost? Buffalo and her people need to be shaken out of their complacency and bullshit excuses.

Will our population ever grow again? Maybe, maybe not. But why wouldn’t we at least consider taking the steps needed to enable that to happen. Not through our sprawl-without-growth, Titanic deck-chair rearrangement. Through structural changes addressing the size and cost of government, eliminating redundancies, lowering taxes, easing regulations, and otherwise making this place not just a great place to live, work and raise a family, but also an attractive place to move to.

We get mediocrity because we expect mediocrity. And vice-versa. It’s a vicious, nasty spiral. Who’s out there who is willing to not only do some thinking about our problems, but implement solutions to them?

Our rust-belt problems of depopulation aren’t unique to us, and frankly the fact that we continue to talk about it underscores the fact that we’re just stumbling through our decline. Why care when it’s easier to just up and move?

Consider Eastern Germany. On the flight back from Florida, I read this article about the formerly bustling state of Saxony-Anhalt, which is part of what was once East Germany:

City planners, normally keen to promote the building of homes, factories and roads, are responding to a double demographic crisis: the collapse of communist-era industry, which sent workers, especially young women, fleeing westwards; and a sharp decline in the birth rate.

Saxony-Anhalt, cradle of the Reformation and of East Germany’s chemical industry, lost a fifth of its 2.9m people in the 16 years after Germany’s unification in 1990. By 2025 it expects to lose nearly half a million more. In Köthen, where Johann Sebastian Bach composed the Brandenburg Concertos, so many young workers have left that “the population pyramid has become a mushroom”, says Ina Rauer of the town’s building department.

The cities of the east no longer imagine they can avoid demographic decline. Instead they seek to manage its consequences, and a few are inventing ways to shrink gracefully. Saxony-Anhalt, which suffered an acute shortage of apartments in communist times, has now destroyed some 45,000 homes with federal help.

Sounds pretty familiar, hm? If your population is down to 75,000…

“We can’t pay for infrastructure for 100,000 people,” he says.

Urban attrition is frightening those left behind, bringing the threat of blight and crime. Eastern cities are courting industry, but capital is footloose and productive new factories employ hundreds rather than the thousands who once manned East Germany’s behemoths. “It’s not clear what the recipe for success is,” says Hans-Joachim Bürkner of Potsdam University.

In Buffalo, we talk of green jobs and the fact that we have loads of fresh water, we don’t think outside the box at all. Where is the charitable foundation that will put up a million dollar X-prize to someone who comes up with a way to return prosperity, if not population, to WNY? In Germany, meanwhile…

That may account for the spirit of zany experimentalism that prevails in cities such as Dessau and Köthen. Under the motto “city islands”, Dessau is nudging life and commerce towards “core areas”, which means making a verdant city (which is already three-quarters parkland) even greener.

Traces of Dessau’s busier past—a disused tower for smoking sausages or a dairy’s chimney now occupied by storks—are being preserved. Parts of the void are being parcelled into “claims” of 400 square metres, which citizens can use free of charge for projects such as growing biomass for fuel. “Where buildings fall, gardens rise,” a hopeful billboard claims.


Dessau and Köthen are drawing inspiration from the Internationale Bauausstellung (IBA) 2010, a project dreamt up at the Bauhaus Foundation in Dessau, which occupies the building where Walter Gropius and friends helped pioneer the stark geometrical Bauhaus style in the 1920s.

Such “building exhibitions” are a German tradition, held when social and economic change demands new ways of using space. Omar Akbar, the Bauhaus’s director, sees IBA 2010 as a “laboratory” for coping with demographic decline that will one day afflict other cities in the industrialised world. He says the aim is to shape the process of urban contraction, rather than “merely let it happen”.

But IBA 2010 does not just bring cities extra fame and money (around €150m or $235m, largely from the federal and state governments). Its organisers also want to cultivate intangible qualities, like greater public involvement and a sense of distinctive identity for each community.

We need less cheerleadership and more leadership. The US could and should be doing something similar to this initiative to come up with ways to address urban shrinking. If the US won’t, then Buffalo and other Great Lakes cities should.

Rust Belt Networking

1 Feb

Two things have come up recently that amount to a regional (writ large) attempt at networking people and groups throughout the Great Lakes.

GLUE (Great Lakes Urban Exchange) appears to be celebrating and linking up non-profit groups throughout the region in an attempt to get them to cooperate and collaborate, and also to set up new funding sources for them. Locally, groups like the Coalition for Economic Justice, PUSH, and Literacy Volunteers have been selected as being worthy of GLUE’s attention. On the about page, it’s described thusly:

GLUE Co-Founders Sarah Szurpicki (Harvard 03) and Abby Wilson (Columbia 02) are young urbanists who recently returned to their respective hometowns: Detroit and Pittsburgh. They developed the concept for the Great Lakes Urban Exchange (GLUE) during the summer of 2007, as an outgrowth of comparative conversations about their experiences coming home to similarly challenged post-industrial cities. Between them, they have run political campaigns, traveled to five continents, written over a million dollars worth of successful grant proposals, and performed on half a dozen stages. Prior to moving back to Detroit, Sarah, who will supervise GLUE networks in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, served as the Director of Finance and Operations to the Harlem Success Academy Charter School in New York, where she oversaw the operational startup of the new school. Abby, supervisor of GLUE networks in Kentucky, Missouri, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, most recently managed the successful Pittsburgh City Council campaign of Patrick Dowd, a progressive school board member, over an entrenched incumbent.

GLUE was formally endorsed by the Brookings Institution’s Great Lakes Economic Initiative in the fall of 2007.

I think it’s high time that rustbelt cities recognized and tried to learn from each other’s experiences in order that this post-industrial, economically stagnant region might work its way back to viability, if not growth.

But it strikes me that there’s something missing from the GLUE project. Private enterprise. I’m not talking about the traditional Andy-Rudnick-Partnership type businesses. I’m talking about young entrepreneurs who have opened up small businesses in these cities. These are the economic engines of the future, the employers of tomorrow. The GMs and Fords and Bethlehem Steels are either gone or a shadow of their former selves. The region runs thanks mostly to small businesses that offer a needed service at a competitive price. They are just as worthy of celebration and greater-regional networking as are non-profits.

Also, check out the Rust Belt Bloggers network, of which I’m a member. They’re planning on holding a summit in Erie sometime in the Summer.

Helping Shrinking Cities through Immigration

11 Dec

I had an unexpected link to my site from the “Burgh Diaspora” today. The post is entitled “Rust Belt 2.0”, and seeks to set up a meeting / collaboration between bloggers in various rust belt cities. Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Erie, and Youngstown bloggers have expressed an interest.

The premise is simple:

Create more H-1B visa immigration into the Rust Belt region:

This might be a good time to propose to Congress/Administration the creation of “High Skill Immigration Zones” in parts of the country that are struggling to making the transition to a knowledge-based economy (e.g., Rust Belt Cities such as Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Buffalo, etc.), and which are progressively depopulating and destabilizing.

Attracting educated immigrants to shrinking cities in the rust belt in order to help the transition from a post-industrial stasis to a knowledge-based economy. It’s intriguing. Sure, it’s hard to attract, say, a young college graduate to come to or stay in Buffalo when the pickings in places like Phoenix or Atlanta are more plentiful and appealing. But what about the eager immigrant for whom Buffalo conjures up no negative connotations whatsoever? Consider:

The United States is undergoing a profound economic restructuring, due to pressures of globalization and the rising knowledge economy. America’s Great Lakes region, once the core of the nation’s industrial production and wealth creation, is losing ground rapidly. At this critical moment, federal investment in U.S. competitiveness lacks a regional focus. Federal policy fails to recognize that national growth is driven by integrated regional economies with the strong underlying assets necessary for talent creation and innovation.

What do you think? Good idea? Pipe dream? Is this the kind of thing that could help Buffalo grow its economy and population in spite of Albany politics? I’m somewhat intrigued and prepared to learn more.