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Death of four family members a wake-up call about dangers of kayaking Lake Superior

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Lake Superior waves in the Apostle Islands.
Lake Superior waves in the Apostle Islands.
Apostle Islands National Lakeshore via Facebook

The Apostle Islands, the collection of 21 rocky, windswept islands scattered across 250 square miles in northern Wisconsin, are considered among the jewels of Lake Superior. 

They're a popular destination for kayakers, who can paddle from island to island, exploring sea caves and rugged shorelines and camping along the way.

But the deaths of four members of a Wisconsin family who died after their kayak capsized off the coast of Michigan Island were a harsh reminder of the hazards of paddling the unpredictable waters of Lake Superior, where wind and weather conditions can change without warning.

"It's a gorgeous, wonderful place, and it's a very scenic area, but it also has a lot of dangers," said Julie Van Stappen, chief of resource management for the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. "It is an inland sea. Often times people may be familiar with inland waters and it's just a totally different place."

 Mom tried to text for help

The family had been vacationing on the Apostle Islands and had set out from Madeline Island in a 13.5-foot open kayak, heading to Michigan Island about 4 miles away, authorities said. The area is just off the coast of Bayfield, Wis., about 85 miles east of Duluth.

Cari Mews tried calling 911 after the kayak capsized, but cell reception is spotty at best and the calls did not go through, authorities said. Her sister later called authorities after receiving two texts from Mews reading, "911" and "Michigan Island." 

Mews, 29, of Loyal, Wisconsin, was the sole survivor. She was rescued by a U.S. Geological Survey research vessel on the west side of Michigan Island just after 10 p.m. Thursday. Rescue crews recovered the bodies of her husband, Erik Fryman, 39, and their children, ages 3, 5 and 9.

Authorities are continuing to investigate how and why the kayak capsized. The cause and manner of Fryman's death and those of the  children were pending autopsies at the Hennepin County Medical Examiner's Office.

 Changes can be sudden on lake

It's not uncommon for a kayaker to get into trouble and need a rescue from the U.S. Coast Guard or the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, said Brennan, whose department assisted with the search. 

But Ashland County Sheriff Mick Brennan said the deaths are virtually unheard of for the area, and has given many people pause.

"You don't really realize how conditions can change so quickly on the big lake like that," he said. "It gives you more respect for Lake Superior, and I think it's opened the eyes of a lot of people who might think twice about taking on that type of adventure."

In some respects, the family was well prepared for the excursion, said Justin Sickler, executive petty officer at the Coast Guard station in Bayfield. Everyone was wearing life jackets, they were equipped with a cell phone, charts of the area and a flashlight in a waterproof bag, he said.

However, cell phone reception in the Apostle Islands is very unreliable, Sickler said. The Coast Guard recommends carrying a marine radio as well as a personal locating beacon that gives off a GPS signal, he said.

"This makes it a lot easier to locate a victim in the water and make sure that we're able to get to your position," Sickler said.

The family's decision to travel that distance in an open-top kayak opposed to a sea kayak equipped with a skirt to keep out water may have played a role in the accident. Authorities were continuing to investigate.

 Conditions unknown at time of capsize

Sickler said he doesn't know the conditions at the time the kayak capsized. When the Coast Guard arrived about five hours later, the waves were about 2 to 4 feet high, and the wind was about 15 to 20 knots.

"Conditions,'' he said, "that would not be ideal for kayaking or canoeing."

A kayak that takes on water can lose its stability, Sickler said, and having more people in the boat or an uneven distribution of weight can increase the likelihood that it will capsize.

The icy waters of Lake Superior, which stay chilly year round, also pose a dangerous threat. Right now, the lake is about 62 degrees, Sickler said. At that temperature, initial symptoms of hypothermia can start within 30 minutes, he said, eventually leading to cold extremities, disorientation and a loss of consciousness.

Another issue is distance. 

The Apostle Islands are spread out over a large area, and distance can be deceiving, Van Stappen said.

"It's a big place, and so you can look over and an island may look pretty close, but it may be a few miles away," she said. "And especially if the wind comes up and the waves get larger, it can be very strenuous."

Van Stappen said visitors should come prepared and plan ahead. "Hopefully lessons can be learned, and people will realize that it is a very large lake that can change very quickly, and needs to be respected like the ocean does," she said.

 Coast Guard offers safety tips

The U.S. Coast Guard at the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore offered the following safety tips for kayaking on Lake Superior:

 • Prepare to get wet.  Use a sea kayak with a protective skirt to keep out the sea spray. If you're venturing out very far out, wear a protective wet or dry suit, or at least layers of clothing that will help keep you warm in case you capsize.

 • Share your plan.  Tell someone on shore your route, when you're leaving and when you expect to be back. That way, if you don't show up, rescuers can pinpoint your location more quickly.

 • Have a reliable means of communication.  A cell phone isn't much help, because the reception is spotty in most of the Apostle Islands. Better yet, bring a marine radio and a personal locating beacon, which you can use to send a GPS signal via satellite if you get into trouble.

 • Bring safety gear.  Everyone should wear U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jackets. Bring a flashlight, communications equipment, maps and maybe extra food, in case you have to change your plans and spend an extra night on an island. Put everything in a waterproof bag.

 • Leave it to the experts.  If you've never kayaked or it's your first time on Lake Superior, it's a good idea to go through a  reputable outfitter  that offers paddling tours, rentals and overnight trips.