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Outdoor Risk Management – On a personal level

July 11, 2009

A group of friends went paddling this weekend canoeing a portion of the classic Old Forge to Saranac Lake Canoe route. Depending on the weather conditions we planned to paddle from Old Forge to Seventh lake about 15 miles of the nearly 100 mile route. Sunday morning was windy and cold. The air temperature was in the high thirties. We met at Seventh Lake and saw a brisk wind coming off the lake. One or two of our nine paddlers voiced concern over the wind conditions. As we traveled down to our starting point one of our team members checked out the winds on Fourth Lake and described them as pretty bad. He wisely suggested that we leave a car at a convenient point near the start of Fourth Lake so in case the winds were bad we could get off the lake. I thought it was an excellent idea because it met two of my basic tenants of decision making.

  1. Never make a decision before you have to
  2. Always have as many contingencies as reasonably possible

I believe it was in a National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) publication that risk was defined as the balance between the chances of something happening with the consequences if it did. Paul Petzoldt described it in more authentic terms when I was a student on a Wilderness Education Association (WEA) course. The students asked if we should put a fixed line along side a tree we were going to use to cross a brook. His response was very simple, "Only if someone is going to fall." So we struggled, as novice wilderness leaders, to determine whether we needed the fixed line. The tree was nearly three feet in diameter and very easy to walk on. Except on this morning it was just a little icy due to the heavy frost the night before. It was a classic example of the definition of risk. Normally crossing a brook on a tree this size would not trigger the need for a fixed line but in this case because the log was icy (increasing the chance of an incident) and because the brook was a raging torrent (increasing the consequences of an incident) we put up the fixed line. Since no one slipped did it mean we didn’t need it after all? 🙂

Now, how does this relate to our canoe trip? I felt the chances of capsizing were higher than normal but I felt the consequences were relatively low because while the water temperatures were cold we were; well dressed, close to shore, and there were houses and a major road along side our route. If we capsized I felt we were in for a cold dunking but nothing worse and I was willing to risk a cold dunking. If I were in a remote area taking part in the same activity I would have come up with an entirely different decision. I think that is what Paul Petzoldt is talking about when he talked about using good judgment.

As it turned out when we got to where we had parked our "extra" vehicle five of our group members thought it was too dangerous for them to continue. I fully respected their desire to end the trip but I have to say that I resented it when one person said, "It is just stupid to continue." I have nearly forty years of outdoor experience and I felt I did a decent job of balancing the chance of us capsizing with the consequences if we did. The two remaining canoes continued paddling down the lake. We encountered high winds at two different points along the next leg of our trip. The first time it wasn’t too bad and we navigated safely around a point to the lee side and continued on. The second time we worked hard to stay near shore yet not get caught in the cross-wind. As we were deciding our next move we looked up and saw one of our companions next to his truck on the shore smiling at us. That made the decision to go to shore an easy one and we decided to call it a day.

Could we have continued paddling safely? It depends how you define safely. I don’t think we would have been at risk of dying of hypothermia but we would have been at a much higher risk of capsizing. I think we made the right decsion both times yesterday. I also think the people that decided to call it a day earlier made the right decision. I felt then and still feel that the consequences of capsizing would not have been catastrophic so I was willing to continue on earlier in the day. Later in the day I felt the chances of capsizing were higher, it was later in the day, and more than half the group had already called it a day. It was a more appropriate time for me to call it a day.

After an Ubu beer and a good dinner at the Adirondack Hotel I have no regrets. It was a great day to practice quality decision making.

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