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Anatomy of a Lake

Unmasking Mr. Hyde

By Tamia Nelson
tamia@paddling.net

July 1, 2003

Few paddlers need to be reminded that whitewater is dangerous. Rapids, particularly difficult (Class III+) rapids, simply look mean. Rushing water smashes into rocks, creating whirlpool eddies. Fast chutes end abruptly in serried ranks of towering standing waves. Froth and foam are everywhere. On shore, the very ground vibrates beneath your feet, and you have to shout to make yourself heard above the crash of falling water. Only members in good standing of the What-Me-Worry? Club can ignore such obvious warnings.

Lakes are different, though. On a calm, sunny, summer day, when the only sound is the gentle whisper of wavelets against a sandy beach, it's hard to believe that a lake can ever be a dangerous place, even for the least skillful novice.

This, of course, is nonsense. Paddlers drown in lakes every year. Some are probably drunk. Others are certainly incompetent. (Make enough mistakes and even a farm pond can be a death trap. Ask Farwell.) But a few just run out of luck, caught by one of nature's capricious mood swings. One minute they're paddling on Golden Pond. All is serene. Then, in a flash, the wind rises and the waves hump up, tossing their boat around with as much giddy violence as any whitewater rapid. Suddenly, without even knowing that they were auditioning for the part, they've got a starring role in the The Howl of the Weather. Their placid afternoon paddle has become a fight for life. Every year a few unlucky souls lose the battle.

You'd never guess the latent violence of a slumbering lake from the language we paddlers use, though. We dissect even the easiest rapids into their component parts, rate each individual hazard, then figure a total and assign a classification, and we do all this with the grim satisfaction of an insurance-company statistician computing a new mortality table. But to many paddlers, all lakes are just, well, flat. Flatwater. (Unless, that is, they're "quiet water.") Beaver pond or Great Lake, it makes no difference: both are flatwater. No more and no less. And who can imagine coming to grief on anything flat?

The truth is very different. Lakes — yes, even the smallest ponds — have Jekyll and Hyde personalities. I'm sure you remember how Robert Louis Stevenson's respectable Dr. Jekyll became the murderous Mr. Hyde, to the dismay of all his trusting friends. Well, lakes are like that, too. The mirror-like calm of a summer lake is an inviting prospect for any paddler. But once the breeze picks up, waves will begin to form, and if the breeze grows into a gale, those waves can get very big indeed. The paddler unfortunate enough to get caught napping by a summer squall will have a lively time ahead of him.

When all aloud the wind doth blow.… Wind is to lakes what the mysterious drug was to Dr. Jekyll, the instrument of their transformation. Lakes vary in numberless ways — size, shape, and depth, to name only a few of the more obvious — but all lakes have one thing in common: once the wind starts to whistle, they all become basins aslosh with waves. And that's only the beginning of the story. Let's take a closer look. We'll start with a map of Lac la Vieille.

Windy Lake!

Lac la Vieille

First things first. Rivers are always going someplace, but their waves usually stay put. That's why they're called "standing waves." Lakes, on the other hand, are just hanging out. They're not going anywhere. Their waves are, though. Wind-driven waves are ceaselessly on the move, scudding ahead of the breeze that gave them life. They grow bigger as they go, too. This has important implications for canoeists and kayakers.

Return with me now to Lac la Vieille. A breeze has just begun to blow from west to east. Since winds are always named for the direction from which they blow, this is a westerly breeze. (Confused? Turn around till you have the wind full on your face. What direction are you facing? West, right? Then it's a westerly breeze.) We might as well enjoy the ride. So we'll begin at the western end of la Vieille and let the wind push us along as it sweeps down the lake.

OK. We've just put our boat in the water. The leaves near the tops of the aspen are all a-tremble. Even some of the branches are dancing. But when we look at the lake, what do we see? Little ripples. Wavelets. And that's all. Ready? Let's go! Fun, isn't it? The wind's at our backs, for once!

*   *   *

Hmm. We've been paddling for about half an hour, and things are changing. It's not the wind. The breeze is steady. It's still coming from the west, and it hasn't gotten any stronger. But the ripples that we noticed when we started out have grown into waves — rollers, really. Feel how the canoe lifts with the passage of each crest and then settles down into the following trough? The crests are only about a foot high, but they're certainly not ripples any more, are they? What's going on here?

Nothing. Or rather, nothing out of the ordinary. We're just seeing the effect of fetch on wave height. The longer the wind can push on the water, the bigger the waves get. When we started out at the western end of the lake, the wind didn't have much of a purchase. Now, however, it's got almost two miles of running room, with no intervening obstructions. This distance over open water is what sailors call "fetch," and it helps explain why the surf's up almost all the time on the Pacific coast of North America. A wind can pile up an impressive mound of water when it blows across a big ocean.

Lac la Vieille isn't the Pacific, of course, and I don't think we're likely to find ourselves riding the crest of a 40-foot breaker. But even a two-foot wave can look pretty big from the seat of a canoe. And we've still got a couple of miles to go. The wind's not dying down. Maybe it's time to think about …

Seeking Shelter from the Storm.

No, not right away. But suppose the wind strengthens a bit when we've paddled another mile. And suppose these rollers grow another couple of feet? A sheltered spot might look very welcome then, don't you agree?

What sort of shelter are we looking for? Simple. Anything that breaks the force of the wind. An island. A bay. A rocky point or headland. Once you've put a barrier between yourself and the wind — once you're in the lee of an island, for example — the waves will diminish. You can rest, bail, check your map. It's a bit like parking in an eddy on a river, except that you're looking for shelter from the wind rather than the current.

"In the lee of an island." Did this make you scratch your head? I'm not surprised. It's a familiar phrase among sailors, but I don't often hear canoeists and kayakers using it. That's understandable. Sailors are always watching the wind. It's their engine, after all. At any given time, their world is divided into two halves: a windward half and a leeward half. The half of the world that lies in the direction of the wind, the half that sweeps round before them, from one shoulder to the other, when the wind is blowing square in their face — that half is the windward half. Anything going on out there is said to be happening to windward. The other half of their world is said to lie to leeward (usually pronounced "loo-ard"). So the lee of an island is simply the side sheltered from the wind.

Of course, leeward and windward aren't fixed and unchanging. They're not like compass directions. If you don't count the slow, drunken wandering of the earth's magnetic poles, north is north and south is south, no matter what. But windward can become leeward as quickly as the wind can shift round.

You've been warned. Today, however, the wind is westerly, and it's not shifting. We've left our put-in miles to windward, and we're heading down the lake toward the lee shore at the eastern end. "Lee shore"? It's a phrase calculated to raise the blood pressure of any sailor. Here's why. You can't sail into the eye of the wind. So a lee shore is a trap. Many sailing ships have ended their days on one, pinned by the implacable force of an unrelenting wind, then driven aground and broken up by the hammer-blows of successive breakers. It's no wonder that sailors are happiest when they have miles of open water under their lee, and the nearest lee shore is well over the horizon.

We're paddling today, though, not sailing. Still, it's worth taking a minute or two to consider what a lee shore can mean to canoeists and kayakers. The little ripples that we left behind us at the start are now good-sized waves. As we approach the eastern end of the lake and the water gets shallower, these waves will start to bunch up. Then they'll get steeper. Sooner or later, they'll begin to break. And we'll be in the middle of it all, on a lee shore — if we keep paddling before the wind, that is. Maybe we'd better start looking for shelter in the lee of the island, eh? First, though, let's take a minute to decide whether we're…

Out of Our Depth.

Most novice paddlers feel safest in shallow water, and it makes sense not to stray too far from shore, particularly when your boat is an open canoe. But shallow water isn't always safe water. Breaking waves are dangerous waves, and waves begin to break when they "feel the bottom." This usually starts happening when the depth of the water under a wave is only a little more than the wave's peak-to-trough height. So if you're in the middle of some good-sized waves, you don't necessarily want to run for shallow water. Not until you've prepared yourself for a surf landing, at any rate.

This also explains why shallow lakes have bad reputations. Farwell can remember seeing every member of a party of very competent sea kayakers — they had just come back from Labrador, no less — dump in a sudden squall on Middle Saranac Lake. Breaking waves in mid-lake caught the kayakers by surprise. One after the other, they went in. They looked, he says, like a family of diving ducks. Fortunately, they all had good rolls, and they came back up almost as quickly as they'd gone under. Farwell watched the whole show from the seat of his pack canoe, nestled close to the sheltered weather shore of the lake. He's very glad he didn't get out of his depth that day, and that he'd taken time to…

Map Things Out.

My little sketch map doesn't show the land's contours, but your topographic map will. Study it whenever you plan to cross open water. Consider all the likely wind directions. Look for sheltered lees (and dangerous lee shores) under all conditions. Make your best guess as to the effect of local topography on wind force and direction, too. A lake surrounded by marshy lowlands is more exposed to the wind's sweep than one that's ringed by forested hills. On the other hand, hills and valleys can channel winds, magnifying or redirecting gusts. In really mountainous country, watch out for downdrafts and back eddies near the bases of cliffs.

And keep your eye on the clock. If there's no front moving through, big lakes are often calmest in the early morning hours. Later in the day, as the sun heats things up, local convection starts driving a stiffening breeze, and the wind continues to grow in force till evening. The upshot? When you don't anticipate a frontal passage, plan any long open-water crossings for the shoulders of the day.

Whatever the time of day, however,…

Think Safety.

Stack the odds in your favor by following these simple guidelines:

  • Wear your PFD — always. Yes, it's summer. But death doesn't take a holiday. And your life jacket won't do you any good if it's stashed in your pack or tied around a thwart when you capsize, will it?

  • Practice, practice, practice. The best way to learn how to paddle in waves is to do it. Once you've mastered the elements of boat control, get together with a few experienced paddlers. Pick a summer day when the water's warm and a moderate (15-20 mph) breeze is blowing. Then practice paddling with the wind coming from every point: ahead, astern, and on the beam. Take oncoming waves at a slight angle, giving your boat a chance to rise to the swell. Search for sheltered lees behind islands and points. Then try a few surf landings on a lee shore. (Two- to three-foot waves are plenty big enough to begin with. If you value your head, you might want to wear a helmet, too.) Once you've had your fill of surfing, why not paddle a little way offshore and try a few dump-and-recovery drills? Just be certain your lunch is in a waterproof pack!

  • Keep your eye on the sky.… Listen to the forecast, by all means, but cultivate a weather eye, too. Weather happens, whether or not you're ready for it.

  • And on the other guy. Sometimes the greatest danger comes from other boaters. If you'll be paddling in traffic, learn the Rules of the Road — and always observe the Gross Tonnage Rule.

  • Be prepared. Dress for the water temperature, not the air temperature. Fit flotation to your boat. Carry spare paddles, as well as a bailer (or bilge pump) and sponge, and don't forget to secure your bow and stern lines. If you're ready to graduate to really big water, learn something about sea anchors (also called drogues or drift socks), and decide whether or not to carry one in your boat. Match your boat to conditions, too. Some boats — pack canoes and low-volume kayaks, for example — have no business on big lakes.

  • Keep in touch. It won't do you any good to travel with a party if you get separated. Groups should keep together at all times on open water. The slowest paddler sets the pace.

  • Stay alert. If you're exhausted, you should be taking a nap on shore, not paddling. The transit time from dead tired to just plain dead can be surprisingly short.

  • Paddle smart. Hug the weather shore if you don't like the look of the sky. And when you can, hop from lee to lee to avoid the full force of the wind. On the water, the shortest distance between two points is seldom a straight line.

  • When in doubt, doubt. Call it Fletcher's Rule. Know your limits, and listen to your inner voice. If it's whispering No, no, no, it's time to call it a day, no matter what your pride says. Come back another time.

Lakes are delightful places to paddle, and summer is when they're at their best. They're no place for the feckless or unwary, though. Mr. Hyde is always waiting for a chance to show his teeth. Don't let him put the bite on you!

Mr. Hyde Shows His Teeth

The Howl of the Weather

Copyright © 2003 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.






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