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With some 69,200 miles of rivers and streams and 11,842 lakes, it’s no wonder that kayaking and canoeing are so popular in our state. But along with the fun and excitement there is also comes great risk.

In a recent tragedy, Brennon David Johnson, a 15-year-old from Montevideo, died during a kayaking excursion on Lobster Lake, just 8 miles outside of Alexandria. Perhaps the most alarming fact is that he was still wearing his life jacket when a search party found his body – proof that wearing one does not guarantee it will save your life.

Because kayaking and canoeing can be so dangerous, it’s good to be as prepared as possible before you go, and to know something about basic safety so that you can avoid injury and know what to do in a sticky situation.


According to the United States Coast Guard (USCG), 52 people died and 34 people reported injuries in kayak incidents in 2010. In the case of Brennon Johnson, he was still in the kayak when the search team found him, causing investigators to speculate that his kayak capsized and he was unable to get free from it.

Injuries that can be sustained while kayaking or canoeing include sprains, bruises, lacerations, broken or dislocated bones, concussion, internal organ injury, hypothermia, spinal cord injury and death.


Learn from the experts. We highly recommend taking an on-water course before you embark on your kayaking adventure. Taking a first aid/CPR class is also a good idea. The University of Minnesota Duluth offers courses in kayaking and canoeing as well as the Minneapolis REI Outdoor School.
Check weather and water conditions before you leave.
Make a “float plan”: a written description listing pertinent information about your excursion including the date and time of your departure, your anticipated time of return, the location and route you plan to take, your cell phone number and the names and phone numbers of the people you’re going with, the make and model of your car and where it will be parked (unless you’re getting dropped off). Print out this information and leave it with a trustworthy friend or relative. You should also leave a copy in your car if driving.
Use the buddy system. If you run into trouble, and you’re by yourself, there’s no one that can help you. It’s never a good idea to go kayaking alone.
Always wear a personal floatation device (PFD).
Know how to swim. Drowning is the leading cause of death on kayak trips according to the USCG.
Dress appropriately. How you dress depends on the weather and water temperature. Keep in mind that you want to protect yourself from the sun and keep your body from getting either too hot or too cold. Layering is a good idea as it allows for more flexibility as your body temperature fluctuates. Synthetic materials are preferable over cotton as cotton absorbs moisture.
Take plenty of water and food.
Research the route before you go and make sure the challenge is appropriate for your group’s level of experience. You should judge this based on the person in your party with the least skill and experience so that they don’t struggle and can keep up with everyone else.
Pack a first aid kit including band-aids, bandages, gauze, aspirin, antiseptic cream, energy food bars, burn cream, a change of warm clothes, thermal emergency blanket, Type IV PFD throwable float, and a lighter.
Learn how to “Eskimo roll” in case of capsizing.
For more information, the American Canoe Association (ACA) is a national non-profit organization dedicated to educating the public about canoeing, kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding and rafting as well as protecting the waterways in which people do these sports.