Life jacket loans at Wildcat Cove a living memorial for two sons lost at sea

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJuly 30, 2012 

Ten years after Jim Robinson and Braden Talbott Lindholdt disappeared while kayaking, a kiosk with life jackets that people can borrow for free opened at Larrabee State Park's Wildcat Cove, where the 20-year-old friends began their fateful afternoon outing.

The life jacket loaner program at the cove is now a year old, and the lost boys' mothers are pleased with the results but wish it could expand to more locales in Whatcom County.

"There are a lot of places that could benefit," said Braden's mother, Vicki Talbott, who lived in Bellingham when her son died but now lives in Mount Vernon.

After their deaths, Jim's mother, Mary Jo Gran of Bellingham, began lobbying for life jackets to become more available. Neither Jim nor Braden had life jackets with them the day they died.

"This is Mary Jo's work of love," Talbott said.

Finally, with help from Scott Chalfant, the park manager at Larrabee, the kiosk became a reality.

"The waters of Puget Sound can be treacherous," said Chalfant, who retired from the state parks system soon after the kiosk was erected. "It only takes one life jacket to make a difference."

In Washington, children 11 and younger must wear a life jacket while aboard smaller boats, and people must wear one when they're on a personal watercraft or being towed behind a vessel. Otherwise, boats - including canoes, rafts and kayaks - must have a life jacket available for each person aboard, but the boater isn't required to wear it at all times.

Robinson and Lindholdt weren't expecting, or equipped, for trouble that Sunday afternoon of March 11, 2001. They both knew how to swim but hadn't kayaked before and didn't have life jackets when they borrowed kayaks for a quick paddle close to shore.

"They thought it was going to be a fun adventure," Gran said.

They had a cell phone, but left it behind in their truck parked at the cove. The weather that day was pleasant early on, but then turned foul.

"The rain was horizontal," Talbott recalled.

A search began after the pair failed to return home that evening. Searchers found their kayaks near the mouth of the Nooksack River but never found the two young men.

Gran said Jim and Braden might have died anyway from hypothermia, but their bodies might have been found if they had had life jackets.

Similar life jacket loaner programs exist at 55 places in Washington - including Birch Bay State Park, the Community Boating Center in Fairhaven, and Semiahmoo Marina - according to Washington State Parks.

At Wildcat Cove, a memorial sign near the kiosk advises boaters to take several precautions before entering the water: Check the weather and tides; tell someone where you are entering the water; take instructions in kayaking or other water activity beforehand if possible; attach a paddle to your kayak; dress properly; have a floating dry pack with a cell phone inside; carry a flare and a whistle; and wear a life jacket.

Talbott and Gran see the sign and kiosk regularly. They visit the cove on the anniversary of their boys' death, and on their boys' birthdays.

They've gathered rocks and beach glass to make stepping stones. Sometimes they throw flowers into the water. Sometimes they just talk.

"We crawl out on the rocks and reminisce," Gran said, "talk a lot about our boys."

Reach DEAN KAHN at dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2291.

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