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Kayaking Safely Over River Hazards

As winter lessens its hold and temperatures begin to rise, you might be getting excited about the inaugural kayak outing of the year. And as thrilling as it is to get back out on the water, you might need to slow your roll. Spring can be a particularly hazardous time on moving waterways. 

Rising temperatures lead to winter snow melt that can flood seemingly benign creeks, streams, and rivers. Suddenly summer’s favorite fishing bank can be a rushing category 4 rapid. And downed trees, brush, and debris can get caught in the flow - or even worse get YOU caught in the flood. 

Hidden dangers can abound in the churning, muddy, mess. So there are steps to take to learn how to kayak safely over river hazards - and avoid them altogether.

Reading river hazards OUT of the water

  • Plan your route: Particularly with river kayaking, it is imperative that you spend time planning your route. Often river routes require point A to point B travel, so you need to plan put-in and take-out spots as well as transportation. Check GPS for landmarks and note questionable spots - like possible dams, constricted flow, bends, rapids, and more that might require portage or specialized skill.
  • Scout the route as best you can: This really can’t be overstated with river kayaking in unfamiliar places. If at all possible, get to the route early and walk as much as you can or seek a bird’s eye view. Nothing takes the place of laying your eyes on a route before attempting it. Seeing it in person in real-time can show so much that a static map or GPS can’t.
  • Consult a local: If you can’t see the route yourself, chatting with a local or hiring someone as a guide is an excellent option. They can share little-known hot spots, dangers, or conditions.
  • Check water temperature / flow: Before you embark, check the water details. What is the temperature? Remember that water can be substantially colder than the air, especially as it is fed by snowmelt. How fast is the water flowing? Additional rushing water can create rapids where none existed before and submerge dangers that were once easily avoided.
  • Leave a float plan: ALWAYS, always, leave a plan with someone off-water who can send out help if you aren’t back in the expected timeframe.

Reading river hazards ON the water

The hazards found on a river are numerous, so learning how to read the river and anticipate these dangers is very important. One of the biggest differences between rivers and lakes is current. This ever-present flow of water distinguishes a river from a lake. The flow of the current can range from timid to turbulent and varies based on volume, channel width, and gradient. 

Volume: amount of water flowing in the river, often changes based on the season and amount of precipitation and the bend /shape of the river. Water flows faster alongside the outside of the bend and slower along the shorter, inner bend

Channel width: how far apart the river banks are, narrower channels flow faster

Gradient: steepness of the river bed, how much / rapidly it drops

  • Rapids: Rapids (often distinguished by whitewater) form in areas where the flow is restricted, often by narrow banks but also by boulders and underwater structures. Rapids are areas where the flow of the river and the pressure of the water increases. They are categorized by levels from I-IV (easiest to hardest).
  • Dams: Man-made structures that form an obstruction completely across a river and cause a drop in the water level are EXTREMELY dangerous (aka widow makers, weirs, spillways, ledges). Never mess with a dam - ALWAYS portage around or go back, if possible. These structures and their cousins, like wing dams, pour-overs, drops, and holes, can all cause dangerous hydraulic effects (water circulating on top of itself) that create enough pressure to trap any object. It can be deadly to even the most experienced paddler / swimmer. In addition to planning your route and knowing about dams ahead of time (from maps or locals), you can also identify dams by a straight, horizontal line or edge in the flow ahead of you that can signal a ledge. It is always best to stop and scout if you have any doubts.   
  • Eddies: Eddies are areas where the water circulates back toward the bank creating a circle. It can happen around boulders or other above-surface obstacles. Often these are areas of calm water, but others can create dangerous conditions. 
  • Pillows: On the upstream side of an eddy, water that piles up against an obstruction forms a pillow. Water is compressed by, then flows around, the impediment. The compressed water can push you up against an obstacle so try to ferry around these things by angling away from the obstruction. If you do find yourself stuck against a boulder, etc, use the force of the current, by leaning into the downstream flow, or even pushing off with your paddle and leaning downstream.
  • Strainers: Especially in times of increased volume (storms, spring snowmelt, etc) there is a higher incidence of strainers in the water. Strainers are branches, bushes, and logs that can catch a paddler and “strain” them through. Branches act like sieves that block objects, like paddlers, kayaks, and gear, from going through but don’t obstruct the water so they can create a powerful force against the object. Strainers can often be seen above the surface or extending from the banks (like fallen trees). They should be avoided by ferrying around. Make sure you direct your path as far from them as possible. Be alert as you come around blind corners when you haven’t had time to visually assess your path of travel.
  • Wave train: Wave navigation is a crucial kayaking skill. When you face a series of waves that aren’t breaking, it is called a wave train. When you face a wave train, practice good skills that will serve you over most obstacles: maintain a straight downstream course, keep momentum by padding firmly, and lean slightly forward to enhance stability and responsiveness.
  • Wake traffic: Be aware of others on the river and the wake they might throw off. Barges and commercial traffic should be avoided. They are often restricted to the main channel of rivers where the channel is dredged, but it is best to stay out of their way.
  • Submerged Obstructions: There can be much below the surface that you can’t see: boulders, logs, stump fields, rocks, sand bars. Often water flowing over or around underwater obstacles forms a districtive flow pattern. Swells form over grounded objects below. A downstream V indicates safe passage while an upstream V warns of submerged rocks and should be avoided as the current pushes back upstream.

Safety Tips for River Hazards:

  • Always avoid turbulent water. Unless you are seeking a known rapid, you should avoid turbulent water and what hides beneath it.
  • Seek the tongue. In river kayaking, the “tongue” is the safe passage down the river. It is the smoothest and deepest part, indicating easy water flow (least obstructions). It looks like a v-shape pointing downstream. Approach it head-on and maintain a steady paddle, especially through an area of turbulent water.
  • Pay extra attention to high water volume seasons. When the water levels are high, it can lead to poor visibility. A lot is going on underwater that you can’t see. Take your time. Use color clues to help anticipate underwater obstacles. Darker water is usually deeper water. Cloudy water could indicate shallows, sandbars, or shoals.
  • Allow the current to do the work.  In general, you can let the current do the bulk of the “heavy lifting”. When you do need to get around obstacles or cross the current, practice ferrying. This uses the momentum of the current, but angles you to go around boulders, turbulence, and submerged objects. For a successful ferry, you want to align yourself in a 45-degree angle to the current. 
  • Don’t stand up if the water is more than knee-deep. If you do find yourself flipped out of your yak, don’t stand up if the water is more than knee-deep, you risk foot entrapment. Float or swim your kayak to the bank or try to get back in. Wear shoes that can slip off easily to reduce the chance of ankle entrapment and never go barefoot.
  • If caught against a solid obstacle (like a boulder), lean downstream. Often you can swing yourself loose by working with the current. You can also try to push off with your paddle. 
  • Use eddies. This area of calm water, often on the downstream side of a boulder, can be an oasis of calm. Cross eddy lines confidently with a strong stroke and you can rest there a bit before continuing downstream. To exit an eddy, point your kayak upstream a bit and paddle hard out. Your nose will swing downstream and you are off to the races.  (Do be aware that sometimes the violent forces of water around an obstacle can form a whirlpool rather than a calm eddy, so always pay attention). 
  • Scout the river beforehand, or even during a float. As mentioned above, scouting is a vital part of river kayaking. Even taking a moment during a river run to beach your yak and walk the next leg is a wise activity, especially during spring runoff or unfamiliar terrain.
  • Always wear a PFD (secured and ready to go). This can’t be overstated. These devices really can save a life. Make sure they are secured properly.
  • If you capsize and aren’t able to self-rescue. Float with your feet pointing downstream. If you have your feet properly clad (remember: don’t kayak barefoot), it is safer when you have to point them downstream. Floating with the current, point your feet in the direction of the flow. It is much better to hit a branch or rock with your feet than your head.
  • Don’t mix drinking and paddling. Save the celebratory toasts for terra firma. Don’t drink alcohol before or during a paddling excursion. It is dangerous to impair your senses before embarking on a high-skill-level paddle that requires quick thinking and reflexes. 
  • Wear proper attire. Whenever you paddle, you should be prepared to get wet (even if you think you won’t capsize). In the spring, you should be particularly aware of the vast difference in water and air temperature and plan accordingly.
  • Be green. Consider your environment and remember to take trash with you when you leave. Whatever you bring in, you should bring out. Leave no trace!
  • Know your limits. Always stay within your skill limits. If a rapid develops that is outside your skill level, don’t overextend, either portage around or cut your trip short, but don’t risk your life or the lives of those who will try to help you. It is better to be safe than sorry. 

River kayaking is exciting and stimulating. Learning to read the water and avoid hazards can help you enjoy your time on the water even more. Happy Paddling!

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