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Reading Rivers

Safety Tips 011 - Reading Rivers

Driving a car safely involves much more than merely focusing only as far ahead as the taillights of the car in front of you. Same goes for “reading” a river beyond the bow of your canoe or kayak. Even familiar waterways can have broad swings in their personality and landscape that constantly require paddlers to hone their on-water“reading” skills.

Meander channels and river bends mean we need to anticipate, read and respond to visual clues upon short notice. Some of those warning/caution signs are:

  • Rising/lower water indications along bank, in channel - heavy rains (local, upstream, over tributaries) all affect the volume of a river, which in turn affects the force, rate of flow and amount of debris and obstacles along your course);
  • Waterflows over or around submerged objects create swells or distinct flow patterns in the water. Swells are caused by grounded object below the surface; downstream “V” indicates a course between or safely over rocks; Upstream pointing “V” means submerged rocks from point back downstream;
  • A straight, horizontal “edge” or defined line across the channel may mean a ledge or drop - and deadly “hydraulic” turbulence immediately over and below it. Best to avoid/stop and scout if in doubt;
  • Current tends to flow faster along outside of river bends, slower along the shorter, inner bend;
  • High, steep slopes continue into river at same angle; shallow slopes likewise;
  • Always anticipate dangers (rocks, sweepers, etc.) when coming around blind bends;
  • Eddies - circular, clockwise-towards-the-bank flows - often occur immediately downstream of above surface obstacles (rocks, vertical walls, pilings, etc.) Some are smooth water havens while other create dangerous whirlpools;
  • Man-made obstructions such as wing dams which may be above, at or below waterline, each affecting water flow differently (swells, eddies, etc.);
  • Other visuals include changes in water color: darker=deeper; cloudy vs. clear may indicate shallows, sandbar, shoals, etc.)

Safe passage over waterways requires use of many of our senses and sensibilities!

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