I learned the hard way, why, at certain times of the year – during spring flooding primarily – our local river, the Pomme de Terre, is called the Pomme de TERROR! High spring waters flowing down its narrow, meander channel clogged with fallen cottonwoods and other debris create ongoing hazards around nearly every bend.
Such it was one afternoon when I found myself in my canoe, forced precariously sideways against a dense network of skeletal-like branches of a downed cottonwood. A narrow opening immediately adjacent to the high cutbank was my only possible escape route if I could free the boat from the powerful force of the swollen current.
While trying to wiggle free with a slight downstream lean, I lost my balance and did a face plant into the tea-colored water. The canoe flipped over, caught water and was forced, bow first, into the muddy embankment. Like a spaghetti noodle in a strainer, I was being pushed to the bottom against a nasty jumble of branches.
I groped through the water and found a handhold on the gunnels of my submerged canoe. I yanked it backwards off the bank and could feel the bow swing around and be pulled downstream through a narrow hole in the branches. As the current swept the boat past the tangle of branches, I pushed off the bottom and followed the canoe through the hole into open water downstream. I popped to the surface gasping for air. Phew!
Each type of water: whether expansive oceans and lakes or meandering streams and rivers – have their own unique hazards that challenge the paddler. Some are natural such as currents, rip tides, rocks, reefs, narrowing channels, winds and myriad natural obstacles (surface and submerged). Other hazards are man-made (dams, weirs, spillways, structure abutments, stump fields, barge wake) that can also cause the flowing waters to act in ways that can be very dangerous to paddlers of all skill levels. Of these, arguable none present the diversity and intensity of hazards as do the flowing channels of water we call rivers.
One of the first of many river "hazards" we are introduced to as beginning paddlers is the current itself. Smooth, nondescript flowages of water can suddenly twirl and tumble causing disruptions in the surface and counter currents that can spin a boat around. We discover that rocks can create a wide array of challenges that disrupt the smooth water of passage. They can be giant granite monsters squatting defiantly right in front of us. They can be a string of boulders, clustered together in such a way so as to form a gentle series of riffles, or a continuous set of waves (like a corduroy roadway of water called a wave train). They can also turn the current into a churning cascade of turbulent water. Most often we learn to work our way through them, sometimes leaving submerged rocks decorated with telltale silver streaks from our aluminum hulled canoes.
We learn to "read" the river to tell us which course to take through a rapids such as the downstream pointing "V"-shaped flow of smooth water that indicates a clear channel through the rocks. Conversely we learn that rocks lying just under the surface causing that water to boil and tumble forms an upstream pointing "V" – a sign of caution for most – or an inviting challenged for the more seasoned and skilled paddler.
GLOSSY OF RIVER HAZARD TERMS:
The list of river hazards is quite extensive. Here is a glossary of the most common hazards one may encounter on river systems across the country:
BASIC HAZARD PREVENTION/RECOVERY TECHNIQUES:
Prudent paddlers will want to develop skills that can be called upon to deal with a wide variety of challenging obstacles along the river. Prevention is far preferred to recovery in most all cases. Better to avoid a problem than try to paddle out of it. Oftentimes using the technique of ferrying, one can swing around or out of a potentially compromising situations. Therefore it's important to know a variety of back paddling strokes – and how your craft reacts to those strokes – so you can call upon that invaluable information and expertise when needed.
Being trapped in a strainer can be a terrifying experience. If forced against a downed limb, it is sometimes advisable to climb forward onto the stouter branches and work your way to shore – or beyond the downfall to open water downstream again. If you are forced below the surface, try swimming downstream using your hands before you to part the branches ahead of you.
The hydraulic somersaulting tumble at the base of a dam is most often a fatal predicament. The force of the water keeps an object recycling over and over in the boil of the current. The best chance at recovery is to relax (that alone will take a mighty serious effort given the circumstances) and try to swim deep to get into the slower, downstream current that does flow out of such holes.
LOCK AND DAM PROTOCOL:
Approaching a lock and dam complex is usually not hazardous if you stay out of the restricted areas (On the Mississippi River, for example, those areas are 600' above a dam, 150' below). Passage through these humungous structures is quite simple and straight forward:
approach/check the light signals:
Upon completion of the lock cycle, there will be either a PA announcement, a short toot of a horn or a visible hand signal that it's clear to exit the lock. There is no fee for this "first come-first served" process. You can contact most dam operators via VHF channels 14 and 16 to learn the status of the lock.
GENERAL RIVER SENSIBILITY AND OTHER SAFETY TIPS: Don't forget to study up on general river regulations and rules. It is important to at least understand the basics of the buoy system and general principles of river navigation, too (see previous Guideline article, "Buoy & Marker Messages").
In his book "Basic Essentials – Canoeing", outdoor river guide and canoeing pro, Cliff Jacobson cites several common mistakes made by canoers:
These mistakes can be minimized and mitigated by learning and practicing some essential paddling skills including a variety of paddling strokes, knowing the rules and regulations for riverways, learning and practicing on-water techniques (ferrying, crossing eddylines, back paddling), being aware of hazards and knowing how to spot them, always acting responsibly and respecting the rights of others, using a float plan, and anticipating other traffic's actions and intents if possible.
A great source of river characteristics, boat handling, safety and rescue techniques is, "River Safety – A Floater's Guide" by Stan Bradshaw (published by The Lyons Press). Other references include each state's DNR office for information on its local waters, including hazards and safety tips. Check out www.uscgboating.org/safety. This is the U.S. Coast Guard & Coast Guard Auxiliary site with a plethora of river information.
Lastly, local river knowledge is probably the most reliable and current for those areas beyond the realm of national/regional agencies. Check for local paddling clubs if you seek information on rivers unfamiliar to you.
Above all be careful, have fun and be safe. The best way to deal with a river hazard is to avoid it altogether.
Tom Watson is an avid sea kayaker and freelance writer. He also posts articles and thoughts on his website tomoutdoors.com/blog/. He has written 2 books,"Kids Gone Paddlin" and "How to Think Like A Survivor" that are available on Amazon.
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