Yes, we all get the “spring fidgets”. It was such a long and brutal winter and some of the coolness continues to hang on. Since it will be a few weeks before water temps get to a safe level, this is a good time to review a few safety tips from the Iowa DNR. There are paddlers out now but thankfully most are wearing proper clothing including wetsuits when needed and many of them are seasoned paddlers with decent boat control skills. Let this review be not only for them, but more importantly, for all of the newer paddlers that come on board every year after discovering the beauty and abundance of places to paddle in Iowa. Paddling is an inherently dangerous activity but can be much safer by following simple guidelines.
1. Before you head out on the water for your first trip of the year, make sure you check your canoe or kayak for any needed repairs or maintenance after being stored for several months. Check for holes and leaks, make sure all hatch lids fit snug and securely and check your paddle blades for signs of cracking or splitting.
2. Dust off your lifejacket and make sure all buckles and zippers work properly and examine for holes and tears. If there is damage that cannot be repaired, replace the lifejacket. Wearing a lifejacket will only protect you if worn and secured properly. A lifejacket should be worn at all times while on the water, regardless of your swimming ability. Remember, it is law that you have a lifejacket in your kayak or canoe or even on your paddleboard at ALL times. You can be cited for this. That said, if it is not worn, what good is it really going to do? If using it as a butt cushion, think again. If stowing it under deck rigging or behind the seat, you might want to re-evaluate. The life jacket will NOT be there when you need it. It will be flying down river with the rest of your unsecured items. Wear the life jacket. If not for you, maybe for your family.
3. Water temperatures are still cool and with water and air still colder on several days, there has been little opportunity of water warming up much. It could be several weeks before that ideal temperature is in place. Do NOT wear cotton. As the water heats up over the next several weeks, you’ll be able to adjust your clothing needs. Regardless of weather, always take a dry bag with a set of extra clothes for changing into. You can include a first-aid kit and a protected cell phone or weather radio. Remember, dress for water immersion not the air temperature. Don’t forget to take plenty of water and stay hydrated. Paddling can be physically demanding at times so stretching before entering your boat can help prevent injuries.
4. Be sure to file a “float plan” with a friend or loved one. This plan is as simple as telling someone when and where you are going and when you are expected to return. Should you need assistance, it will be easier to find you.
5. A word about HAZARDS: Be very aware of changing conditions while on the water, especially while paddling our many rivers. After snowmelt and heavy rains, water levels can rise quickly and produce strong and fast current. “Strainers” are numerous on most rivers, especially after high water events. A “strainer” can be a pile of tree limbs and debris, usually found on the outside of river bends where they continue to collect and pile up. The rivers current can take you directly towards the deadly “strainer” and without proper boat control skills; a paddler can be sucked in and held underwater with little chance of escape. A “sweeper” is found above the water’s surface and can be a tree that is ready to fall into the river. Hanging tree limbs can knock a paddler out of their boat or even grab them by the lifejacket or clothing and not let go.
Always be aware of where low head dams are on the river you are paddling. Watch for warning signs as well as signs telling you where and when to get off the river and portage. Put back in well downstream of the low head dam. The hydraulics of the dam will not let you escape as the turbulence of the water will be strong enough to keep pulling a person and their boat under the water over and over again. NEVER go over a low head dam. They are called drowning machines for a reason.
As the summer arrives, you will encounter more water traffic especially on the larger rivers and lakes. Jet skis, motorboats, water skiers and anglers can all be found on water when the weather is nice and you’ll have to follow proper navigation laws and practice good behavior and river etiquette. Give everyone plenty of room and use manners. If a “wake” is approaching your boat, remember to point the front of your boat into the wave and not get sideways. This will prevent your boat from tipping when the wave strikes.
Finally, you can review reported real-time hazards by visiting the paddler’s interactive map on the Iowa DNR website: Interactive Paddling Map This can also be used for all things related to trip planning. Check it out and explore the tools! It can also be found at