Photo: Maquoketa River Water Trail: Whitewater feature
There are many hazards and obstacles in the rivers we paddle and it is essential you become proficient in your river reading skills if you plan to spend time on the water. Striving to be a learner will help keep you and others safe. Here are a few of the hazards and obstacles you may encounter on a typical river trip.
You can be trapped in a hydraulic and unable to escape. If trapped, try to dive below the surface when the downstream current is flowing beneath the reversal. These low head dam hydraulics are called “drowning machines”. ALWAYS portage around them. When planning a trip, know what hazard features exist on the stretch you paddle.
High water can exist when a river narrows or when recent rain has increased the current flow and depth. Consider these conditions before making the decision to paddle as an individual, even if the trip leader decides to paddle under these conditions. YOU are responsible for your own decision to make the trip. Knowing what is happening up or down stream can also be important.
Anything that blocks passage, but allows water to flow through. These items can be brush or fallen trees, bridge pilings, or undercut rocks. They can allow the river current to sweep through and can cause capsize and/or pinning or can hold you under the water trapping you. Avoid these obstacles and be able to know and have the paddle skills to avoid these. Allow enough space to pass by the obstacle safely as the hydraulic may pull you in closer.
branches hanging low over or into water that can sweep a paddler from the boat. Avoid these when paddling and refrain from reaching out to grab them when passing by.
Broaching/Pinning: When a boat is pushed sideways against a rock, bridge structure, or other hazard by a strong current. It may collapse and wrap around you and trap you inside your boat.This is especially true for kayaks. To avoid pinning, it is best to throw your weight downstream towards the rock or hazard.This may allow the current to slide underneath your boat hull. “Love and lean” toward the obstacle, typically, that is facing downstream. It allows water under your vessel to help dislodge it.
If you capsize:
Try to hold onto your boat if possible by keeping your boat in front of you, (heading down river). Never allow the boat behind you or the weight and current pushing on you can cause safety issues such as pinning, foot entrapment, broken bones, etc.
If you can not hold onto your boat, LET GO!
Do NOT ever try to stand up in fast moving current. Stay floating on your back with your feet held high and pointed downstream and try to navigate to shore. You may need to swim at times to avoid obstacles.If you try to stand, it is possible for your foot to become trapped in an underwater obstacle causing a pinning hazard that can result in drowning. Only stand up in moving water if it is shallow (less than knee deep) or in “slow” moving water.
Other paddlers should try to help get your boat and gear for you.
Bilge or drain the water from your vessel.
Change clothes from your dry bag supplies.
Learn rescue and other life saving techniques:
Learn self rescue and two person rescue techniques.
Learn how to use a “paddle float” and bring it on trips
Learn how to throw a “throw bag”, then bring it on paddle trips. It could save a life.
Take a class, attend a pool session.
Watching YouTube rescue technique videos can help increase skill level.
Learn to be a competent swimmer.
Take a CPR and first aid class.
When helping another paddler, help in this priority order:
Help paddler first.
Try to catch boat floating downstream, or pull to shore if possible and remove water by bilge pumping out or turning upside down over your kayak or on shore.
Locating lost gear is last priority.
Please note: the information, terms, and misc information was sourced through assorted publications, various online sites, assorted DNR brochures, “Paddling Iowa” by Nate Hoogeveen, www.paddling.com, and extensive readings.