Keep it SafeÖKeep it Fun

By Chuck Horbert 

When it comes to fun on the water, it is tough to beat a day paddling your canoe or kayak on your favorite nearby river or lake.  But it only stays fun if everyone stays safe.  Every year people experience accidents on the water, some fatal, that could have been prevented if the paddler had been aware of dangers or taken simple precautions.  This article will focus on strategies for staying safe on most rivers, lakes and ponds.

 First and foremost, always wear a life jacket.  Nearly 70% of all drownings involving paddlecraft could have been avoided if the victim had worn one.  Many of these victims were strong swimmers. Life jackets float; you donít. 

 On rivers, another common killer is a strainer, which is anything such as a tree in the water, an undercut rock, or other debris that allows water to flow through it, but not you.  The way to avoid strainers is to always have control of your boat and always be aware of your surroundings.  Be especially wary on the outside of any bend of the river, as this is a common place for trees falling into the water.  If you find yourself out of your boat and headed for a strainer, that is the time to actively swim away from it or, if necessary, aggressively climb on top of it.

 Paddlers succumb to cold water every year.  Hypothermia can be an issue any time of the year, not just winter and spring.  Sudden immersion in very cold water can incapacitate a paddler quickly, even before hypothermia can set in. If you enjoy paddling in cooler weather, or when the water is cold, dress for immersion in either a wet suit or a dry suit.  Stay close to shore on large lakes. Learn, and practice, self rescue techniques such as kayak rolling or boat re-entry.

 Other common hazards on local rivers are low head dams, the most common dam type in this area.  These dams are generally unsafe to paddle over, and must be carried around.  Be sure you know where these dams are if you are paddling a river that has them.  And when putting in below a dam, stay well downstream of the boil line at the foot of the dam.  The recirculating currents at the foot of these dams can hold, and drown, boaters.

 Large lakes have their own particular hazards.  Strong winds can blow you around, and kick up large waves.  Learn how to trim your boat (i.e. either weight the bow or the stern) so that the heaviest part of the boat is pointing into the wind, to improve boat control on a windy day.  Avoid taking wind from your side, as a large gust can blow a canoe over.  Be aware of approaching storms and head for shore at the first sign of lightning.  In winds over 30 mph, a large lake can be even more dangerous than a whitewater river, especially if you are alone and far from shore.

 Finally, use common sense based on where you are paddling.  Donít paddle alone. Be visible to powerboats.  Be careful in fog.  Carry an emergency kit.  Know your limits.  Be constantly aware of your surroundings.  Take a course in safety, because what you donít know can hurt you. 

 Your enjoyment of paddling will increase along with your confidence in being able to handle anything you encounter.

 Note: Paddling coastal waters or whitewater involves additional hazards to be aware of.  Take the time to learn about them before attempting to enjoy these areas.