Dams, Waterfalls and Rapids

As you paddle along the river the sound of rushing water starts to get louder and louder.  What should you do?  Any experienced boater knows that you are approaching some type of hazard.  The three most common are Dams, Waterfalls and Rapids.  Not so common, but just as dangerous is the output from a hydroelectric plant. This is a good time to stop and figure out where the noise is coming from and what your options will be based on what it is.  Hopefully you have planned this trip, read some description of the river, looked over some maps and are expecting this obstruction and know how to deal with it.

For dams and waterfalls, most likely you will need to portage around the obstruction, so you need to find the portage trail.  You should already have an idea which side of the river the portage is on, how close it is to the obstacle, and what to expect for the portage.  If the portage trail entrance has a small landing, you may have to take turns pulling in and unloading your boats. Your trip description should give you this information.  Everyone in the group needs to be on the same page and know what to expect. You donít want someone floating past the portage landing with no way of getting back upstream. Some of the paddlers may have to find an eddy to wait in until itís their turn to use the landing.

If the obstacle is Rapids, you should have some idea how to run them, again from the river description you reviewed prior to the trip.  Depending on the rating of the rapids you may scout the rapids before you try and run them or you might need to portage. The experience level of each paddler will come into play.  Some paddlers may opt to portage the rapids while others may have the experience to run them. 

It is also important to make sure you know where to meet at the end of the run.  For long rapids you may want to eddy out along the way to regroup and make sure everyone stays together. On a mile long rapid you donít want most of your paddlers at the end, while someone is in the water at the start.  A good rule is to use the buddy system and try to keep everyone in sight. You should be in view of the paddler in front of you, as well as the paddler behind you.  If everyone follows this rule, no one will get left behind.

Hydroelectric power stations can be found on most major rivers with most located on dams. There are some exceptions to this where the intake for the plant is located at the dam while the output is piped to a plant located as much as several miles downstream. This output may enter the river at a right angle which can catch the side of your boat and easily flip you over.  The paddler needs to be prepared to avoid any turbulence where the output of the plant joins the flow of the river.  The best option might be to pass this hazard on the far side of the river.


Strainers are trees or other object that have fallen into a river and block passage across part of or the entire width of the river.  Strainers seam to hide quietly in the river and to sneak up on you with no warning.  For this reason they are considered one of the deadliest hazards on a river and should be avoided whenever possible.  Strainers allow water to pass through while catching larger objects like canoes, kayaks and paddlers.  Once stuck underwater in a strainer there is little if any chance to escape.

Strainers are caused by a number of conditions including dead or rotted trees being blown over, beavers cutting trees along a river bank or current eroding away soil around the roots.  Evergreen trees or trees with lots of close branches are the most hazardous.

While strainers can be anywhere in a river there is one place you really need to be concerned and that is at sharp bends.  River water tends to move the fastest on the outside of the bend and as a result, this is where the most erosion is caused and where you will find the most strainers. You also donít see these strainers until you go around the bend and may little if any time to maneuver around it.Your best option is to avoid strainers by paddling on the inside of sharp bends in the river.  This will keep you in the slowest moving water and give you a better opportunity to paddle around the strainer or to stop your boat before reaching the strainer. If you have capsized and are swimming and canít make it to shore, stay to the inside of the bend if possible.

If you are swimming in the save swimmer position in swift water (on your back with feet downstream) and can see no way to get away from the strainer you need to be become aggressive. Turn over onto your stomach and swim toward the strainer. As you approach the strainer, aggressively climb up as high as you can, onto or over the strainer.  Even if you get stuck in this position, you should be high enough to keep your head above water until help arrives. 


Youíre on a Wilderness Trip and you capsize.  Hopefully youíre wearing that PFD. Next comes you canoe and equipment. Was everything lashed in and still with your boat and what about your paddle.  Half way through a wilderness trip you will need to recover everything or the trip might just be a disaster.If the river is calm with a mild current, picking up the pieces will not be difficult.  Just stow the paddle in the canoe, grab your painter (hopefully you have one) and swim to shore. After emptying the boat and changing your clothes, youíre ready to continue.

But what if this happens in rapids? Will you be prepared?  Will you know what to do?  First things first, letís take things in order.

The first priority has to be the paddler.  In rapids you need to know the safe swimmer position. The number one rule when in rapids is to protect your head.  If you are wearing a helmet thatís great. But what if youíre not?  The safe swimmer position requires us to swim on our backs, feet heading downstream, and your head upstream.  In this position you can look at what is downstream and use your feet to kick off and avoid object. Use your hands and arms as paddles to control your decent.  If you spot an eddy or other safe place, turn over onto your stomach and given the opportunity, aggressively swim out of the current to safety.  

Your canoe is the next item to consider. First make sure it is downstream from you. If you have ever been run over by a canoe you will understand why.  It is almost like being hit by a car. If you canít safely swim to the canoe, hopefully your friends can get it for you. Last but not least, look for your paddle and any other loose gear.

Dangerous Dams- click to learn more