Kayaking is a great way to get exercise while seeing breathtaking views, but there are many risks involved. The chances of drowning are high with low head dams. If you are kayaking on a river without maps or information, it can be hard to know where a dam is until it is too late.
It is not mandated by law for these dams to be marked.
If you are near a low head dam built for old mills that are now in disrepair that have debris under them or live in an area with unpredictable weather, then the chances of drowning are significantly increased.
While you might have found the best kayak at Outdoor Swim, there’s a lot to learn before you take it out. Here is an overview of the dam situation and why you should pay close attention to them.
Dams Pose Danger to Kayakers
Regardless of whether you are experienced or not, kayaking on low head dams can be life-threatening. When river conditions change, so does the power which can cause significant danger in low head dams.
While they look harmless, many have lost their lives due to assuming that they are nothing to worry about on their trip.
They suck you in and then trap you in a danger zone, which is hydraulic, in the backflow.
You are at greater risk if you are approaching from the downriver because once you go over the boil, the hydraulic will quickly suck you into the dam.
The type of boat you are in does not matter because even a powerboat can sink if the conditions are favorable for the low head dam, then air will get trapped in the backflow, resulting in your boat buoyancy and your floating device being reduced.
This is especially important to note because even with a personal flotation device, you can drown, especially if a river is flowing quickly.
What Should You Do When Approaching a Low-Head Dam in a Canoe or Kayak?
Prepare in Advance to Deal with Low Head Dams
The best way to prepare is to look at a map, and if you notice a low head dam to post it so that others are aware of where they are located. Being aware is the best way to protect yourself.
Research the river before going out on the water.
Something else you can do to protect yourself is to practice getting back into your kayak if you flip it. This is a necessary skill that will no doubt come in handy. When practicing getting back into your kayak, make sure that you are first doing it in a gentle lake prior to practicing in a more risky river environment.
Be aware of the water temperature. Hypothermia is dangerous. As long as you are doing your due diligence beforehand and equipping yourself with as many tools and information as you can, then you are doing your best to ensure a safe and fun kayaking experience.
If you have a good life jacket, you are more likely to wear it, so make sure that you talk to experienced kayakers and ask them for their advice on life jackets, so you can ensure you are investing in something that will quite literally save your life.
While they are not necessarily going to help, especially if you are caught in the boil at the base of a dam, they can help to boost your flotation, though, and with situations such as low head dams, every little thing that is in your favor is helpful.
This is because even though you might not get ejected, if you have a boost in buoyance, it gives rescuers more time to get to you and save you.
Suppose you are starting with kayaking. In that case, it might be a good idea to take an introductory course through a reputable organization, so you can be informed on the rules of the river, such as: how to interpret any signs and how to stay as safe as possible.
While you might be tempted to bring your phone with you to take pictures, it might be best to leave your phone in a safe, hidden spot in your car. This way, you are sure to focus solely on your environment.
Being distracted can cause you to miss vital warning signs or miss a spot that other kayakers are avoiding due to potentially being dangerous.
Collaborate with Kayaking Clubs
There should be kayaking clubs or groups in your area. If you can join one of these clubs, so that you can maybe get guided and taught how to portage around a dam, that would be a great skill to have.
Legislators are Long-Term Solution
Reach out to your legislators to make it so that these are regulated better.
Not only are these low head dams harmful to kayakers, but also for fishing and aquatic life. Removing any unnecessary dams would be an ideal solution, but that would be quite expensive to do, so encouraging signs to be placed would be the most realistic option.
Having numerous signs spaced adequately apart near the dams and at boat launch locations and detailed information on low dams would help countless lives.
Low Head Dams vs. Rapids
While low head dams might look like a fun challenge, especially for someone that is experienced with river rapids, it is necessary to know that low head dams are much more dangerous than river rapids. Often, river rapids flush the swimmer out if they get stuck, whereas low head dams have a continuous flow that traps you due to constant flow.
The other issue with low head dams is that the difference between safe and extremely dangerous is subtle. It does not take much for a low head dam to become the wrong place to be.
Bottom Line: Save Lives by Spreading Knowledge on Low Head Dams
You can also help potentially save other people’s lives by informing friends and family of the dangers of low head dams.
Once someone is aware that the dangers lie in the fact that the recirculating current of low head dams drags you back under and that you become disoriented, you cannot decipher where the surface is.
Low head dams also pose a challenge for rescuers since rescuers can potentially drown while trying to prevent someone else from drowning. Still, if you’re kayaking and hearing cries for help or witness someone falling into a dam, then the best thing to do is notify the authorities. If you try to jump in and save someone, you will be risking yourself in a situation where luck is not on your side.
Regardless of if you are in a canoe or kayak, the advice above applies because the type of vessel you are in, low head dams will always be dangerous and pose a significant safety risk.
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