The Little Miami River Kleeners scheduled its annual river cleanup for this past weekend. It usually consists of a canoe based clean up to take out the visible trash and a walking based clean up to remove stuff from the banks. The recent downpour made it necessary for us to cancel the canoe based part of the event because the water was too high, too filled with sediment to see anything, and too fast so that it would have been too dangerous to canoe in.
Our decision was confirmed later in the day when rescue squads were called in to action to help paddlers in trouble. The start of summer and the quick heavy rains we have been getting makes it a good time to review safety tips so that memories of being on the river are only good ones.
Smaller doesn’t necessarily mean safer on the water.
1. Take a course of instruction.
Novice paddlers should take lessons and practice in still water before starting on moving water. Check out www.uscgboating.org/recreational-boaters/boating-safety-courses; www.americancanoe.org; www.watercraft.ohiodnr.gov
2. Lifejackets for everyone, all the time.
Wearing a lifejacket is the best way to save lives, under almost any circumstance. According to the U.S. Coast Guard, 80 percent of boating deaths are due to drowning, and 83 percent of drowning victims were not wearing life jackets. It is chilling to know that two-thirds of drowning victims were good swimmers, so keep life jackets on and securely fastened. Check out thewirecutter.com for an overview.
3. Expect to capsize. Tie your stuff into the boat. But never tie any living thing into a canoe or kayak.
If you capsize and lose your canoe, float face up with your feet up and pointing downstream to keep from catching your foot on the bottom and to fend off from any hazards. Backstroke to shore, moving across the current rather than against it.
If you still have your canoe, move to its upstream side and swim it across the current to shore, where you can dump out the water, gather your belongings and re-board. Try to keep your paddle!
4. Know the water. Small streams can rise and fall rapidly, turning category 1 rapids into category 3 in less than an hour. Study charts and maps in advance.
For maps of Ohio’s small streams, go to www.watercraft.ohiodnr.gov/where-to-boat/rivers-streams. There are links to excellent water trail maps for many scenic rivers noting locations for parking, canoe access, EMT access, hazards on the stream, bicycle maps, camping sites, and safety advice.
5. Give a wide berth to everything: other vessels, fishermen, and strainers. Strainers are uprooted trees, whether floating or projecting from the shore. They can be killers. Strike one with your canoe or kayak, and the current instantly turns it sideways, fills it with water and sucks it under the trunk, where the current and your own boat can pin you against the branches underneath. In a strong current, only the strongest and luckiest make it out before drowning. Even moderate currents can create dangerous turbulence.
6. Carry the right equipment: For easy paddling, your paddle should come up to your chin. Wear shoes with closed toes and secure closings to keep them on your feet when you swim. Do keep them on to avoid cuts from glass and metal on the bottom and to give you better traction over slippery rocks. Bring protective clothing and sunblock, because you are more at risk for both sunburn and chilling when you are on the water. Take dry clothes in a dry bag, or leave them in the car with your valuables. Bring water.
7. Don’t overload your vessel. An overloaded vessel has a heavy, sluggish feel and doesn’t respond quickly when handled. It could easily sink or capsize in poor conditions.
8. If you are on a guided tour, respect and obey your guide’s instructions.
9. Know the plan for the trip if it is guided or have your own trip plan and leave it with someone on shore. Check in with that person as soon as you haul out the boat.
10. Know your boat. Safety for hand-powered vessels is key to survival:,
Never go paddling alone. No night trips. If you do hit something, lean towards it even though instinct says lean away.
Getting seated in a canoe or kayak is especially tricky, because they are narrow and have little or no keel to stabilize them from tipping. Use three points of contact to get in or out — two hands and a foot or seat. Move slowly, checking balance as you go, and keep your weight low. Kneeling provides extra stability.
Once aboard, move slowly and cautiously so as not to shift the balance. One large wave coming from the side can flip a small vessel.
Typically the bow paddler inn a canoe paddles on one side and warns of upcoming hazards, while the stern paddler paddles on the opposite side or switches sides every 10-12 strokes. Paddlers should agree in advance on signals for hazards and best passage through fast water. The current is fastest at the outside of bends, and the water rushing through will ripple into a V. The point of the ‘V’ is the best place to go through fast-moving water. There can be more than one V in a wide rapid, and depths may vary, so follow the leader if you’re not sure. Bubble lines indicate the center of the channel.
On a group float, there is typically a leader at the front of the group and a “sweeper” at the end. Try to stay between them and keep at least one in sight at all times.
The leader may stop the group to provide instructions for hazards ahead. Listen carefully and follow directions. Watch the leader for the best path through rushing water.
Hope Taft is a Spring Valley resident and founding member of the Little Miami River Kleeners.