Approaching a low-head dam in a canoe or kayak can be dangerous, and it is essential to take the necessary precautions to ensure your safety. Low-head dams are structures that are typically built to control water flow, and they can be found on rivers, streams, and other bodies of water. They are often referred to as “drowning machines” because of the powerful recirculating currents that can trap and hold watercraft, causing them to capsize or become stuck.
In this guide, we will discuss what should you do when approaching a low-head dam in a canoe or kayak to stay safe.
What Is A Low-Head Dam?
A low-head dam is a man-made structure built across a river or stream to regulate the flow of water. Also known as a “run-of-the-river dam,” a low-head dam typically spans the width of a river or stream and consists of a concrete or earthen wall that creates a small waterfall or spillway.
The height of a low-head dam is generally less than 15 feet, and the water flowing over it is typically only a few inches to a few feet deep. The purpose of a low-head dam can vary, but they are commonly used for:
- Flood control: Low-head dams can regulate the flow of water during heavy rainfalls and prevent flooding downstream.
- Water supply: Low-head dams can be used to store and control the release of water for irrigation, drinking water, or other uses.
- Hydroelectric power: Low-head dams can generate electricity by using the flow of water to turn turbines.
Despite their small size, low-head dams can be extremely dangerous. The main hazard associated with low-head dams is the creation of a hydraulic or recirculating current, also known as a “drowning machine.” The recirculating current occurs when water flows over the dam and drops down into a pool below. The current then circulates back upstream, creating a powerful vortex that can trap and hold watercraft, swimmers, or any other object that gets too close.
Because the recirculating current is often hidden below the surface of the water, it can be difficult to spot and avoid. This makes low-head dams especially dangerous for canoes, kayaks, and other small watercraft, as well as for swimmers who may be unaware of the hazard.
What Are The Hazards Of Low-Head Dams For Paddlers?
Low-head dams pose several hazards to paddlers, which can be dangerous and potentially deadly. Here are some of the hazards associated with low-head dams for paddlers:
Hydraulic or Recirculating Currents
As mentioned earlier, the most significant hazard associated with low-head dams for paddlers is the hydraulic or recirculating currents that form below the dam. These currents are caused by the water flowing over the dam and dropping down into a pool below, creating a powerful vortex that can trap and hold watercraft. The recirculating current can be so strong that it can flip a canoe or kayak and hold it underwater, making it difficult for the paddler to escape.
A strainer is any object that allows water to flow through but can trap or entangle a person or a watercraft. Low-head dams can create strainer hazards, particularly when debris or logs accumulate against the dam. If a paddler gets too close to a strainer, they can become trapped and unable to escape.
Low-head dams can also create small waterfalls or cascades, which can be hazardous for paddlers. Paddlers can easily become disoriented or lose control of their canoe or kayak in the turbulent water at the base of the waterfall, which can lead to capsizing or other accidents.
The powerful currents and hazards created by low-head dams can lead to drowning if a paddler becomes trapped or unable to escape. Even strong swimmers can become overwhelmed by the force of the water and the recirculating currents.
To stay safe when paddling near a low-head dam, it is essential to be aware of the hazards and take the necessary precautions. Paddlers should always wear a personal flotation device (PFD), scout the area for hazards before approaching the dam, and avoid getting too close to the dam or the recirculating currents.
It is also a good idea to take a safety course on paddling in swift water or whitewater, so you can learn more about the hazards and how to avoid them.
What Are The Warning Signs You Are Approaching a Low-Head Dam?
Here are some warning signs that you may be approaching a low-head dam while paddling:
- Presence of warning signs or buoys indicating the presence of a dam.
- Changes in water color or texture, such as rougher water or whitewater.
- A sudden increase in the speed of the current.
- The sound of rushing water or a waterfall.
- The sight of debris or logs accumulating in the water.
- The sight of the dam structure itself.
- The water level suddenly dropping or becoming deeper.
- A change in the landscape, such as a sudden drop or wall of rocks.
If you encounter any of these warning signs, take caution and be prepared to adjust your approach or portage around the dam. Always prioritize your safety and that of your fellow paddlers.
What Do You Do When Approaching a Low-Head Dam?
When approaching a low-head dam in a canoe or kayak, it is essential to take the necessary precautions to ensure your safety. Here are some steps to follow when approaching a low-head dam:
Scout the Area
Before you approach the low-head dam, take some time to scout the area and look for any hazards. Look for signs warning of the dam’s presence, check for any debris or strainers in the water, and be aware of the current’s speed and direction.
Plan Your Approach
Plan your approach to the low-head dam carefully. If possible, try to portage around the dam by carrying your canoe or kayak overland. If you must approach the dam, choose a route that will keep you at a safe distance from the dam and the recirculating currents. Stay in the center of the channel and avoid getting too close to the sides.
Avoid the Recirculating Currents
The recirculating currents below a low-head dam are the most dangerous hazard. To avoid these currents, paddle at an angle away from the dam, rather than straight toward it. This will keep you from getting pulled into the current if you capsize or lose control of your canoe or kayak.
Be Prepared to Portage
If you encounter unexpected hazards or feel uncomfortable approaching the dam, be prepared to portage around it. This means getting out of your canoe or kayak and carrying it overland until you are safely downstream of the dam.
Wear a PFD
Always wear a personal flotation device (PFD) when paddling near a low-head dam. Even if you are a strong swimmer, the currents and hazards can quickly become overwhelming, making it difficult to stay afloat.
Seek Professional Guidance
If you are new to paddling or unsure of how to approach a low-head dam safely, consider seeking guidance from a professional paddling instructor or guide. They can provide you with the necessary skills and knowledge to stay safe on the water.
Approaching a low-head dam in a canoe or kayak can be dangerous, so it’s essential to take the necessary precautions to stay safe. To stay safe when approaching a low-head dam, it’s important to scout the area, plan your approach carefully, avoid the recirculating currents, and be prepared to portage around the dam if necessary. Always wear a personal flotation device (PFD), and seek guidance from a professional paddling instructor or guide if you’re unsure of how to approach a low-head dam safely.
Here are some frequently asked questions about approaching a low-head dam in a canoe or kayak:
How close should I get to a low-head dam?
You should stay at a safe distance from the low-head dam to avoid getting caught in the recirculating currents. Experts recommend staying at least 200-300 feet away from the dam and avoiding getting too close to the sides of the channel.
Can I paddle over a low-head dam?
Paddling over a low-head dam is not recommended due to the recirculating currents that form below the dam. These currents can trap and hold watercraft, making it difficult to escape.
Do I need any special equipment to approach a low-head dam?
In addition to a personal flotation device (PFD), it’s recommended that you wear a helmet to protect your head from potential impacts. A throw rope and other rescue gear can also be helpful in case of an emergency.
How do I portage around a low-head dam?
To portage around a low-head dam, you will need to get out of your canoe or kayak and carry it overland until you are safely downstream of the dam. Look for a clear path that avoids any hazards or obstacles and be careful not to trip or fall while carrying your watercraft.
What should I do if I capsize near a low-head dam?
If you capsize near a low-head dam, try to swim away from the recirculating currents and toward the shore or a calm eddy. If you are unable to escape the currents, try to float on your back with your feet pointing downstream and wait for help to arrive.
Remember to always prioritize safety when approaching a low-head dam in a canoe or kayak. If you are unsure of how to approach a low-head dam safely, seek guidance from a professional paddling instructor or guide.