Canoeing Physical Hazards

Learn what dangerous terrain to look out for when planning your canoeing route.

  • The current undercuts the bank, causing trees to fall into the river.
    Photo courtesy of Rocky Mountain Books
  • Trees hanging above the surface of the water form sweepers.
    Photo courtesy of Rocky Mountain Books
  • Once trees penetrate the water surface, they become dangerous strainers.
    Photo courtesy of Rocky Mountain Books
  • Deadheads are formed when trees, complete with roots, are torn free from the banks of the river.
    Photo courtesy of Rocky Mountain Books
  • Log-jams can create deadly strainers.
    Photo courtesy of Rocky Mountain Books.
  • The consistent uniform structure of man made weirs creates inescapable drowning machines.
    Photo courtesy of Rocky Mountain Books
  • Opposite: Steep ledges and drops should be carefully assessed as they may be dangerous, recirculating, hydraulics.
    Photo courtesy of Rocky Mountain Books
  • Powerful recirculating systems in steep drops can be deadly traps for paddlers.
    Photo courtesy of Rocky Mountain Books
  • An undercut rock on the outside of a bend. Even at low water, as in this picture, a canoe or canoeist could be pinned. In higher water the danger is much more significant because of stronger currents flowing downwards under the undercut and the greater possibility of the canoeist being pinned underwater.
    Photo by Keith Morton

To plan for rescue, and determine the equipment that should be carried, the group leader must find out as much as possible about the physical hazards of the route.

The individual nature of the canoe route, and particularly its own specific physical hazards, will significantly affect your rescue planning. A steep, rocky, technically difficult river will demand a completely different rescue plan, compared to a week long, remote, lake canoeing trip. Unfortunately, it may be difficult to find out what the physical hazards are, so you may need to be prepared for a number of possibilities. The important point is to ensure that all the equipment that is available to your group is suitable for the expected conditions, and that it is in proper working order, before you leave home. I remember a day when one of my friends, Cathy, capsized in a difficult rapid, and there was only one rescuer downstream of her. The rescuer, Steve, jumped out of his canoe, onto the shore to toss his throwbag. Steve was confident in his ability to use a throwbag, and was caught totally by surprise when he swung the bag for a powerful throw, and nothing happened. This was the first time this season that Steve had used this throwbag, and who- ever was using the throwbag last had not stored it properly, leaving it stuffed m a tangled, useless mass. Cathy floated by with a forlorn look on her face, and a longer, unpleasant rescue ensued.

How Moving Water Affects Safety

River mishaps are different from lake mishaps in that the river does not stop flowing just because you have an accident. The situation is therefore more dynamic and likely to be more dangerous. Everything, including your res- cue, must happen faster, because the situation is continuously changing.

The organization, the planning for rescue, and the establishment of priorities, are exactly the same as for any other emergency situation. However, you are now dealing with moving water, and moving water has an awesome force. The faster the current, the greater the force.

Because the amount of force varies directly with the square of the velocity of the water, a very small increase in the velocity produces a large increase in the force of the water.

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