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Before you slip your canoe into your favorite
river, take some time to review swift-water safety skills,
inventory safety equipment, and check the outfitting of your
canoe. Make sure your river outfit will be an asset--not a
liability--when (not if) you capsize. Remember, there are
only two kinds of paddlers: those that have gone for a swim,
or "scouted for trout," and those that are going
to go for a swim.
The most important thing you can do is
wear a life vest, especially around moving water. As a swift-water
paddler, you're life vest pulls triple duty for you: it floats
you, protects your vital organs from impact, and insulates
your torso from the cold water.
For maximum effectiveness, it's critical
that it fits properly. Fit-check it by pulling upward on it
where it crosses over the top of the shoulders. If it rides
up much at all, it won't float your head above the water.
To correct this problem, tighten the waist belt or any side
For maximum effectiveness, consider installing
a crotch strap (a loop of webbing and a quick release buckle
attached to the bottom of the vest in the front and the back)
to keep the vest from riding up. Drowning victims wearing
life vests often appear to be decapitated at first glance
because the vest is riding up so high their head is not visible
above the water.
In case you get separated from your canoe
and emergency gear, always carry a small survival kit on your
person. This kit should contain a map of the area waterproofed
with Thompson's Waterseal and stored in a zip-lock bag; compass;
waterproof matches; waterproof firestarters; magnesium firestarter
with flint striker; sturdy knife; a pea-less whistle; and
an emergency blanket.
You can further reduce the hazards of swift-water
paddling by properly outfitting your canoe. Everything in
the canoe should be tied in with 1/8 inch 50-pound-test cordage.
Avoid stronger rope as it may be too strong to break if it
snags your canoe on an object. If your gear is secured well,
nothing should dangle from the canoe when you turn it upside
down on land. Bow and stern lines should be coiled and secured
under loops of heavy shock cord on each deck plate. Loose
ropes can permanently trap a canoe mid-river or--worse yet--drown
you by entangling your arms, legs, or neck.
In the canoe, secure a rescue throw bag
(rope), spare paddle, bailer, sponge, and a waterproof emergency
pack containing a rain suit, water bottle, food, flashlight,
tarp, cook pot, wood saw, first-aid kit, and an extra change
If you end up in the water, keep the following
safety tips in mind. Always stay upstream of your canoe to
avoid getting crushed between it and another immobile object
in strong current. In rocky rapids, always float on your back
with your head pointed upstream and use your legs to fend
off big rocks as you approach them. In areas where logs, brush,
or other debris choke the river, do exactly the opposite.
Float on your stomach with your head pointed downstream. Use
your arms to quickly pull yourself up and over any dangerous
strainers or sweepers--objects that the water flows under
or through. If you approach these hazards feet first, you
may become entangled and drown if you're not lucky enough
to wash out the other side as the current takes you underwater
and into the mess. All too many paddlers have died this way.
In either case, don't passively let the
current determine your fate. Instead of waiting for someone
else to save you, use you arms and legs to aggressively swim
into slower moving water. Use the backstroke to slow yourself
down and "ferry" out of heavy current into the safety
of an eddy or the inside of a river bend. Avoid the strong
current located at the outside of a river bend as this is
the location where deadly undercut banks, strainers, and sweepers
are most common.
While a discussion of advanced rescue techniques
is beyond the scope of this article, don't unintentionally
invite disaster when conducting a rescue. Never, ever, stand
up in strong current that rises above your knees. If your
foot happens to become entrapped, the current may fold your
body downstream against the river bottom, drowning you underwater
as so many others have.
If you're trying to reach a pinned canoe
or a stranded paddler, never, ever, tie a rope to yourself
even if you are wearing a life vest. If the current is strong
enough, it will push you underwater and hold you against the
bottom. Only trained rescuers using a quick release rescue
harness should be secured to a rope. Dozens of rescuers have
drowned this way. If you're ever in this unfortunate situation,
cut the rope with your river knife. For maximum effectiveness,
mount your knife in an inverted position high on the front
of your life vest, opposite your strong arm. (Avoid double-edged
knives as they may be illegal in certain jurisdictions.)
Avoid low-head dams, weirs, and other uniform,
man-made, in-current structures like the plague as they have
claimed the lives of dozens of rescuers as well as fun-seeking
but unsuspecting paddlers and swimmers.
One last thing: make it a rule to always
keep track of the canoe in back of you, not the one in front.
You'll always come upon a boat that's in trouble ahead of
you, but it's very easy for a canoe behind you to go unnoticed
when it gets into trouble. Your group will never get spread
out using this technique either.
- American Canoe Association's River Safety Anthology--Accounts
of Rescue and Tragedy on North American Rivers,
by Charlie Walbridge and Jody Tinsley (Menasha Ridge Press,
- Basic River Canoeing, by Robert McNair,
et al., (American Camping Association, 1985)
- Canoeing, by the American National Red Cross
- Canoeing Safety & Rescue, by Doug McKown
(Rocky Mountain Books, 1992)
- Lifesaving (Boy Scouts of America, 1980)
- Lifesaving--Rescue and Water Safety (American
- River Rescue, 2nd Edition, by Les Bechdel
and Slim Ray (Appalachian Mountain Club Books, 1989)
- Whitewater Rescue Manual, by Charles Walbridge
and Wayne Sundmacher (Ragged Mountain Press, 1995)