Timber Wolf, Lake Superior, Ontario

A lone timber wolf greets
paddlers along the north shore
of Lake Superior, Canada
(Photo by Michael Neiger)


Knowledge and skill
can reduce the
element of danger
and risk
but it can never
be completely
   -- Bill Mason
   Path of the Paddle,


There are many risks connected with
whitewater sport,
and keeping clear
of them
is a challenge for
paddlers of all abilities.
   -- Charles Walbridge
   & Wayne
   Sundmacher, Sr.
   Rescue Manual
, 1995


Judging your own
capabilities accurately,
being able to realize
your limitations,
and resisting the
temptation to venture
beyond those limitations
are the first steps
in safely paddling rivers.
   -- American Red Cross
   Canoeing, 1985


Your ability to provide
an effective rescue,
and even you
own survival,
depends on the
equipment that you
have with you
at the time...
   -- Doug McKown
   Canoeing Safety
   and Rescue
, 1992


Most river accidents
and drownings
are a result
of a combination
of poor planning,
improper equipment,
and plain ignorance.
   -- Les Bechdel
   & Slim Ray
   River Rescue, 1989


The Rucksack Masthead
By Michael A. Neiger, Marquette, Michigan
Wilderness tripper: backpacking, winter camping, swift-water canoeing
Web site URL: http://therucksack.tripod.com • E-mail: mneiger@hotmail.com
Contents copyright © 1984-2007 by Michael A. Neiger • All rights reserved.


Pinned canoe

Jess Harding avoids
a pinned and
wrapped canoe
in the Agawa River,
Ontario, Canada
(Photo by Michael Neiger)


By Michael A. Neiger
Copyright 1999-2001

Last updated on October 13, 2004

Looking for
wilderness tripping
equipment and
For 100's of sources for wilderness tripping equipment and supplies, visit the sources for gear page on this Web site.

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finding a book?
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a book, catalog,
or Web site.
If you know of a useful outdoor-related book, catalog, or Web site not listed on this Web site, e-mail the book's title, subtitle, author, publisher, date of publication, and short description; or the catalog's address and phone number; or the Web site's URL to Michael Neiger at mneiger@hotmail.com.

** Recommended


Review, inventory, & double check

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.


Wear a life vest

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.


Make sure the life vest fits properly

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 adjustments.

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.


Carry a survival kit on your person

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.


Outfit your canoe properly

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.


Secure safety equipment

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 of clothing.


Learn what not to do when you capsize

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.


Swim your way out of trouble

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.


Never stand up in strong current

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.


Don't tie a rope to yourself

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, & other man-made structures

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.


Keep track of paddlers behind you

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.


To learn more, read...

  • 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, 1996)
  • Basic River Canoeing, by Robert McNair, et al., (American Camping Association, 1985)
  • Canoeing, by the American National Red Cross (1985)
  • Canoeing Safety & Rescue, by Doug McKown (Rocky Mountain Books, 1992)
  • Lifesaving (Boy Scouts of America, 1980)
  • Lifesaving--Rescue and Water Safety (American Red Cross)
  • 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)


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In God's wilderness lies the hope of the world,
the great, fresh, unblighted, unredeemed wilderness.
— John Muir 1838-1914, Alaska Wilderness, 1890

Content Copyright © by Michael A. Neiger
All rights reserved.
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