Kayaking and Canoeing Safety: Your Guide to Low Head Dams

approaching low head dam

Last updated on September 2, 2022

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Hey there! how is your kayaking or canoeing adventure fairing? Have you ever tried going to the places that I’ve mentioned before? If not then you should really try heading to those places. Setting that aside, apart from going on scenic locations to make kayaking or canoeing extraordinary, your safety is also important. There’s nothing more meaningful than getting home and sharing your wonderful experience on the kayak or canoe with your friends.

That said, our topic for today will be all about kayaking or canoeing safety. This discussion will mainly focus on the intermediate and beginner kayakers or canoers asking the following:

If you’re a professional you might already know all these things and this discussion might be boring for you. However, don’t go to other websites but read other content that I’ve published here. I recommend that you take a look at the 10 best kayaking locations in Arizona and Maryland which I’ve listed on other articles of this website.

Let’s stop beating around the bush and get this powwow started!

What is A Low Head Dam?

Canoeing, fishing, kayaking, and other recreational activities are not without risks. People doing this may drown, suffer from heatstroke, and contract a disease. However, among safety professionals working in rivers and lakes where people flock together to enjoy themselves, it’s a consensus that a low head dam is highly dangerous and may be coined as a death machine.

A low head dam is a man-made concrete structure that goes from one side of the river to the other where water flows over the entire length of its topmost part. Low head dams are created to elevate the water level up streams for commercial or agricultural purposes. In developed countries like the United States, low head dams are found in rivers and streams sitting in rural and urban areas.

In the U.S locations with dangerous low head dams are:

Is A Low Head Dam Dangerous?

A low head dam has these consistent rapid turbulent white waters that form a hidden whirlpool prohibiting anyone caught in it to escape thus earning the nickname death machine. People who are not afraid of the risks of a low head dam find it inviting to canoe or kayak in close proximity because it’s a sight to behold. When going near it downstream, it looks like a calming view of the surface of the river. Going upstream, it looks like a wide waterfall.

Still, even if a low head dam is a sight to behold, you should never ever try to brave its rapids when riding your kayak. A drop on a low head dam when going downstream or upstream will cause you to get caught on the whirlpool that’s hiding underneath the surface of its white waters. If you’re not a strong swimmer, escaping will be hard since the rotation of the whirlpool keeps from swimming away. To understand better, just think of a low head dam as a magnet and you’re the metal that sticks to it unless someone or something pulls you out.

In 1960-2014 at least 308 fatalities and 84 injuries in 253 incidents happened at low-end dams. Furthermore, most incidents concerning low-end dams resulted in the death of the victims and the numbers of survivors are nil. This goes to show that only a few lucky ones manage to survive after getting caught in its menacing embrace.

If you’re not a strong swimmer then I suggest that you never ever kayak or canoe on locations where a low-head dam is near. Let’s head over to the next section and discuss the things that you can do when approaching it.

What Should You Do When Approaching a Low-Head Dam in a canoe or kayak?

Alert Other Kayakers and Head to the Bank

When going downstream, a low-head dam is easy to spot. It is characterized by a wide space of horizon up ahead that enables you to see the lower parts of the river or stream. Aside from this, a gushing or rushing sound of water may be heard. As soon as these signs make themselves present to you, head towards the bank immediately. Also. if there are other kayakers or canoers following you, wait for them so that you can warn them before heading back to your launch point or going around.

Abandon Ship! Err… I mean Kayak or Canoe!

What if the current of the river or stream is making it impossible for you to head towards the bank by paddling? In this case, abandon your kayak or canoe and swim with all your might. Swimming is much more efficient than using your paddle especially if you have your swimming vests on. Don’t fret about living your canoeing and kayaking equipment behind since you can find them downstream later.

Check Your Map If You Have One and Look for Infor About the Low-Head Dam

If you’re feeling cheeky about your skills and want to brave the low-end dam that’s up ahead, check the map of the kayaking or canoeing location (if you have one) and see if it’s not really dangerous. There are low-end dams in some locations that are forgiving and will give you the experience of kayaking or canoeing in highly rapid waters. However, I really recommend that you don’t test your luck. Leaving your canoe or kayak, or swimming towards the bank is the safest option when approaching a low head dam.

How to Escape a Low Head Dam?

What if you didn’t manage to avoid the low head dam and you ended taking the plunge towards it rapids? In this case, the best thing that you can do is to swim like your life depends on it because it really does. However, do not swim like a madman but try to conserve your strength and calm yourself. Make sure that each stroke of your feet and hands are efficient. Also, as much as possible try to swim toward the direction of the currents instead of trying to get to the surface.

Lastly, hope that a miracle will happen because you will need it.

Bottom Line

In canoeing or kayaking a low head dam is a potential threat. This is why you should have a map of your kayaking or canoeing location so that you know which areas low head dams are found. Avoidance is the best thing to do while approaching a low head dam. On the other hand, if you get caught in it, swim with all your might and hope that help comes.

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