What should you do when approaching a low-head dam in a canoe or kayak?

Water Sports are becoming more and more popular in the United States. There are a lot of fun and healthy outdoor activities that you can do on water. With such increased popularity of kayaking and canoeing, there are some significant hazards on the water that every kayaker should know.

One of such significant hazards is known as “Low-Head Dam”. They are often referred to as “Drowning Machines” and are easily the most dangerous dams out there on water. They are deceivingly dangerous to almost all of the water crafts but are particular hazardous for kayakers.

There were around 400 fatal accidents on water because of these low-head dams in the past few years in the US alone. And about half of the victims of these fatal accidents were paddlers and kayaking enthusiasts.

So, you might want to know, while you are drifting along in your kayak or canoe and suddenly you see warning signs of “Low-Head Dam Approaching”, what should I do now?

The shortest answer to the question is “Avoid it at all costs and start paddling ashore”

Read on for a detailed answer and more explanation.

What is a low-head dam and why is it so dangerous?

Low-head dams are artificial structures and usually runs the full-width of the river. Their purpose is to raise water levels to improve water supplies in the area.

But for kayakers, there is only one definition for these low-head dams, they are monstrous drowning machines.

Why are these low-head dams so dangerous?

Unmarked and Difficult to Spot

They are not always marked and are even difficult to spot which makes it more dangerous. They usually appear flat from the surface as you approach. Depending on the conditions, the actual dam is located a few feet down under the water surface. If you are in a kayak, it gets particularly difficult to see the water pressure in the dam area because of its elevation.

According to a research study, there are approximately 2594 low-head dams across the United States that don’t have the mandatory warning signs.

Backwash or Boil

As water flows over the dam, a hydraulic water pressure is created which is often referred to as “backwash” or “boil”. This hydraulic pressure create a strong circulating current which is compared to an underwater washing machine. This current pulls the kayaks and other objects down. Thus trapping you underwater and stops you from swimming or paddling away.

This pressure of current creates a whirling area under the water and is called “drowning machine” rightly.

Rescue is Difficult

If your kayak or canoe is trapped in the low-head dam, it is almost impossible to rescue. As this whirling machine pulls the rescuing boats too while they are trying to retrieve people trapped in the boil.

A good practice is to wear a PFD (Personal flotation device) at all times. Although, you might still get trapped but you got to take your chances.

Low-Head Dam Ahead: What Should I DO?

If you face one of these low-head dams while boating or kayaking on the river, don’t panic. Here are some of the things that you can do to avoid any fatal accident

Get Away From it

There is no known technique to safely pass over these low-head dams, so it is important that you avoid these at all costs. As soon as you see a warning sign or suspect a low-head dam ahead of you, turn your boat or kayak in opposite direction immediately.

Start Paddling to the Shore

If you suspect one of these low-head dams, it is important that you get out of the water immediately. Try finding the nearest water bank where you can safely land your boat and walk around the dam.

Portage around it

Once you safely exit water and reach the nearest bank, you can circumnavigate the low-head dam by portaging your vessel around it. Make sure to move a safe distance away from the dam because this area of disturbed water can extend over a very large area.

Tips for Avoiding Low-Head Dams

There are some precautionary measures that you can take before setting off in the water to avoid any hazardous situation

Plan Your Route

If you are not from the local area and don’t know the river well, it is imperative that you plan your route before setting off. It is highly recommended that you take help from maps and guides. It is also a good idea to seek help from seasoned and local paddlers, as they know the routes better than everyone and can surely guide you better.

Even after gathering all the information about your route, keep an eye for these low-head dams as some of them aren’t marked or even inventoried.

Keep an Eye

The dams are usually built with concrete retaining walls. These walls are a lot easier to spot and gives you more authentic warning of these unmarked low-head dams. Therefore, you should always be on a look-out for such structures and water pressure signs, so that you can immediately turn away and save yourself from falling victim to these low-head dams.

Avoid Kayaking After a Heavy Rainfall

These low-head dams are the most dangerous after a heavy rainfall. As the water pressure gets incredibly high and the area of this disturbed water extends to a much larger distance. There is no way to avoid these dams after a heavy rainfall if you ever encounter one. Therefore, it is highly recommended that you avoid kayaking and canoeing in the area of these low-head dams after heavy rainfalls.

Bottom Line

If you ever encounter one of these low-head dams, remember that your life is more important than anything. You might feel like you can get pass these low-head dams, but the more sensible idea is to avoid it at all costs. The safest option is to paddle to the nearest bank, get out of water and potage around it.

These low-head dams are incredibly dangerous, especially for kayakers and canoeists. You must always watch out for them.

Michael Holding

Michael is an outdoor adventurer and a kayaking enthusiast who loves to share his experiences with others. He is the Chief Editor at XgearHub.

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