High Water isn’t Whitewater!

flood
This is NOT where you want to canoe! Photo by Brent T. Wheat

With the extremely high rainfall our state has experienced in the last few weeks many river levels are nearing record highs. Most folks have the sense to not paddle rivers and streams when they are like this.

MOST.

Chances are that even a novice paddler has heard this advice dozens of time, but it is worth mentioning again each year when the Spring floods arrive: STAY OFF THE RIVERS AND STREAMS DURING FLOOD CONDITIONS.

You see, while a river at high water might seem just like the whitewater you paddled last summer on your trip to West Virginia or that vacation in Eastern Tennessee, it is much, much different. I’ll discuss the two biggest differences shortly, but first a little terminology.

The first term is strainer. A strainer is a tree or branch that either protrudes into the water from the bank or resides mid-current in the body of water. These hazards are by far the deadliest. During normal flows strainers are almost always trees but in high water these can present themselves as fences and gates or even utility wires. Technically, a strainer is any object in the water that lets water through at a reduced flow. The deadly thing about strainers is that once pinned against one, it is nearly impossible to wrestle yourself free (remember you have the water acting on you with incredible force and at very high velocities).

What inevitably happens is that you become more entangled as you struggle. And, as you gasp for breath while grasping away at branches that only bend in the current, you quietly become a statistic. Stay away from strainers, they are deadly. Even when approaching one in rescue operations, it is always best if a rescuer can approach from downstream.

The next term is current. While this may seem very simplistic, current is the most important and difficult term to truly understand. Paddlers, especially those afflicted with the whitewater addiction, spend their entire paddling careers learning how to read water. You see, flow is flow. It is always downstream and it is easily measured. But the actual path that water takes is the current and it is a constantly changing state. In the current you have water traveling up, down, across, back, and through. Experienced paddlers develop a sort of sixth sense when it comes to reading water.

The places where the current changes direction is called eddy lines. An eddy is a pocket of slower water that takes an upstream path. Theses eddy lines are often referred to as funny water. It is so-called because it is a seam in the current where micro currents can be flowing in any direction. When you try to paddle through an eddy line, it can seem like anything from paddling through air to having someone grab the blade and try to flip you from below. These forces can react with your boat in much the same way.

There are many more important terms to know that will help you be a safe paddler but these two aspects are important in being able to recognize and navigate safe paddling waters.

Let’s get back to that paddling trip you took last summer. For the purposes of demonstration, I’ll use the Gauley River to illustrate my point. This river is true whitewater. The water is flowing over and around the same boulders it flows over and around every day to create such fun conditions. While flows may vary (due to precipitation and dam releases), the river remains within the confines of its banks where it has flowed for eons carving out each set of rapids slowly. It is not without hazards, but they are more easily recognized and the currents learned. And, when it is experiencing high water conditions, it is CLOSED to paddling.

Now let’s take the White River, the Wabash, the Tippecanoe, Sugar or Wildcat creek (you get the idea, ANY river in Indiana) at the flow levels we are currently experiencing. While there may appear to be adventures waiting to rival those of the Maclean brothers shooting the chutes in A River Runs Through It, the more likely outcome is making the local paper as a rescue/recovery effort.

When rivers get swollen out of their banks from days and weeks of near constant rainfall, the flood waters expand out into the surrounding flood plain. This means acre after acre of swiftly moving water, flowing through farms, fields, and forests. This also means acre after acre of strainers and sweepers. Sweepers are like a strainer’s little brothers. They are trees and branches that are just above the water waiting to knock unsuspecting or overwhelmed paddlers overboard. The only reason sweepers are slightly less evil than strainers is that sweepers at least give you the sporting chance of clinging to them until help can arrive.

As water levels rise and sweepers become strainers they often waver back and forth violently in the water. They can very easily tip a canoe or kayak or knock you out of the boat, severely injuring you in the process.

During a high water event you are paddling in a flood plain of scattered trees and fences. The water is being forced over and around all sorts of obstacles creating eddies, cross currents, and funny water literally everywhere you place your paddle. Sometimes the up currents are just like someone trying to tip your boat, pushing up from the depths unevenly on the bottom of the hull.

You try to make your way back to the main channel. You are finally free of the trees and fences, but the tradeoff is much faster flows in deeper, choppier water where eddy lines are sharp and often deceptively violent. What’s this? Here comes an entire tree, roots and all, floating downstream towards you. Roving strainers are like the Grim Reapers of paddling.

These trees can travel along at, or just below, the surface. They tumble along rolling up fencing and downed wires. They can overtake and knock a defenseless paddler from their craft in an instant, carrying them along for miles before releasing their grasp.

Whew. You’ve avoided the roving strainer and now here comes a bridge that is usually fifteen feet over the water but today there is barely eighteen inches between deck and the surface. What are you going to do?

I stayed home. I survived to paddle another day. When the rivers are up, you are not going to have an epic adventure: you are likely going to die. Don’t push that envelope. The second leading contributing factor to paddling deaths is inclement weather conditions, second only to drug/alcohol use. Please give the rivers and streams their due respect when they rise from their beds in the Spring. Marvel in nature’s sheer power and appreciate them from afar.

You will have your adventure, when the time is right. Paddle safely, friends. See you on the river, eventually.

Editors note- Another important point: in most water rescues or body recovery in Indiana that involve paddlers, the victim(s) were not wearing a personal flotation device (PFD). Never paddle a flooded creek or river and NEVER paddle anywhere without a PFD!!

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Don Cranfill

A native Hoosier, and son of a tournament fisherman, Don literally grew up on the water. Early in life he developed a passion for two things, paddling and fly fishing. Don can often be found stalking the limestone creeks of southern Indiana for Smallmouth Bass, while the off seasons are spent crafting custom hardwood canoe and kayak paddles, making figured-wood fly tying bases and developing the ultimate fly. Contact: HoosierFlyDaddy@gmail.com or at SmallWaterAngler.net

1 COMMENT

  1. Great article, thanks for putting it out there! A stream is much more fun to paddle when it is at a normal Spring level, with all the natural features to challenge you. A high level makes for an ugly river. The eddies go away, the nice lunch spots are under water.

    You did not mention the water quality. When the water is brown, you are paddling in farm runoff, or worse. Chemical loads are high, fecal chloroform counts are high. About the last thing I want to hang out in.

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