High Water is not a Playground

High-water paddling can be deadly for the inexperienced. Photo by author.

Attention men and women between 15 and 30 years of age: you are not a whitewater paddler!

Oh, a few readers might be part of that select group but overall there aren’t too many people in the Hoosier state who regularly float Class V streams.

This admonition is important because of all the rain Indiana has been experiencing. For Indiana paddlers high water is a godsend because in the Midwest, water levels are usually low during warm weather. This means many summer river paddling trips are actually a long, slippery hike while lake paddling is a death-defying trial spent dodging ski boats and crazed and/or intoxicated personal watercraft operators. Warm weather and high water is a wonderful combination.

However, there is too much of a good thing. Paddling a lake during high water is quite interesting as you bob around the flooded forest, dodging snakes and pointy limbs, but creek or river paddling during flood stage isn’t something to be undertaken lightly.

You’ll notice I didn’t spout the usual, “stay completely away from flooded rivers.” That would make me a hypocrite because eons ago, back in the “whitewater days” of our misbegotten youth, we often paddled flooded streams because that’s what you do in Indiana when you own a whitewater boat.

However, going back to our opening line, most folks should stay away from flooded rivers because you’re probably just going to end up as a headline somewhere. You might even become the featured guest at a nice funeral!

The topic is significant because it seems like water rescues are making headlines every other day.

Here is the typical scenario: three young men have access to a canoe and decide it would be highly macho to float the nearby Big Muddy River. Loaded with youthful courage and a few beers, they arrive at the swollen stream with their watercraft but otherwise unburdened by personal floatation devices (PFD), protective gear, rescue equipment, experience or common sense.

They launch into the river, congratulate themselves on a being a trio of major stud horses then shortly proceed to turn sideways in the tricky, shifting currents. Within minutes they are swept into a downed tree. Two of the fellows cling there among the branches until rescued a few hours later while the third is tragically swept into the mass of tree limbs and pinned underwater until he drowns.

Not a happy picture, eh? Unfortunately, it plays out in Indiana nearly weekly until mid-summer when drunken swimming or boating takes over as the leading fatality-producer.

Where did our blithe paddlers go wrong? In a word: everything.

First and foremost, they didn’t wear or even possess PFD’s. Drowning victims are rarely recovered wearing a PFD and the two times this writer nearly drowned as a young man were simply because I was “too good of a swimmer” to wear a “life jacket.” I got lucky in both instances but some folks don’t.

Wear that darn PFD! How many times do we have to say this before it finally sinks in? And furthermore: Gentlemen, it IS cool to wear a PFD!

Secondly, our trio of heroic paddlers were out of their league in terms of boat handling skills. Any quick-moving water has power that is both intoxicating and frightening; that’s why we paddle. But if you aren’t skilled enough to make instantaneous, instinctive boat corrections and maneuvers, you have no business attempting fast water.

The boat itself matters. We have paddled creeks in Indiana that came within inches of overturning our 14-foot whitewater raft; a standard canoe or fishing kayak wouldn’t have stood a chance. I recently read of some Hoosier ladies (not wearing PFD’s…shocker!) who decided on a little tubing adventure during high water. They didn’t die, fortunately, but did get to meet some nice police and firefighters who risked their own lives to save the clueless women.

Safety gear is also critical standard equipment for whitewater boaters. A rescue throw bag is mandatory, along with helmets and wetsuits if the water is below 75 degrees. I’ve rarely seen such gear carried in Indiana except among experienced whitewater boaters. Training in group and self-rescue is also vital because bad things happen to good people but with certain skills and the right gear, you can survive.

Here is the point I’m trying to make to any erstwhile paddlers in the audience who might be considering a little high-water adventure: you just don’t have necessary “stuff” to paddle swollen creeks or rivers. I’ve done it, it was arguably stupid and inadvisable but at least we understood the dangers, were trained, equipped and experienced but most of all, we knew the risks and had a safety plan. Yeah, we got lucky, too.

You don’t and won’t. Please stop floating and paddling the creeks and rivers of Indiana until the waters recede.

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Brent Wheat
A well-known and award-winning writer/photographer/radio & television talent/speaker/web-designer/media spokesperson/shooting instructor/elected official/retired police officer/bourbon connoisseur/cigar aficionado/backpacker/hunter/fisherman/gardener/preparedness guru/musician/and jack-of-all-trades-but-master-of-none, Brent Wheat is the editor and publisher of WildIndiana.com

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