What Should You Do When Approaching a Low-head Dam in a Canoe or Kayak


Canoeing and kayaking are among the most enjoyable water sports that are becoming more popular than ever. While these activities are beneficial in various ways, they can be hazardous if you don’t follow the necessary safety measures. 

One of the most dangerous situations that you might encounter while kayaking is coming across a low-head dam. The number of fatalities is remarkably increasing, especially now that these outdoor activities are a stress-relief for many of us. 

With that being said, we’re here to talk to you about how you can handle this particular predicament so that you can have a pleasant time on the water and also stay safe. 

Understanding What Low-Head Dams Are 

A low-head dam is built to raise the water level in the river so that it can reach more areas and help with irrigation and improving the water supply. 

As you may already know, these dams run across the width of the river from one side to the other. Because a low-head dam runs deeper in the water, the surface of the river seems perfectly smooth.  

Why Are Low-Head Dam Dangerous? 

Difficult to Spot 

The major issue when you’re approaching a low-head dam is that you might not even know that you’re heading towards one. As mentioned earlier, these dams are built a little deeper than you’d expect them to be. 

Also, spotting them depends on how the light falls on the water for the most part. If the surrounding conditions aren’t in your favor, chances are, you won’t recognize there’s a dam on the way. 

Moreover, many kayakers expect to find some sign or a mark to warn them of the presence of these dams, but that’s rarely true. Even if you come across a mark, there’s a big chance you’ll miss it while paying more attention to paddling or fishing.

Pull-Down Action 

The mechanism by which the dam functions causes a strong current in the water that’s referred to as “backwash.” This current drags down anything that comes in the way, so it can pull your canoe down into the water, and even the best swimmers won’t be able to escape such high pressure. 

Difficult Rescue 

Once the kayak falls down into the water, it gets trapped within the machine. Any efforts to rescue someone trapped in the kayak will be in vain. Even if the kayaker wears a PFD, there’s a little hope that they’ll make it out alive. 

What to Do When Approaching a Low-Head Dam? 

1. Look Out! 

Keep an eye for the presence of a low-head dam. Even if the majority of these dams are unmarked, you might be lucky enough to notice a warning sign or recognize the change in the water pressure. 

2. Paddle Away 

Once you suspect that you’re heading towards a low-head dam, turn your kayak away and start going in the opposite direction. If possible, paddle to the nearest shore or water bank. You should exert your efforts to avoid drifting with the current of the damn at all costs. Once you’re out of the water, you can walk around the dam then get back into the water from a safer spot. 

3. Make A Quick Plan 

Figuring out a route to escape will help you handle the situation much faster. It’s essential to stay calm and collected. If you’re not familiar with the area, you can seek help from other paddlers that might know better. 

4. Stay on the Safe Side

Although wearing a PFD won’t do much in many circumstances, it’s better if you have one on anyway. Make sure to keep a map with you whenever you’re kayaking somewhere new. 

Additionally, make sure to check the kayaking seasons map before you plan your trips. It’s better to avoid Kayaking after heavy rainfalls because the increased water pressure makes it harder to escape. 

Lastly, whatever you do, don’t try to get past these dams. Some kayakers might think that they can pull it off, but you should be aware that you’ll be putting your life on the line. It’s more rational to avoid this traumatizing experience. 

Final Thoughts  

Coming across a low-head dam is frightening, however, with a keen eye, and if you already know what you should do if you encounter one, there’s a good chance you’ll make it through. Take your precautions, check your maps, and if you ever find a low-dam in sight, run!  

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