What Should You Do When Approaching A Low-head Dam In A Canoe Or Kayak?

If you are a kayaker, I bet you’ll never know a more deceiving thing in your kayak experience. Imagine you are calmly paddling in some fine afternoon along a river and some split-second you discover yourself drowning along with your kayak in some swirling water.

These are called low head dams. You’ll never understand you are moving toward one unless you are already on top of one.

Why are low head dams made

Feels dangerous, huh?

Indeed! Now the million-dollar question is: What should you do when approaching a low-head dam in a canoe or kayak? I covered that for you but the one phrase answer will be ‘Never face one’. I wish you never have to use my advised tips but let’s be ready to face anything and everything together.

what is Low-head Dam

A low-Head dam – DROWNING MACHINE, as they call it is a man-made structure built for hydropower, flood control, and the storage of water for many municipal and industrial reasons and to serve a wide variety of purposes.

It runs across the full width of the river from one side to the other. This dam is called a low-head because the head of the solid structural wall can never be visible. It’s always under the water’s surface.

The water appears to be so tranquil before the dam like the calm before a storm. On one side of the low-head dam, the water level is high compared to the other side.

So with the increasing amount of water at the higher-level side, water rushes toward the other side free-flowing over the dam wall with great velocity and force leading the water to form a violent swirling shape called ‘a boil’.

Deadly – who? If luckily you ever survived a low head dam, ain’t nobody can make you enjoy water anymore!

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

Please. Avoid. It. Entirely. – is all I want to say.

But if you wake up unlucky on any day, and decided to go kayaking for some reason in a canoe or kayak, you should know approaching a low head dam isn’t so surprising. But as you approach, you need to know what you may do to avoid the upcoming death zone.

1. Keep your brain cool

First of all, keep calm. Panicking will do nothing more than worsen the situation. At that moment approaching, your brain needs enough calmness to think properly and most importantly – quickly! You might have only a few seconds to decide what to do next.

2. Stay at safe distance from the dam

If you realize approaching a low head dam, don’t you dare go close to it! The hydraulic force is so intense on the dam that your arm force of paddling may feel too bland and it becomes too late to reverse the upcoming fatality.

3. Paddle back instead

When you are at a safe distance, now you can paddle back upstream. The more distant you’ll be from the deadly dam, consider yourself safer. Paddle in the opposite direction or in any direction that is safer.

4. Paddle to the shore

The easiest way to be safe is directly paddling to the shore. Shore can save you and both your favorite kayak from all kinds of the danger of the water. Don’t feel secure enough and stop paddling to shore until you have ground under your feet.

5. Walk with your boat around the dam

If it’s necessary to go on the other side of the dam or you want to paddle there, don’t just decide to go there over the dam. This might seem the shortest way but I promise you! -this is also going to be the scariest one in your entire life – if you survive of course! Not always a shortcut is a better option.

If you indeed want to go on the other side, after reaching the shore, carry your boat and walk with it around the dam on the groundway. When you’ll reach a calm water surface on the other side, you can float your kayak or canoe again.

Why are low head dams made?

After seeing the life-threatening danger, you might be wondering why on earth they are still in use!

Low-head dam dangers

It’s because it was never meant to be dangerous in the first place. In fact, the irony is it was made for public improvement and safety. Many low head dams were built in the 1800s and early 1900s, back in those days they used to control the water flow rate during floods, help with the irrigation process, etc.

They were useful for power mills and related industries. Back in those days, I guess it was a wonderful thing, not a fearful thing. So it made complete sense why low head dams are made.

Is a low head dam dangerous?

Dangerous? – It’s the most deadly thing to a paddler on water. It may look not-so-dangerous from the outside, but trust me you have no idea what’s happening below the surface. Hydraulic force is something you should never underestimate.

It can result finally in your death. The heavy circulating force of the water on the dam will suck you below and the constant hydraulic force will do no less duty than keeping you stuck to the dam wall at any cost. You’ll understand how dangerous it is when it’ll be too late to survive.

How to escape a low head dam?

You should never be in a situation where you have no other option but to escape a low head dam to survive. Prevention is always better than cure – as they say! So avoid being on the low head killing machine in the first place.

If you want to go on the other side, just paddle to the shore and walk past the dam on the groundway. But if in case, you don’t see it coming and unfortunately are about to be stuck to death in a low head dam, one escaping technique might save your life if you got lucky.

You have to get out of the kayak first and give a last brave try to save your guts by diving down into the water of the low-head dam. You see, there are two slots of water there. The upstream of the dam with hydraulic power keeps on making a swirl blocking everything in that swirl like a washing machine movement.

But if you manage to dive downstream or underwater of a low-head dam, there’s a chance to just keep on flowing forward with that letting the water save your life. You have to be extremely cautious – It’s a do-or-die situation!

Why are low head dams dangerous to small boats and paddle craft?

Low head dams are actually dangerous for everything but usually small boats and paddle crafts are the fatal victims of it mostly. The reason being a small size, anything less in size should be extra careful on any river. Especially having a proper map pointing out all the low head dams in that area is a must.

These things are life-taking mostly because they are submerged in water and very tough to see seating on a small boat or paddle craft. Many times, the only way to see this invisible giant is to be on it.

But I guess none wants this dangerous luxury. The water on the dam appears very calm and running through the dam it gains hydraulic power and appears exactly opposite on the other side. But because of the dam structure, all the violence is happening on the lower level of water.

A paddler seating on a small boat doesn’t have the required elevation to see that disturbed water on the other side of the dam. So for any small boats and paddle crafts, the low head dam appears to be invisible.

So not knowing the existence of this killing machine, the paddlers of these watercraft become the most victims.

Low-head dam dangers: What to do if you are in a kayak?

Why are low head dams dangerous to small boats and paddle craft

The only way to be safe from a low head dam is to stay far-far away from it. Once you are stuck in it, you become completely your own, even the rescue team can hardly save you.

So if you are going to be in a kayak, firstly bring along a proper map of the area where all the dams are pointed out, also communicate with the locals and other paddlers about the locations of these dams. And take my advice – go in the other directions!

Is it dangerous to swim in a dam?

Of course, it is! It will be the dumbest thing a person will be doing if it’s voluntary. Though if you are in a kayak and are about to fall in a low head dam, this dumb thing can save your life as well.

All you need to do is dive very low on the water of the dam closer to the surface. With the straight flowing downstream of the dam, you might not get stuck in the circulating upstream water and have a second chance to live.

Can a person survive going through a dam?

The percentage of surviving through a low head dam is very very low but not literally impossible. There have been some examples of survival in the USA and other parts of the world but the number is too low to boost your confidence.

So the wise decision is always to stay away from it.

Final thoughts

After reading everything I had to say about low-head dams and their danger, staying away from them may seem not only a better option but the only option as well to you. But well, if you love taking challenges and adventures in life and exploring something new on a low head damn, but your elders are stopping you, you definitely should go for it. Right?

Wrong! I think sometimes you should listen to your elders. Because in some cases, being wise rather than being brave is the best option.

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