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During one of my latest runs down a local favorite (class III), I ran into 5 very inexperienced paddlers. When I came across them, they were finishing up emptying their boats and wringing out their hair. It seems a deceiving little pillow rapid got the best of them. I asked them if they had ever been down the next set of rapids and they responded with an emphatic, “NO” proceeded with, “we’ll follow you”. After giving them a couple pointers on what to avoid downstream, we paddled on. I went first.

I got through the run and looked back to see three heads, and three empty boats, floating towards me. This is where it got interesting. This set of rapids dumps into a large, deep pool lined with rock walls. There is no getting out on the bank because… there is no bank. Their boats filled with water, none of them knew self-rescue techniques designed for these set of circumstances and none of them had a bilge pump.

Fast-forward to the end of the story—I had a bilge pump. Also, they all floated far enough downstream that they were able to get a footing along the bank and dump their boats. Things could’ve turned out much differently however and hopefully these people learned a valuable lesson:  Know how to rescue yourself. Know how to re-enter your boat. Carry a bilge pump. WEAR SHOES 🙂 Seriously.

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The area where I live has experienced a lot of rainfall recently and local rivers and creeks are very high. One favorite hot spot is Split Rock Creek, a little-known kayaking gem that offers great beginner whitewater paddling when conditions are right—usually class II – II+ (III)—and typically runs at or below 500 cfs (give or take a few).  The recent flooding has pushed it to over 4,500 cfs (that’s nearly 10.5′).

Split Rock Creek Discharge, cubic feet per second, July 2011

Paddlers familiar with this creek get pretty big smiles on their faces when the water reaches these levels, but novice paddlers should take extreme caution.  These levels can toss your boat with ease and there are a lot of dangers that, if you don’t know exist, may put you in serious trouble especially if you aren’t wearing a helmet or spray skirt.

If you ever have the chance to paddle this stretch of river, please go with someone who has paddled it before.  It could literally save your life.

Most low-head dams in existence today are no longer serving a purpose, yet pose significant risk to boaters. More state and local governments should consider altering these structures by knocking them out or filling the downstream side with rock to disrupt the hydraulic. A great example of how low-head dams can be transformed into something useful for the paddling community can be seen in Yorkville, Illinois.

Another tragic and deadly reminder that tubes, canoes, kayaks, or any other kind of boat are no match for low head dams. A local teen who was part of a group floating down the Big Sioux River in inner tubes went over the dam at Baltic, South Dakota and has not been seen since. These killers look harmless, maybe even fun to the novice floater or paddler, but contain deadly hydraulics that pull its victims under—for good.  If you know anyone who is not familiar with these structures and are planning a trip on the river, please educate them.  Learn where low head dams are, how to spot them on the river, and where to portage them.

Months have led to weeks, weeks to days, and now finally, time for the 2011 South Dakota Kayak Challenge has finally arrived. However, record breaking water levels on the Missouri River and more than 85,000 cubic feet of water per second being released from at least one of the major dams on the Mighty Mo, spells dangerous conditions for paddlers this spring. It’s disappointing that the race was cancelled, but it’s also a great reminder of the awesome power of  Mother Nature. We should never take her for granted and cherish the times when conditions allow us to enjoy her.

Swollen Missouri River

Journal photo by Tim Hynds

Strainer: The deadliest trap on the river! When water pours through the branches of a fallen tree, or through a pile of rocks or ice, it produces a strainer. Even with a gentle current, strainers are bad. They can pin you below the surface of the water and you can’t get out. If you realize you can’t avoid a strainer, climb on to it, climb over it! If you are swimming in the water, and about to wash into a strainer, swim headfirst as aggressively as possible toward it and climb onto, up and over it.

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