what should you do when approaching a low-head dam in a canoe or kayak? There have been life’s that have been lost or almost lost when a boater come across low head dams in the past either in the quest for fishing or pleasure. It is important to know what these are and how to avoid them on time. This article is meant to help you identify what low head dam is and what you should do when approaching a low head dam in your canoe or kayak.
Low head dams – What are they?
Low head dams, are man-made structures best described as low concrete walls that span the width of a river from side to side.
Understanding what low head dam is will help us to understand the danger someone is about to encounter when paddling a canoe or a kayak. Low head dams are artificial structures concrete that span from one end of a river to the other. The difference with this dam head and other is that unlike others, the low head walls are submerged in water but only a bit above the water, that is why its called a low head
Instead of the low head to block the entire river, what it does is to partially block the waterway, this way, it allow part of the dam to rise and once the water reaches the concrete wall, it goes down again to a lower level. Although the dams are made small, they still remain dangerous for boaters on a canoe or kayak.
Why are low head concrete created for dams
The intention of those that conceived the idea of having a low head dam constructed was never for life threatening course. Many of the low heads in American waterways dated back from the 19th to the 20th centuries. The intention was to have them as support for power plants and small industries which as of today, they have become redundant for that purpose. Today, these dams helps to regulate the flows, and improve the water supply and also enhance irrigation water supply for farms nearby.
Low dams can be found on rivers and streams in rural and urban areas of the United States. Furthermore, there is no reliable database for the total number of these water dams with low heads. However, there is an average estimate of between 3,000 and 5,000 in the United States alone.
Risks Of Low-Head Dams For Paddlers?
There are many factors to consider as risk and some of which include:
- They are not too visible to spot when rowing a kayak or boat
- Large concrete on the waterway could be quite intimidating
- They are underwater and very difficult to locate – in some extreme weather cases, thee low head dams are almost impossible to spot until you are probably sitting on top of it.
- For kayak riders, spotting the low head can be very difficult because of how you sit in a kayak. Unlike a canoe, you still have a bit of advantage to spot the concrete because of how the canoe sit is elevated.
No Sign of low head dam ahead
There is no official list of head down dams in the United States, and nearly all states do not follow it.
There is no official record stating the numbers of low head dams across the country and most states do not have a sign to warn people of the concrete wall in the water. Just 27 states have a rough estimate of where these dams are located however, 3 of these states have legislative control over public dam and they are Illinois, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
The current that flows from these dams are particularly the most dangerous to anglers looking to catch fish. Many people underestimate the strong current and the physical ability to overcome this current could be disastrous in many cases. This is the biggest risk that boaters face when boating on a strong current.
Lower head dam: hidden danger
The force of the water flow can be strong enough to swallow everything, including boats, people and other debris, at low tide above and below the dam. Here, high hydraulic forces and low driving forces occur. A dangerous recipe for disaster that could prove to be a fatal mistake for anyone unlucky enough to get caught up in the pressure.
There are all kinds of floating remains
Debris often accompanies heavy rain and branches and other solids float on the water.
In addition to fighting the ragging water current, beware of water remains as well. The remains is more likely to get you caught up and cause serious damage.
Beware of the ‘Boil’
Another destructive element when boating in a low head dam is the boil. It’s a strong circular current that comes from underneath the water. They are more destructive than the surface current for anglers scouting for fish. It is like the chaos of a washing machine that occurs when water runs over the surface of a dam and swallows everything in its path.
When caught inside the boil, you are constantly assaulted by hydraulic power, pulled from above, dragged into the water and pushed against the dam walls, no matter how fiercely you fight.
Low-Head dams that are problematic to run from
Even if you can find your way to the surface, the constant flow of water and recurring circular currents will take you back under the water and the nightmare begins again.
Wearing a PFD is always recommended, but high winds and choppy water on a low dam can create enough water pressure to make life jackets ineffective. The scary part is that once you are there, you are on your own. Rescue team at Low-head Dam are next to impossible, with many rescue teams also suffering casualties.
What are the warning signs that you are a low head dam?
No one can answer this question as low dam warning signs depend on the size and construction of the dam.
However, there are some general warning signs that come with dams.
- The water came out faster than usual.
- The water is unusually turbulent, murky or dirty.
- There are irregularities or bubbles in the water.
- There will be a sudden change in the sound of a river or stream.
- Neighboring banks were severely damaged.
- You cannot see the bottom of a river or stream.
What should you do if you approach a low head dam in a canoe or kayak?
There is nothing much you can do when you are already in the middle of the situation. The best advice I can give you when approaching a low head dam is simply:
Avoid them at all costs. Avoid them like the plague. Avoid them because your life depends on them. But for all of the above reasons, it’s often not as easy as it sounds.
So what should you do if you approach a low head dam?
There is always a chance that you will come across an anonymous low head dam. But with luck, researching and planning routes is better than nothing.
Below is a list of preventative measures and tips that can help you create a safe coordination path.
- Take the time to plan your next canoe trip.
- Gather information about waterways in the area.
- See detailed maps and guides, with a focus on map history for swampy dikes or other hazardous areas.
- talk to the locals and contact the local authorities nearby.
- Local paddlers know the river and the region better than anyone and can provide valuable information.
- If there is an empty dam, leave the stream and adjust course accordingly.
- Do not rely solely on warning signs as you will not find warning signs in all areas of the route.
In short, how do you approach low head dams?
Prevention may be ideal, but if you enjoy discovering new rivers and streams for fly fishing, the chances are slim. On the one hand, it is inevitable. More importantly, don’t underestimate the destructive power once you’ve done it. Low head dams are the hardest to find, so do your research and plan your routes and keep an eye out for warning signs. If you find an empty dam, keep calm, stay safe and immediately paddle to the river bank and forget about your fishing plan for the day.