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


Written by David Myers

October 2, 2019
kayaking with doggo

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In the USA there are about 7 deaths per year that can be directly attributed to low-head dams.

As such, it is imperative that as kayaker you know what to do if you come across a low-head dam while you’re out kayaking.

What makes them so dangerous?

One of the most dangerous aspects of a low head dam is the fact that you generally can’t even see it until you’re right on top of it, and if you’re right on top of it then the currents drawing you to it will be strong. In a lot of countries there’s no real legal requirement to have them marked with signage either, so there’s often no clear record or inventory of all the low-head dams that exist in a given country.

For example, a survey in 2014 showed that in the USA there’s potentially 2,594 low-head dams without proper signage on maps or on the river banks.

Another factor that makes them particularly dangerous is the turbulence at the bottom of them. It’s sometimes likened to the action of a washing machine. If you and your kayak get stuck in that turbulence after going off a low-head dam, you can be pinned under water and against the wall of the dam. Your odds of survival if that happens are low.

A low head dam in Pennsylvania has taken 29 lives in recent years.

The final factor that makes them so dangerous is that once you’re caught in the washing machine like conditions, rescue is near impossible. You’re on your own when it comes to getting yourself back out which is incredibly dangerous.

How can I avoid them?

Well the best way to avoid them is by making sure that you’ve checked your local waterway maps, and asked the local kayakers if they know of any to watch out for. You don’t want to rely solely on the local knowledge, but it the locals often know where they are and what other hazards you should look for so it’s definitely a good idea to spark up a conversation with the locals or even email a local kayak club and ask. Most clubs are friendly and will be more than willing to help out a fellow enthusiast.

How can I get past one?

If you know there’s one on the route you want to take then you must plan to carry your kayak to get past it. You will need to row to the shore immediately upon seeing it, get out of your kayak, and then carry (officially called portaging) it past the dam. Only then can you get back in the water and continue. You’re also best off walking 100 or so feet past the dam to make sure you don’t get sucked back into the swell.

It’s a massive pain, but it’s a lot better than the alternative!

Ideally if you’re planning your trip correctly you’d just plan to avoid routes that involve a low-head dam, as that’s the safest course of action.

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