Dam it; Bad Idea?

So I’ve been eyeballing the downriver side of our local hydroelectric dam. They are dumping out a decent amount of water lately and there are all kinds of swirlies, eddies, currents, etc.
I’m thinking back to some video I’ve watched of some guys messing about at Deception Pass and I couldn’t help but think: Why not?
The water looks about the same.

Is there any reason not to go fooling around out there?

To be clear: This is a relatively large dam, it is not a low head, and I would be a fairly long distance away from the outflow; I’d say about 300 yards or more.
But the water is still pretty turbulent.

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I did a rafting thing out of Banner Elk a few years ago. The outfitter drove us to Tennessee to catch the outfall from a dam.

Because of the dam the water level was low before the dam opened the sluice gates and we, basically, rode the crest of the outfall.

I don’t see any fault, if you are not in any kind of flood conditions. Normal conditions might work well.

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Typically the “danger zone” is clearly marked on both the upstream and downstream sides of a dam. Is that not true in your case?

I don’t like to proclaim a place to be safe or dangerous when I have zero first hand experience but 300 yards downstream sounds like it would be comfortably downstream of any safety zone.

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Yes, the danger zones are marked.

With the right boat and level of experience it should be fine.

Does the dam provide any warning if they are going to rapidly increase or decrease the amount of water released? Low water can be just as dangerous as high water depending on the river.

Do you have well fitting PFD and helmet? Do you have a solid roll or is there a good recovery area downstream to gather yourself after a swim?
If yes, SEND IT!

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Look at the outflow area and see if there is water recirculation that is trapping items, like logs. If anything that goes through it flushes all the way through, then you don’t likely have a recirculation that would keep you (one of the big issues with low head dams).

The next thing you should look at is below the potential play area. Is it an area that is calm enough that you could rescue yourself? How much time before the calm area ends and what happens then?

Can you post photos of the play area and area below?

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I used to paddle right up to the marker ropes for the danger zone on one of my rivers, close enough to get soaked by the spray and bounced around in the outflow. So I think you’re fine (as far as danger from the dam itself) if you are downstream of the marked danger zone. I think peter’s suggestion is spot on…take a good look at the water you want to paddle in and make sure you don’t see anything that looks like reverse flow headed back towards the dam, I think that the most dangerous recirculation area is usually right at the base of the dam so it sure sounds like you’d be fine. Throw sticks in the water; if any of them head upstream towards the dam you don’t want to play there.

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Playing in current is a really good way to develop boat handing skills in dynamic water, provided the cautions noted by @Peter-Ca and @TomL.

I have a man-made tidal inlet - Pleasure Bay - in the Boston Harbor that provides current and standing waves to play in. You’ll note in my video that I stayed away from the first outflow, which is akin to a low head dam. I headed to the second which as like a tidal river. Depending on tidal stage, it provides class II - III action. (However, I hit it too late in the ebb tide and had class 1 plus action.)



This dam looks like low head killer dam to me. Wonder what they need to do to make this into a safer “white water park?”


I paddle above and below dams all time. If you are a river paddler in New England you have to - they are everywhere. On my local river the Blackstone there are 10 dams within a 10-mile distance of my house. You can see them here:

These are all old mill dams so they are small compared to the hydro dams you get out west, but they almost always have a section of moving water below them that is nice to run and great for park and play practice. This is one of my local spots below the Manville Dam.

My only experience with a large hydro dam was paddling below Comerford Dam on the Connecticut River. We put in below the dam here and tried to ferry across (tandem canoe).


It doesn’t look like much, but that water was moving. We dumped half way across, and this how far we were downstream before we finally got the the boat to shore.


Like I said, it didn’t look like much but that water was moving. The water was also really cold coming out of the bottom of the dam.

So, no reason not to play below your local dam, as long as you are careful and your skills match the conditions. Might want to bring a friend on your first attempt

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That does look nasty. Doesn’t look there is enough of a drop for a 900-feet whitewater run. They has been talk of building a whitewater park on the Willimantic River in CT for years, but it has never happened. This is the section.


True that! If it weren’t for the Errol and Pontook dams on the Androscoggin River, I would not have the consistent white water paddling and stellar trout and landlocked salmon flyfishing through the warm months. Same for the Deerfield dams, although I’ve gone less and less because of the 2.5 hour drive from Boston. (Androscoggin is 20-25 minute drive from my camp in western ME.)


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Back to the OP question, adding a whitewater park would probably involve bypassing the dam with a concrete sluice, possibly with moveable rocks.

Im very wary of playing near any manmade structures, unless you have seen the obstructions at low or no flow you dont really know what is creating the swirlies, waves, and holes. I also dont play under bridges. I get the desire to do so. While you will probably be fine the next person may not understand or comprehend the boil line and after seeing you assume the whole area is good to go. I am blessed in that i dont have to rely on such places to play. As far as dams go i prefer to chase water. Releases do allow for scheduled ww and have crowds to go with it.

Good to be careful. Standing dams aren’t much of an issue since they get portaged - you just need to stay away from the recirculating boil below the dam, or the jet of current coming out of the bottom.

Broken dams are more of an issue since we often run them and there can be rebar, spikes and other metal parts mixed in with the rubble. Guide books around here are pretty good about noting these hazards when they are known. The broken dam we ran last weekend has rebar to the right, so the route is to the left, which is where went.

Paul runs the broken dam

You never know, stuff can move around, so there is always a risk. Still, most people can’t resist running the rapids.


Go for it. If ya can’t swim, you can always get out and walk.

My favorite dam portage picture - this is Comerford Dam on the Connecticut River (dam pictured above).

Conrad's boat comes down the stairs

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Were you guys paddling a log???:stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:

Oops, on closer examination, I see that Conrad’s hull was turned on it’s side–But on first appearance it looked as though it were a tree length rail slice of white ash!

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Back in my racing days we races the upper Wacissa River. The turn around point was to go over the mill dam, turn around, and go back up it.

It was really interesting to see some of the Olympic boats climb up the outflow.