First river experience - learned a lot

-- Last Updated: May-25-09 3:49 PM EST --

So years ago I had taken an afternoon kayak class, then recently had a short paddle on a lake, the sum of my first hand experience. And I've read a lot and watched you tube! I was up in Northern Michigan birding and didn't want to leave without kayaking a river. Everyone keeps talking about "moving water" being a lot different. I knew I needed a quiet river but as it happened, location, time blah blah, the stars didn't align and I couldn't find a nearby river or livery that fit. So the livery on the Sturgeon (which I knew to be the fastest river in the LP) said their shortest trip before the river ended in Burt Lake was wider, slower than the rest of the river. Ok. So I drive over. Get briefed on the 50% dump rate. Figure well I'm sober unlike many, have a tiny bit of experience and 50% don't dump so I sign for the shortest bit just to test the waters. Transport guy tries to give me some tips, hug the inside of the bends etc. I feel confident.
Yea, that always works for me. More like a sure sign of a coming fall.
I wasn't on the river 2 minutes, dutifully hugging the inside of the turn only to get too close to a overhanging dead tree (amazing how the turns seem to have all these trees and logs jutting out) and - in I go - in an eddy over my head. I'm pretty comfortable in the water but trying to hang on to my paddle, my hat, bobbing in the eddy going nowhere while my kayak slowly starts getting away from me - lesson number one, two and three.
Just manage to grab the kayak's stern rope handle at the last second.
Uh.....I watched all the video's on how to empty out water which usually included a nice beach or help, but...the river banks don't have anywhere I can get up. Cr**! There is a log sort of above the water on the other side, so I manage to get over there with kayak which thankfully is still mostly floating. After a very awkward time of it because of water height, log not really optimum, submerged logs everywhere, I finally get almost all the water out.
I know getting in was also challenging due to above conditions but honestly I can't remember how I did it. I think I must have zen'ed out or something:) and it just happened.
I made it the rest of the really very short way (I was on the river less than 30 minutes as I got out in the state park) without dumping again though I had a couple of very ungraceful moments where grabbed on to overhanging trees etc. Concentration and thinking ahead got me through but I felt had to concentrate way to much for enjoyment purposes. I saw a Mink - my primary reason for wanting to river kayak - but was so busy with what was coming up I couldn't really watch it which was pretty frustrating. Same with two Pileated Woodpeckers (and a woodchuck, and a Mallard with the tiniest of ducklings). I did try to slow myself down but couldnt much or I started to lose control, there were places where I felt I had to drive forward to maintain.
For whatever reason in my minds eye when reading or thinking I usually envisioned a relatively clear river in my imagination. The number of overhanging trees, downed trees and twisty turns was a bit of a surprise to me though it shouldn't have been. And I think the biggest surprise threat was all the submerged logs when out of your kayak - I think it would be pretty easy to snap an ankle.
Anyway the reason for my writing is mostly for other beginners. I read a lot but I think its a human trait to not be able to transfer that info totally. Experience really is the only way of knowing. And even knowing that, knowing it before, I seem to have to be reminded over and over:)

well good
You got back alive and unhurt with the boat.

Worse than snapping your ankle on submerged wood is trapping your ankle in submerged wood. If this happens in brisk current, the water pushes you over and holds you down because your foot is entrapped.

Downed trees are one of the most dangerous features on creeks and rivers, especially in the spring. They are called strainers and will very effectively strain you out of the current but, unfortunately will often hold you beneath the surface.

A word about grabbing on to overhanging tree limbs in moving water: Don’t.

The limb will very effectively arrest your progress downstream, but not your boat’s. The result is predictable and pretty comical when viewed from the safety of the shore.

Yes, river paddling teaches
anticipation and planning. But don’t listen to that guy… you can grab an occasional branch as long as you and your boat aren’t carrying too much momentum.

I was victim of foot entrapment once, in a spot where everyone and his mother bodysurfed all the time. And the entrapment occurred when I was doing my best to swim feet downstream, feet at the surface.

If you do this again…

– Last Updated: May-25-09 7:01 PM EST –

Float always feet facing downstream, and up on the surface. It's the [usually the safest] way.
The habit of water making a turn will be to be fastest and toughest to handle around the outside of a turn. So when in doubt move to the inside of a turn. You'll have to start quite early - once you are near the turn the water will probably win.
Overhanging trees and submerged stuff is really dicey - I am guessing that someone had vetted this stretch for really bad strainers before setting up a livery that'd put people n boats. But be very cautious, in case you hit a livery that may not have been so cautious.

Livery, trees
I believe its a well established livery and well used part of the river, I’m sure they do maintenance. The last 10 minutes or so getting close to the lake was lined with cottages and trees of all sorts~). So while it seemed quite hairy to me, maybe not to more experienced. The Sturgeon is written up as the fastest but again, I have no personal experience to compare it to, I’m sure you all know faster. (I personally will be looking for slower LOL)

There are a lot of trees poking in but they are at least mostly “singles” (sorry don’t know the language). By that I mean a lone tree trunk, not several with all sorts of smaller tree branches etc. piled up in front of it - that’s what you mean by strainers yes? And I could see many had been cut part way down just not all the way to the bank which would have been more helpful to me, and there were live trees that are slowly tipping but still up, some fairly low.

Celia, check my post just above yours.
It would be nice if it were true that swimming that way were way safer than other ways, but there are so many exceptional situations that slavishly following that rule can lead to big trouble.

Not sure how you got entrapped if
your feet were up on the surface, but I guess only you can relate to that, but I just two days ago gave a short safety lecture to two of the grandchildren who were doing their first WW trip, and one of the things I said and will stick by it is: If you dump in fast moving water just drift with your feet above the surface until you reach a calm slow moving wide part in the river, and then make your way to shore.



Thanks… but question
For someone like the OPer, just going out to do a river with little experience in that environment, what criteria would apply for them to take other than the usual recommended position (as they are out of the boat and zooming downstream?

In a general case like this and not being there, I’m not sure how they’d make that kind of judgment.

Good recap, and some good lessons
learned for the newbies.

but by your recap it did sound like you enjoyed the trip.




– Last Updated: May-25-09 7:20 PM EST –

The one time when you most definitely do not want to be floating feet first downstream is when you are about to be swept into a strainer.

In the event, you would be well-advised to turn onto your stomach, and swim as aggressively as you possibly can to avoid contact with it, if possible.

Failing that, you need to be prepared to make a well-timed vault up onto, or over the strainer as soon as you make contact.

This is a skill that is actually practiced in ACA river trip leader courses, vaulting over a length of PVC pipe from current. If you make contact feet-first, you will virtually always go under.

There are some other scenarios. The conventional wisdom, when forced to swim over sizable drops in which the water is likely to drive you deep (like the left side of Nantahala Falls) is to "ball up" so that an outstretched foot and ankle has less chance to get snared by a rock crevice on the bottom.

And if you find yourself about to drift over a falls that is nearly-certain to be lethal, and your choices are 1. Drift past "last chance eddy" on your back and wave bye bye to it, or 2. Swim like hell for last chance eddy, you would do well to choose #2.

Oh yes
I love “little” adventures so I did enjoy myself.

I am not convinced however that kayaking is the best way to enjoy wildlife. Not to say it doesn’t happen, even happen frequently. But it seems that “paddling” has to be primary.

First time in a new situation, I like to take along someone with more experience…it helps me to learn, and it helps my peace of mind!

That’s what we need to hear.
The on-your-back, feet downstream and at the surface doctrine doesn’t go far. It is like the old tandem whitewater lessons about keeping the boat in line with the current and a little slower than the flow. Then we find that nobody actually paddles whitewater like the old books advised, tandem or solo.

I think, and hope, that we will enter an era where whitewater training includes much more active and varied swimming techniques.

Started out with my feet at the surface,
but when I slid over the slanting drop, accelerating water hit my back and shoulders, and my leg dropped from the surface and into a slanting slot. It felt like I had been grabbed by a shark. I was able to raise one hand above the surface, but I don’t think anyone saw it. Then my knee joint gave way and I came loose.

There are many circumstances where it can be temporarily difficult or impossible to keep one’s feet at the surface.

The irony: this was and remains a popular spot for lunching and body surfing. As far as I know, only one other person has wrenched a leg there, but the same slanting ledges are down there, waiting to kill someone.

Wildlife and Paddling

– Last Updated: May-26-09 12:58 AM EST –

Everyone is different in their outlook regarding the degree to which they wish to learn boat control versus simply getting out on the water. I'm always fascinated by "how things work", so I pay close attention to every little detail of which I can make myself aware regarding what the boat is doing and why, at least SOME of the time. For me, one benefit of that attitude has been that under my usual paddling circumstances I can now do a reasonable job of making the boat do pretty-much what I want it to do without "thinking too hard" about it, including setting up my path beneath low trunks of fallen trees while moving between and around branches in the water in a way that even accounts for those upcoming moments when I won't be able to sit up straight or put the paddle where I want. All this also means that I can be that much more aware of those aspects of my surroundings which are NOT related to boat control, and THAT means that I find paddling to be a very good way to see wildlife. Ultimately, the better you can control your boat and the less you have to think about it, the more wildlife you are likely to see (partly because you are more aware, and partly because you move more silently).

Slow easy flowing rivers, remote…
wilderness lake coves, swamps, salt water marshes, ocean paddling -we have seen more and have had more wonderful wildlife encounters than any time when we hiked or backpacked.

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Second that
Especially when paddling alone.

Nice, sounds like a good day on the
river. I love being in the water as much as on the water. You kept your head, you kept your gear and the outcome was good makes it great! Others who experienced the same thing would curse everything and quit. The fact is that paddling is a “get wet sport”. Congrats to you!

Reading about paddling
My sister used to say, “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” Or like reading about paddling, I’d say.

You can only learn a tiny bit by reading.

Everything else you have to learn by doing.

Going solo is the best way to see wildlife.

As you discovered, having some boat control will make that easier.

IMO the best way to learn boat control is to take some lessons and/or paddle with more experienced folks.

Glad you enjoyed your adventure!


wildlife by water

Hi, Mary. Congrats on your adventure. You don’t say and I’m curious – are you considering buying a boat and getting into this on a regular basis? If so, what are your motives and goals? I ask that because I seem to sense that you’re interested in wildlife/bird observation (since you said you were on a birding trip to start with, along with other comments you made), and I think you may have gotten the wrong impression of the possibilities in that regard.

I’m convinced that there is no other possible better way to observe wildlife than by canoe (kayak second best). If you do have an interest in this, I suggest you start another thread asking for advice and stories about this specific aspect of paddling, and that you use the comments to get into the sport yourself. It’s truly a lifetime adventure.

As far as your initial observation about navigation taking precedence, others have pointed out that will soon pass as you gain experience. First off, most of the best wildlife viewing rivers are slow or even almost still (oh, you HAVE to do some swamp paddling if you are a serious birder, what a wealth of species you rarely see anywhere else).

But even on fast water, it’s fairly easy to put observation ahead of navigation. For one thing, you may have done this, but there’s no mention in your story about paddling backwards to slow yourself down or stopping at a bend to view the river ahead as you come around a corner. Second, for all but the roughest of whitewater, there is generally a low-maintenance path you can take that requires little attention, and you can usually find it simply by looking at where the river turns and where possible obstacles lie, once you know what to look for.

There’s a lot more I could say on the subject, but I may be barking up the wrong tree so I’ll stop there. If you are interested, say so, and I’ll be happy to write more, and many others here also have relevant experience in the joys and advantages of wildlife viewing by canoe and kayak.