Paddling Near Dams / Safety???

Now that I live in an inland area rough water paddling opportunities are much more limited. I live near the Susquehannah River and when there is a strong NW wind there can be some pretty choppy water above the dam.

The water is particularly rough right at the dam b/c you get some great reflective waves off the face of the dame and it can actually form some clapotis.

I am dying to get out and paddling in this confused water, but am a bit concerned about safety and don’t want to be stupid. There are no published release schedules, etc. I would not get too close to the dam or the flood gates, but I just don’t know how much current / suction is generated when they open. I am not whether or not they would be too strong to avoid getting sucked into.

Anyone have any experience here?



Do some research
There are a lot of different designs and styles of dams, but the basic two are low-head (water flows over a spillway to continue downstream) and high-head (water flows through a tube or “penstock” through the wall of the dam…there may be an emergency spillway to handle high water flows in excess of the capacity of the tube). Sounds to me you are upstream of the second type.

Thus, do some research as to where the intake is when they open the gates, or see if there is a regular, predictable schedule. So long as you give the intake a good wide berth (ie, don’t go anywhere near it), you should be fine. Boaters getting sucked into intakes is very unusual, but it happens.

Low head dams are another story…certainly stay away from the spillway if you are on the upstream side, which is usually pretty easy to do if there is minimal current. Do not mess at all with the boiling water at the foot of a dam…this is a sure killer. Depending on the dam, you could get within 5 to 50 feet of the foot of the dam and all of a sudden find yourself headed upstream. Badbadbad!

But like I said, many dams are different. I surf at the foot of some dams, I portage within 2 feet of the tops of other dams, some dams I won’t get within 100 feet of because they freak me right out. Learn the ways of your enemy.


High Head
Good points. Thanks. It is a high head dam based on your description. There are flood gates and the water passes through the dam. It is a large dam over which a road passes.

Maybe I will go and talk to the folks out there. Part of my problem is that I am not exactly sure where the flood gates are. There are several of them as I can see the water flow through on the bottom of the dam when parked below but the dam is big so can’t really get a real feel for where they lie in reference to the up-river part of the dam.

Paddling below the dam is not really a feasible place to paddle for various reasons.

There are big signs on the river’s edge warning boaters to keep their distance from the dam b/c of the floodgates. I just really don’t have any idea of the amount current that would be generated in proximity to a flood gate. Obviously this is a critical issue in a kayak…if it’s over 4 mph you may have a problem on your hands especially on a day with 20-30 mph winds blowing toward the dam–which are the days that I would want to paddle there anyway…


In most cases, there are lines and buoys short of these dams (and I think I know the one you are thinking of)… it is illegal to go inside those lines and people tend to take that very seriously.

I would be concerned that the currents would be awfully strong to paddle against once the generation gates were opened.

the Bay
BTW, if you haven’t lived there long, you are on a great body of water which can give you sudden and unexpected big water in just about any season. No rock gardens, but the Chesapeake is a gorgeous body of water.

Amount of Danger “Depends”

– Last Updated: Mar-20-07 1:17 PM EST –

Usually, the amount of current on the upstream side of a dam is virtually zero, or at least very slow, until you are literally on your way into the spillway or intake chute. The cross-sectional area of water is so much greater just above the dam than in the main river that the current is usually very slow *until* you enter the part where the area of flow really narrows-down on its way into the outlet. Does that mean boating above the dam is safe? Only if you absolutely will not ever capsize. To me, that means being above a dam carries some risk. That said, I've landed my boat within a few few of some really fast but rather small spillways quite a few times, but I don't like it. On a really big dam, I doubt I'd want to even be there. Usually the big dams have safety cables strung between anchored bouys, far enough from the spillway/intakes that there's no serious current. Also,many larger dams have outlets that are completely submerged and there's no place for a boat to get sucked through unless the water is very high. However, if there's a safety cable and you capsize, I wonder how long you'd have to hang on before somebody spotted you.

Shanks Mare Outfitters

might be able to give you some more “local information” since they are right on the Susquehanna River and fairly close to the dam I think you are referring to.

Another good resource would be Brad at StarrkMoon Kayaks. His info can be found at:

Hope that this helps.

Jeff Pringle


Couldn’t resist.


– Last Updated: Mar-20-07 2:46 PM EST –

That's amazing. You can't really appreciate how BIG those are until you see the shots of the one under construction. No wonder they have barracades to keep the boats from getting anywhere even close.

The Glory hole!
That’s practically in my backyard!

there is a line of buoys to keep you away and they have installed a fence where we used to jump in the water off rocks as kids-crazy! but we only swam in the summer and the glory hole was high and dry! My friends step-dad helped build Monticello dam, he had lots of stories. I’ve been in the area since 1967 and there is only one instance that a woman was found in the bottom of the glory hole-she did not survive of course.


That thing is horrifying. I can’t imagine seeing a hole in the water ahead of me.


Hole in the Water, off-topic
I saw some old film footage of a medium-sized lake that whirlpooled out of sight in short order following the cave-in of a coal-mine tunnel beneath the lake. Very scary. I think it was out east somewhere.

Spillway Boofing
I met a guy who runs spillways in Norway. I’ll see if I can find his webpage. He is certifiably nuts, I would stay away from dams.

It’s somewhat of a moot point right now…went out today and paddled near the dam, there were not any buoys, safety lines, etc…but I paddled across the river into a marina and saw a sign posted there that said that you could not get within 400 yards of the dam. Guess that pretty much solves this one for me. Too bad! Would have been fun.


Same river…
I saw some old film footage of a medium-sized lake that whirlpooled out of sight in short order following the cave-in of a coal-mine tunnel beneath the lake. Very scary. I think it was out east somewhere.

That was the same river, right smack dab in the middle of Wilkes-Barre, PA. Flooded all of the mines in the area and ended and industry.

The Original Poster can come north and ride the river with me, I’m looking for a paddling pal.


– Last Updated: Mar-22-07 12:24 AM EST –

Sorry, I don't get it.
The point of paddling near a dam would be what?
To paddle in confused water?
And the only place you can find to paddle in confused/challenging water is near a dam?

How about getting a whitewater boat & doing some whitewater?
Confused water; you got it.
Challenging water; you got it.
Adrenaline rush, thrills & spills; you got it!

Make an effort sometime to take a "real close" look at some of the debris in the water & on the shore, above & below a dam spillway, when it's open, and when it's closed.

Some of the things I've seen above & below dams included: dead fish, dogs, cats, turtles, rabbits, snakes, frogs, birds, trout lines, limb lines, jug lines, bass lures, fishing poles, baby diapers, syringes, boards with nails, tires, barrels, landscape timber, large tree limbs, parts of telephone poles, parts of boat docks, parts of boats,old towels, old clothes, shoes,socks, prophylactics, sewage, and lots of other stuff I have no idea what it was.


Yup. :slight_smile:

I lived in Ann Arbor for a few years, and there’s not a lot of whitewater in that area. The outflow from the Barton dam was where I first played with ferries and eddy turns. The wall between the powerhouse outlet(far right) and the spillway drainage marked a nice eddy line. I respected the bouy line and never had a problem.

There are some dams I wouldn’t go near. This one seemed OK.

General Rule…
I would stay away from any dam until, as bob noted, I have been around it to really note what happens with the releases, etc.

Certainly would not go play near one if someone half way across the country post, “Yeah, sure, I do it all time with my local dam.” :wink:

Thrills – Playing in a class II run will offer more challenges than refracted wind driven waves off some concrete wall.

Used white water boat - $300. Thrills and skills… priceless. :slight_smile:


I didn’t mean to imply that all dams are safe. I weas trying to answer the question: “And the only place you can find to paddle in confused/challenging water is near a dam?”

For something that was an easy after-work paddle, in that place, the answer was “yes.” The only rapids I knew of nearby rarely had enough water to run comfortably.

Sure, I’d much rather run a nice class II river in a whitewater boat. But that’s not always an option.

From a safety standpoint, I was looking at a smooth “jet” 3-4 boat lengths wide forming a midstream eddy line, with no obstructions and flatwater downstream. As a novice paddler in a sea kayak it seemed like a reasonable “play spot”, and still does.

As I said, I’ve seen other dams that made me want to stay as far away as possible. The one near me now can increase the flow by 10x in a matter of minutes, and I don’t want to be anywhere near the outlet when that happens.