River paddlers - remember to check your brakes!

Castoff’s recent safety-related post prompts me to share a recent lesson that I learned AGAIN.

I was paddling on the Paw Paw river a few days ago. The river is full of sunken trees. It’s usually quite tame but right now it’s at record levels. I’m coming back downstream and with current around 3 mph one ends up going 4-5 mph if you paddle at all. I’m approaching a fallen tree that blocks the river entirely except for one opening about 5 feet wide near the left bank and another opening on the far right bank. There’s also a strong inflow from a big marsh area just before the fallen tree. I’m headed for the opening on river left and decide to go through that opening since it’s the path I followed going upstream and I just have to move my boat a couple of feet left. As I steer my boat I get hit with a strong crossflow which I could not overpower so now I’m headed fast towards a fallen tree about 40 feet away with no hope of going through the opening on river left and no hope of making it about 75 feet over to the right bank, plus it’s too late to stop and I know that attempting a u-turn would be suicidal. So I turn the boat hard right and somehow the strong crosscurrent plus dumb luck took me all the way to the right bank where I made it through with no problem.

And to be honest it was the second time that day when I approached a dangerous spot faster than my ability to stop…and got away with it.

So even though I tell myself to always start backpaddling as soon as I’m not sure of how to get around an obstacle I still get complacent and end up taking unnecessary risks (like getting pinned against a fallen tree last year).


Sounds like here on the Huron but our current is slower. Going down is always dicier, especially in my 18 footer. I have to look way ahead and pull up the rudder and slow down when things get twisty. Passages thru downed trees that are open at one water level are blocked at another, so next week’s quiz can have different answers.

One thing I like about floods is you get to take shortcuts across bendy marshes, explore into swamps, and find new passages behind tip-ups. Its rising fast here but nowhere near record for this date. Should hit flood stage in 3 days. https://waterdata.usgs.gov/monitoring-location/04172000/#parameterCode=00065&startDT=2023-03-05&endDT=2023-04-05

I’m not big on back ferries, but it seems like a back ferry might have been the best option in that situation - hold you position above the strainer as you work your way over to one of the openings. Sometimes luck works just as good :wink:

Sometimes the best option is to go ashore and line the boats or portage around obstacles. On larger rivers there is more room to move and better sight lines of potential hazards. It is the small twisty rivers and streams where strainers are most dangerous.

I feel much the same. Of course, with short whitewater boats turning 180 degrees to face upstream for a more powerful forward ferry is much easier than in a longer touring canoe or a tandem.

A back ferry is a great tool to have if you have practiced them thoroughly in moderate current. Tandem back ferries are tricky in that the downstream (bow) paddler must control the ferry angle and all too often the bow paddler is the less experienced member of the team. The ferry angle is also a lot more difficult to judge facing downstream than it is facing upstream, and that is especially so for a bow paddler in a tandem who has very little boat sticking out in front of them.

In very strong current it is very easy to lose control of your ferry angle and have the stern get blown downstream and this can happen before you realize what is going on. In strong current if one has been moving downstream at the same velocity as the current speed, or faster than current speed, it also takes a bit of time to scrub off that downstream velocity and develop some retrograde velocity relative to the water you are in.

In the informal canoeing instruction I have been involved in, my experience has been that beginning paddlers find it easy to understand back ferries conceptually but have significant difficulty putting the theory into practice, sometimes resulting in rather epic fails if the current velocity is more than modest.

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I like paddling in flooded areas too. I also enjoy the constant change of rivers.


I think a backferry is exactly what I needed but probably about 5 seconds earlier. The strong inflow from the side came in just upstream of the strainer and dominated the forces on the boat so a late backferry attempt might have gotten messy.

What you are describing is very similar to what got me in '21 on the Buffalo. This was the result:

After replacing one gunnal it looked like this - note the grab loop and consider how hard a pull it would take to do this: It was a hard pin.

This was the current just upstream from where I stuck, taken minutes before:

I was able to swim through it though. As TheBob used to say, “Its better to be lucky than good.” (Though being both doesn’t hurt.)
Being with Pete and his Z drag kit is not a small thing either…
That’s the only time I’ve actually pinned in 50 some years of paddling though. I expect in 50 some years more paddling I’ll do it again.

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I agree, I think the Paw Paw is suprisingly dangerous even in low and slow conditions because I don’t think there are any spots where you could swim for 20 yards without getting tangled in sunken trees.

I think the “stupid” on my part is just getting complacent. I had to navigate around maybe 200 strainers on my way upstream so on the way back it’s easy to choose the wrong path a few times. Plus the water levels were higher than ever so both the current and the inflow from the side were stronger than I’ve experienced. I think that anytime that conditions are “more than ever” (hotter, colder, rockier, more crowded, more water, etc) you’re already carrying some extra unknown risks.

Yes, in my experience your comments are spot on. Back in the 90’s I swamped a Flashfire on a group New Year’s Day paddle when a paddler stopped in front of me unexpectedly and blocked the only way through and with one giant reverse stroke I stopped my boat but dipped a gunwale beliw the water and swamped. So I totally agree that one needs to practice panic stops in safe conditions so you don’t upset your boat by trying it for the first time in dicey conditions. Also totally agree on the epic failure potential. My Merlin II does not spin on a dime and this particular strainer looked quite unforgiving.

That looks like a memorable experience PJC!

Memorable, yes. Even laughable in hindsight… BUT there are lessons to be learned. Like how darned handy it would have been to have had the boat “bagged out” and the importance of having some means of boat extraction always on hand.
In your situation, alone, extracting a boat pinned in a strainer could be really problematic. Perhaps even hiking out from a remote spot on a river could turn into more “adventure” than one might have planned on. Especially if its in cooler weather.
BTW, I tried to back ferry out of the situation and that cross current, as you described coming out of the marsh (in my case water pouring over a gravel bar), was enough to negate most of my lateral movement on the ferry, though I slowed down considerably. But if you hit a strainer slow, you still end up in a strainer. I’m not convinced that any back paddle against a current, and allowing for momentum, is as strong as a forward stroke. Against a stiff current, strong is pretty important. You just have to be anticipating the situation well in advance. The “brakes” just don’t work as quickly as we might wish nor can they be kept on indefinitely.
I bet the person who’s nice Bending Branches kayak paddle that was caught in the same strainer and which I spied while washing through would agree. :wink:
And I’d bet that a good many of the long-time paddlers here have had similar, though hopefully rare, experiences.

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Reminds me ofy second river outing. My brother was the guide. He packed light, just a CamelBak, a small watertight bag for our ID’s, and a ham radio that he said spent half the last trip face down in a puddle of beer. We’re both ham licensed and he owns the nearby repeater. At the time it was the only reliable way to communicate from the river.
I was perched on the very front of our raft, my brother and my wife were seated further back. I saw where a fallen tree split the river, but by then it was too late… we were on course for impact. A branch went right by my ear and then the entire boat lurched. I teetered for a second and fell in, the current carrying me downstream and into an underwater strainer in two feet of water. I got up on my knees and here came the raft. They ran right over me and washed me a little further downstream.
I had a big bruise right there on my pride, but was otherwise unhurt.

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Tom L,
Maybe if the gradient is low enough to paddle upstream then the rivers you are talking about are not that dangerous. Maybe that is why you like paddling in floods.

On faster rivers, floods cause a lot of trees to fall in the water and create strainers. Fast current in a strainer often means no escape.

I reported this previously, but my parter and I both ran into strainers on the placid Texas Colorado on one of the bends with a little faster riffle. The river was just a bit higher than I was used to, minimal really. I never thought to back paddle, so not sure if it would have helped, but it surely would have been better than “pointing sideways and paddling like hell” - which, of course, just put me broadside to the current.

Anyway, my point here is that it seems there’s a big difference between a “strainer” that is just an overhanging tree that is hanging into the water, versus a downed tree in the channel. In my case, it was the former and once I flipped and excited, I popped up just downstream of the branches, no problem. If it had been the latter, it might have been a much bigger problem.

As it was we still had an adventure and some good luck (I held on to my paddle which was leashed to the kayak, I was miraculously able to snag my partners boat as it floated past), and some bad luck ($300 prescription sunglasses gone to the river gods).

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One time I took the wrong boat over some rapids and ended up in the water and the swamped boat ran me over. I’ll go out of my way to avoid repeating that experience.

I agree that some strainers are worse than others. In my example one could not go under, through, or climb over the fallen tree due to thick branches that also would have been awkward to deal with but many of the other obstacles on the Paw Paw are just tangles of fallen trees that won’t strain you off your boat.

It’s easy to paddle against a current that’s stronger than your swimming ability. If you swim with sunken trees in current over 2 mph there are random factors controlling your fate. The danger of a situation depends on many factors, not just current. All other things being equal, I agree that higher current is more dangerous.

We had a guy go under a submerged log yesterday - he made it through fine, but it was scary. If you are swimming into a strainer, the recommendation is to roll over on to your stomach, face downstream, and pull yourself up on to or over the strainer. Never try to swim underneath.

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So if you are boating around wood then boat control is essential. As far as cross currents go, if you can get the boat on edge or somewhat heeled, you reduce the amount of surface area, same is true with boils,. If you are crossing a current and want to to use it tto ferry across then a flat boat is best. My uncle Sal, Speed, Angle, Lean/tilt varies with situation, eddy turn, peelout, ferry.