Spring Paddling And Killer Trees

One of the first things that hit me when I began kayaking Michigan rivers two years ago, was the number of trees and logjams I passed along the way. Sometimes they were in deep water at some bridge abutments. Other times, they were stranded high and dry in shallow water.

I was always wondering, when DO these obstacles make their way down the river? In the spring, I assume?

If so, how dangerous is it to paddle a river in the early spring? After all, I imagine it would be quite disasterous to run into one of these on the river. The worst scenario I can imagine is being blocked by a tree or logjam; and having another one come up from behind as you’re trying to figure out how to get around it!

Is this a real concern?

Do you avoid early spring river paddling?

Has anyone “run into” this problem?

Keep An Eye Out On Local Boards…
every spring, you’ll find postings about a strainer here or there on some river. The “locals” will usually get in there and chainsaw stuff out. But that can take days to weeks.

Scout a lot on spring runs.


The odds are probably slim
To date, I have never seen a tree floating down the river. It happens, and you are right that when it does happen, high water in the spring, or other flood conditions would be the time. I wouldn’t worry about getting pinned and then getting nailed from behind by a floating tree partly because the odds would be very slim, but mostly because you are going faster than the current while paddling, so you would already know the tree was back there following you (because you would have passed it already). That would be a good time to think about not giving it a chance to come and get you.

I WOULD worry about all the other dangers on high water in the spring. This is nothing to fool around with, and you need to be absolutely certain you are up to the challenge and are prepared for possible consequences. High water running through many more obstacles than normal, tricky currents, and very cold water, all combine to make early spring a very dangerous time to be on the water.

Killer trees aka “strainers”

– Last Updated: Feb-09-05 4:46 PM EST –

Brush, fallen trees, bridge pilings, undercut rocks or "anything else" which allows river current to sweep through can pin boat, paddlers, or both against the obstacles.
Think spaghetti strainer; "you are the spaghetti"! Water goes through; spaghetti stays in strainer.
Water pressure (not necessarily white water) on anything trapped in this way can be overwhelming. Rescue is very difficult; especially for the untrained.
Water has weight. How many gallons of water, traveling at a couple of miles an hour, does it take to create enough force on your body that you can't even move? Imagine a king size water bed mattress piled on top of you, while you lay flat on a floor. Ever try to move a full, king sized water bed mattress? Get the picture?
Solution: Be alert to areas downstream where strainers might form. If in doubt, pull over & scout. Practice eddy turns. Practice back ferry.
Give strainers a wide birth. When in doubt; portage.
For technique to use if you going to get swept into a strainer, there are many descriptions in whitewater rescue manuals. Give you a hint; don't ever go in feet first, and you'd better be swimming aggressively!
In over 40 years of paddling I have actually seen 1 tree (the whole tree) come floating downstream, behind me. The river was coming up into flood stage. Scarey!
Strainers seem to be worse in winter, and spring when there is a lot of flooding, but can form "anytime". River bank erosion, wind storms, ice weight, can quickly turn a standing 100 foot sycamore tree into a river crossing strainer.


As long
as you are careful and scout any potential problems you should be ok. A lot depends on how fast the current is and how many trees are down. We paddle year round and have little trouble. Usually we can just shoot the dams and blockages.

Strainers are a definite concern as
can be floating debris and logs. An added concern with the floating log/tree is the potential impact it would have on a canoe/kayak while completing a front, back ferry or front or backward surf.

Not just spring
I saw a large tree go by while waiting for a trip to start in the middle of a heavy summer downpour with the river rising fast. We cancelled the trip and rescheduled for another day.

If you don’t feel comfortable, don’t go.

Dam Rivers
Dam controlled rivers usually don’t have that many trees floating downstream. Rivers like Idaho’s Salmon will have many trees being flushed downriver during highwater because of it’s natural flow. Trees can float faster than a little WW kayak also. That’s because the current grabs the tree but not the kayak.

Never try to cut a tree out of a river. That’s more dangerous than paddling around it.

Around here, the trees uproot and wash
downstream during high water from spring runoff and summer storms. The storms are usually intense and short. The river/debris flow may take several days. So, don’t just jump on the river when the storm is over. As others have said, scout as much as possible and learn a solid backferry. Watch the weather because another storm can be on the way.

Spring paddling is some of the best, but you must dress and be prepared for faster/colder water. Best to go with a group of more experienced paddlers.

As far as cutting trees out of the streams, the rules vary from place to place. Our local river is narrow and a large tree will completely block the stream and catch everything coming downstream. We have a huge log dam that is blocking the best stretch of paddling on the river. It’s about 15’ high, 25’ wide and growing. It started with one large tree about 20 yrs ago. The water backs up and then floods the low, wooded areas on river left. River right is a limestone cliff. Portaging is challenging and sometimes dangerous. If the jam ever cuts loose, it will probably damage the new bridge a 1/2 mile downstream. So several groups are looking at options.

Also, when the water levels are up, the water is usually disturbed so that you can’t see stuff that’s right under the surface. Usually, you can read the waterflow and avoid hitting whatever is there, but now and then ‘the green hand’ grabs you. Dress for a swim!

The image of a king sized waterbed
pushing you against a tree is not a pretty picture, but it sure brings the point home!

I just assumed the problem with strainers was that they could upset your kayak. The magnitude of the water forces never occurred to me.

Once Experienced…
the understanding of the forces is visceral and ingrained, probably forever.

I went through a strainer, on a class IV, last winter when I flipped in front it. I felt the boat hit… THUD! The boat stopped dead, I felt myself being pushed/pulled by the current. First, my paddle got stripped right out my hands. I couldn’t lean back into the current to get to the skirt’s release loop. I didn’t have to. Next thing… Swoosh! I was out of the boat and going through the branches. Fortunately for me, I washed through… :slight_smile:


I’m quibbling again
"Current grabs the tree but not the kayak". Not possible. Any item in the water will drift at the same speed as the water it’s exposed to. There may be less “force” applied to a small object, meaning it takes less external force to alter its speed relative to the water (such as with your paddle or a tow rope), but the drifting speed of any two objects in a uniform current stream is the same. Also, in a straight channel, the current gets faster (within limits) the farther you are from the banks and the farther you are from the river bottom, so a floating tree would be exposed to slower currents, on average, than a kayak floating at the surface, so the tree would actually drift more slowly (though it’s never simple - on river bends, the water within the full depth of the river actually takes a spiral path, complicating the “current speed” issue even more). Bottom line is that any boat paddled downstream must be moving faster than the current and non-self-propelled objects drifting with that current.

I enjoy explaining various simple physics concepts when given the chance (and there is no end to the things in everyday life that colloquial wisdom often misinterprets), but it’s usually too much of a battle to go to great lengths to do so on a message board (it took me a while to learn that). This’ll have to do.

Wow, Pamskee, that’s quite a pile of logs. The worst I’ve ever seen was on the Kickapoo, where there were a few locations having logs jammed up for about an 80-foot length of the river. In those cases, all the logs were still floating, not stacked up in a pile. Those log jams would have been flushed out with the next big flood. Sounds like the river in your example would be a good place to stay off of when the water’s high. Yikes.

Two years ago, the hubby and I were
paddling tandem and having a bad boat control day. We were on that section in medium high water after a storm and had to get around a lot of stuff. I was a wreck and we took out halfway thru the trip. Our friends were in a Dagger Legend and had some dicey moments. They’re more experienced and the Legend is a rock solid boat that can spin flat. We did a lot of that to weave thru the downed trees. We want to do that section again in our solos. The jam will still be a problemm, but I paddle solo better than tandem and should be ok. The jam has to go, but it needs to be removed without damaging the stream. I think a couple weeks of cutting and hauling during low water should do it. I’m going to talk to the guys at the sawmill to see if they would be willing to help if the state agrees.

Close encounters…
with strainers,sweepers,and log jams are always common around here.My wife and I done a trip on the Broad River here in S.C. @ 20 miles.The upper stretches of the river are really quite narrow.We put in on New Years eve.We did’nt even get down the river 1/16th of a mile when we encountered the most stainers that I have seen on the river.We cautiously back paddled to slow down a little to find the best route through.We made it to camp that evening and we were discussing the amount of wood in the river.I figured as the river widened the obstacles would ease up.Well,they did but later on in the trip I got caught up in a sweeper.The river had widened to probably 200 ft+/-.It was so wide that it kind of impaired my judgement on which side of the river would be the best to run.The middle had a huge tree caught on a ledge so that wasn’t much of an option though that is our usual route.We were setting in a eddy a good bit up stream.I decided that we should stay toward the river left and sneak past a good size ledge.Not seeing any obstuctions we proceeded.Suddenly out of no where a big sweeper and strainer were in our path,my wife made it through unscafed.As for me…well I had to take an undesireable swim in the cold water.I made it through o.k. but we ended up having to collect some gear and one of my paddles.I had to pump out my boat a re-arranged some things and change clothes(especially my drawers)before we could continue on. The problem was that the river has a gradual bend to the right.It’s so gradual I didn’t notice it until we were down stream from it.If we would have went a little more to the right,a little closer to the ledge,I would have been alright.The river had flooded at least one good time I know for sure filling the river full of wood and other objects.We saw a swing set made of 4x4 boards in the trees high on the bank in one bend on the river.Be careful out there on the rivers(especially around bends no matter how slight) and have a good time in the winter,spring,summer,or fall.Always keep an eye out for those nasty strainers,sweepers and log jams.Some people like Bob has great advice for getting down rivers safely so take their advice and practice again and again.