Swept over a Low Dam? What to do.

Actually, when I was young and sunk
good, I could dive down wearing a 16 pound pfd. And as to the feasibility of someone escaping a hydraulic by diving deep, back in the 70s, while the Wallace dam on the Oconee was partially completed, a couple of us got suckered into running the spillway because we could not scout and could not see the hydraulic from upstream.

I saw the hydraulic at the last minute, accelerated hard, and after submarining up to my armpits, managed to paddle through and escape. The open boater behind me was not supposed to run until he had seen me finish, but he came ahead, was turned sideways, and soon he and his canoe were being recirculated again and again.

After several minutes, without removing his pfd, he dove as deep as he could and swam out. The boat was in another ten minutes. We were trying to borrow a gun to shoot out the floatation when the boat back-endered and popped out.

GK, I know you are a far better swimmer than the rest of us, but in whitewater circles no one believes in stripping off a pfd before swimming out. And there are plenty of instances where people have been able to go deep, wearing their pfd, in the downrushing current entering the hydraulic; and then to swim down and out of the hydraulic. Taking off the pfd >might< make escape easier, IF one is still able to swim effectively afterward without the pfd.

Yup …
Best advice yet and I’m sorry for the reality check, but GK is full of something besides beans, although it may be made from digested beans. There are more than 2,000 LHD’s in the NE and it seems every year someone dies at one.

Points well noted
My experience was limited to a Stohlquist 5801 L/XL and my 185 lbs wouldn’t let me do it. And yes I did assume everyone to be a strong swimmer. My previous water activities were with strong swimmers.

Paddlin’ on


snagged by rebar = drowning
sadly, i knew a fellow who had this happen, drowned, three days after the birth of his first child. best to avoid going over low head dams–period

Beans are good for the heart

and people also die in their sleep but that wasn’t the point of the OP. Deciding to run a LHD is a matter of choice and done after assessing the risk. Risk is what keeps some of us alive and going.

Paddlin’ on


Sorry Richard

– Last Updated: Aug-30-08 7:41 PM EST –

Sorry Richard, but you are speaking about me as if you were aware of information you could not possibly have access too.
You do not know me; you know little about my experience, or training.
For you to say what I have, or have not done is BS.

I have attempted to go underwater in many different USCG approved pfds, including Sohlquist, and Lotus rescue pfds. No, you can not go very deep under water in normal circumstances, but as stated previously, hydraulics are highly aerated. No matter what type of pfd, or it's USCG rating, it will not be equal to it's flotation rating if you're wearing it in a hydraulic.

Swimming parrallel across the river "is" an accepted technique for escaping from a hydraulic. Yes, I have tried it. Yes, I have been in hydraulics. Yes, it is likely that you will be pulled back into the hydraulic, but there is no technique that is fail proof in getting you out of a hydraulic on the first attempt. If at first you don't succeed, you don't quit; whether it be swimming parrallel to the low head dam, or diving & swimming downstream (with or without a pfd). The payoff for quitting may be dying. As stated previously; all hydraulics are not uniform in strength. Any obstacle in the water upstream, or changes in river bottom features upstream, may lessen the strength of the hydraulic below those locations. An eddy which forms downstream of a large boulder is an example of how the river flow/current varies. Logs caught above, or below the water, at the top of the dam may lessen the strength of the hydraulic below their location.

Yes, a pfd may snag on an obstruction. It might also snag on a helmet,your shoes, a dry suit, your kayak, or a canoe. That is not a good reason to get rid of those items of gear, or the pfd.
It is a good reason to carry a knife, and to keep it where you can get to it quickly, if you are going to be paddling rivers which may have hydraulics. It is also a good reason to have some swift water rescue training, and paddle with other paddlers who have some too, if you are paddling whitewater. And yes, I paddled whitewater for more than a couple of years.

While I may not be the swimmer you are, I am good enough to have been an Advanced Swiftwater Rescue Instructor, and a Lifeguard Instructor for many years. Was also a Canoeing Instructor and a Wilderness First Responder for many years.

When your book comes out, and you become nationally know as a water rescue expert Richard, I'll be more inclined to listen to your "ditch the pfd" advice.

Until then, I will accept the teachings of NOC, a highly acclaimed & nationally known school, and nationally known water rescue instructors, and trainers like Charles Walbridge, Wayne Sundmacher Sr.(Whitewater Rescue Manual), and Les Bechdel(River Rescue). Most of the information in my 2 posts was taken from those references, and classes at NOC.

I have had numerous NOC courses, including being recertified in swift water rescue there on 2 occasions, and having completed their Intermediate Level 2 whitewater solo canoe course. I was first certified as an instructor by Wayne Sundmacher.

I don't expect you to agree with "me",
but to deny the experience/expertise of the people listed above, and give us that "my way" routine??? Doesn't make much sense.


Bob, great post and good to hear from someone qualified. Thanks for taking the time to share the good information.

How Long Can You Hold Your Breath?

I had the unfortunate experience early in my career river running of going over a 15’ high waterfall on the Trinity River in California which wasn’t reported in the Guide Book at that time. I was in a rubberized kayak. My four companions at the time were in a raft. Being faster than my friends I came around a bend in the river to confront the waterfall. Being center river there was no chance to pull out. When I went over I hit and flipped out backwards into the undertow. I tried to grab the kayak, but failed. After cycling three times and being hit by the raft when it went over too I decided it was either kick off the bottom down river and swim like h… or I was toasted. I survived at the time because I was in super shape and could hold my breath more than three minutes underwater. In my present condition I would have died there cycling. Had I been able to stay with the craft it would have popped over the stack waves and taken me downstream out of harms way. The 15 to 25 #s of lift of a life jacket come no where near the lift of a kayak or raft.

Another point of my story is, “Always get out and scout if you hear “big” water ahead, no matter what the Guidebooks or other people might say!” River conditions constantly change.

On the contrary
I agree with you as I have not had the training you have had. And I regret not seeking your qualifications before making assumptions. What I have and have offered is my personal experience which was stated. My trial by error with hydraulics was after seeing the video I mentioned.

The water experiences I have had are quite different and with teams of professionals not in kayaks or canoes.

Learning is the collection and understanding from people who have real experience. My experience has always been self taught after evaluating and studying the obstacle. Alone th situation becomes a life and death certainty of which I chose after seeing people who were supposed to be able to handle these fail in a time of crisis.

The discussion was about self rescue and most courses teach the part to the rescuerer with little emphasis on self rescue. A knife on the other hand inthis situation could only be used successfully by a highly skilled individual which is not the average or above average paddler.

Having said this paddlers now have a broader learning spectrum which is the objective of this forum.

Paddlin’ on


I appreciate the advice TheBob . . .

– Last Updated: Aug-31-08 1:46 AM EST –

Your explanations are very useful and more clear to me than books I have read which teach us how to avoid such situations when possible. So far, it's worked, but then the only real whitewater I've experienced is on the ocean.

I just need one clarification. You said,
"I think anyone who advocates paddling into a hydraulic for "training purposes" is full of beans." Did you intend to leave off the "-weenies" part?

I guess I’ll weigh in on this…
I’m fairly new here so a little about me and my experience. I was an instructor at NOC for over 20 years and taught numerous rescue and instructor courses as well as trainings for staff etc. Fun topic and it reminds me of many conversations I had with staff throughout my career.

First…avoid anything you doubt.

Second, all situations are different at different water levels. Take Woodall Shoals on the Chattooga. Its a natural formation similar, but different than any low-head dam. At certain waterlevels avoid it at all costs. Other levels you can play all day in it.

The question was one of “you can’t avoid” Experienced boaters will not get caught in this situation. They would either be walking it, or running it by choice. If they are experienced, they would understand that it is small enough and not powerful enough to cause danger. The trouble begins with in-experienced boaters and novices who don’t see the danger, or over-evaluate their abilities.

So, if you as the experienced boater find yourself in a hydraulic of any type…stay in your boat and surf to the side if possible. If your not in your boat, still swim to the sides. Will, this work? It’s the best chance to start with. Oh, and keep your PFD on. You will be tired soon.

Next, and what you can see on the Nantahala in NC at the top hole in the falls is sort of what GK was talking about. This hole has about 4 feet of backwash. Lowhead dams can have up to 20 feet depending on their size, but on the Nanty, you have lots of novice rafters who fall out at the falls. At this top ledge and hydraulic, they struggle to the surface and surface just upstream of the line that divides the backwash current and the downstream current below the hole/hydraulic. Its pretty funny to see them go around and around. They keep struggling to the surface and get pulled back upstream into the ledge and hole and around they go again. Finally, they give up hope…but this time when they get pulled back toward the ledge and hole, they give up swimming to the surface. This time they surface below the dividing line and get pushed into the downstream current.

Last comment. It is extemely exhausting fighting this current. Lowhead dams are very even and regular unlike natural hydraulics. Many times their ends are blocked with concrete making exiting there impossible. If I were to find myself for some unexplained reason in the backwash of a lowhead dam hydraulic, I would try to get to the side and probably try to climb onto anything I see and hold on for help. No way will you swim out the backend of one with lots of water. At lower waters and with a reasonable length to that dividing line between the backwash and downstream current…say 10 feet. I might try swimming under as far as possible to catch some downstream current and get past that line. But only if I had a backup plan in case I didn’t make it and was pulled back toward the dam. Say if my boat was floating, or a stable log was there that i could grab until help arrived. I’d never take off my pfd though.

There used to be an old video of this I used in my teaching…can’t remember what it was called, but it showed a canoe and 2 people stuck in a big lowhead with about 15-20 feet of backwash. A rescue motorboat from downstream tried to rescue them but ended up in the hydraulic with them even after it being in reverse.

Anyway…stay away…when in doubt don’t try it…when there go to the sides and if blocked or its not working, hold on and climb onto something and pray help comes soon.

Make sure you know somebody…
…with one of these:


Thanks for weighing in, wrhester,
I’m glad you discovered our forum and hope you’ll re-visit and offer more expert advice! We are a broad-spectrum group here, in terms of experience, and few of us have your skills so thanks for joining!

Thanks - interesting boat
Looks funny but the guys demonstrating it sure didn’t shirk any chances to put it at a bad angle to the dams. Did a good job of staying attached too.

Thanks for linking that video! I’d never seen one of those before, though I’ve heard of them. Several of the linked videos were from local rivers here - I guess I would see them if I got out more… It’s a very cool craft alright, but looks like you can still get stuck (if only momentarily) in one if you don’t know what you’re doing. Check out the “Big Falls, SF Payette @ 1200cfs” video.

oh, but there is
"There is no perfect answer…"

Sure there is dude:

Don’t be stupid and go over a low head dam. And for christs sakes…don’t let any young people know you have done it. Set the example. Man-up.


Much good advice, thank you.

– Last Updated: Sep-22-08 4:07 AM EST –

We run into many low head dams here in IL, acehole.

Here's an interesting (albeit slow) video on low head dams. They sure are killers. Why they constructed that little cement "lip" on the bottom that makes them human washing machines, I have no idea.

Video bought to you by madcubano1 @ paddleaway.com. Nice site, brother.


Not by accident.
A low dam would be a spot some would look for.

If committed power through and do a “BOOF” on the last bit of solid water.

If you get caught in the hydraulic you are in trouble.

I would drive the canoe or kayak threough it but don’t get out of the boat.

the lip

Why they constructed that little cement “lip” on the bottom that makes them human washing machines, I have no idea.

It’s to stop the water creating a scour hole below the dam that it will ultimately collapse into.