Calling All Kayakers

10 tips to help ensure a safe summer time on the water.

With temperature rising in the air and in the Columbia, kayakers of all skill levels are preparing to hit the waters in search of adventure. Kayaking offers paddlers a wide variety of excitement levels, and the ability to set your own pace. Some may prefer to leisurely glide through flat water, while others may be brave enough to opt for racing down turbulent whitewater, a fast, shallow stretch of water in a river.

If you feel the need for speed and excitement, and are considering whitewater kayaking this summer, there are a few things you need to know. We spoke with Thomas Fliss, doctor of physical therapy at Hood River Therapy, and an American Canoe Association-certified Level 4 Whitewater Kayak Instructor who has also treated is share of kayaking injuries. From his knowledge and experience, Fliss shared some tips for a fun and safe whitewater kayaking experience.

1. Check the forecast and water level

Before you hit the water, make sure to have an idea of what the weather has in store. In low temperatures, cold water can turn a small accident into a life-threatening situation. Cold-water shock can occur in water as warm as 60 degrees, according to the American Canoe Association, and can lead to cardiac arrest. Hypothermia can occur when cold elements prevent the body from maintaining a core temperature, and can also be fatal. “The Pacific Northwest is known for consistently cold water,” Fliss adds.  “I have seen people show signs of hypothermia after multiple swims on the White Salmon River even on 100-degree days.” The ACA recommends wearing a wetsuit and a dry suit in water 60 degrees or cooler, or if combined air and water temperature is 120 degrees or cooler.

Water level can vary greatly over the course of a season, and can create several hazards for kayakers. Low water exposes more obstacles and creates a smaller water surface area, while high water levels can hide more obstacles and make water rescue more difficult. Know what the water level is before you go out so you know what to expect.

2. Pay attention to your body

Make sure to eat and drink plenty of water before, during and after a day of kayaking. It is also important to stretch and to exit the boat from time to time.

Kayakers often complain that their feet go to sleep after sitting in a cramped kayak. This is the result of restricted circulation to the limb and to the branches of the sciatic nerves. Fliss recommends investing in a pair of low-profile river shoes. “Beginners are often surprised by how difficult and uncomfortable it is to squeeze their sneakers or favorite Chaco sandals into boats,” he says.

If your feet do fall asleep, use caution when exiting the kayak. Walking on rocky shorelines or in shallow water with feet asleep is a combination that can lead to falls, sprained ankles, and twisted knees. When you get out of your kayak, sit on the back deck for a minute and let your feet wake up fully before you get up.

Shoulder problems are also common with paddlers. Your shoulder is the most mobile joint in the body. This ball-and-socket-like joint resembles a golf ball sitting on a tee. Your big chest, shoulder and pull-up muscles tend to be powerful but sloppy movers of the ball within the socket. The specialized muscles that keep the ball centered in the socket are known as the rotator cuff muscles. These are very susceptible to injury during paddling and rowing.

Whitewater kayakers can easily take hundreds of strokes on even a short stretch of river. If you plan on making whitewater kayaking a regular part of your life, exercise techniques should be practiced to strengthen the rotator cuff muscles.

3. Consult with a physical therapist if necessary

Any specific medical concerns should be brought up to a physical therapist before attempting whitewater kayaking.

People with conditions such as sciatica, back pain, neuropathy, or shooting pain may experience worse symptoms after sitting in a kayak for long periods of time. Fortunately, there are effective physical therapy treatments that can help. In the short term, take breaks to stand and stretch at least twice an hour. In the long term, go to a physical therapist and have him or her look at the flexibility in your hamstrings and sciatic nerves and the strength in your postural muscles.

4. Be alert to river hazards

Familiarize yourself with different hazards you may encounter on the river, particularly strainers. Strainers are any kind of obstacle in the water that can allow water to flow through while holding you, such as fallen trees, brush, or undercut rocks. These are very dangerous, and can lead to fatal entrapments. Some other types of river hazards to look out for include dams, sweepers and eddies.

5. Assess your skill level

It never hurts to brush up on your skills, especially when D.H.S. named “operator inexperience” the second most-known cause of kayaking accidents in 2015. Various locations along the gorge offer kayaking lessons to paddlers of all skill levels, for flat water or whitewater. Kayak only class one and two rivers when you are first learning. Inexperienced paddlers should use the “buddy system” and not attempt tricky waters without another paddler nearby, in case of an accident.

One very important thing to remember is that learning whitewater kayaking can be very challenging.  Fliss says, “Kayaking can be frustrating when you are first learning, and it’s one of the most mental sports out there.  So it’s important to assess your progress objectively and not emotionally.”

6. Have the right safety gear

Always wear a properly-fitting personal flotation device (PFD), which will add buoyancy to your body and help you to stay afloat in water, even if you are not a strong swimmer. A helmet should also been worn in rough waters, especially when there is a chance the boat may turn over.

Different types of kayaks should be used for different waters. A white water kayak is typically short, has no keel, and doesn’t move in a straight line, which is advantageous in white water. The paddle used should depend on the paddler’s height and the size of the kayak, and it may be a good idea to carry a second paddle. All new gear should be tested on calm water before use in white water.

7. Brush up on swimming skills

Even with a flotation device on, it is a good idea to have at least basic swim skills when participating in water sports.

8. Practice self-rescue techniques

In the event of an emergency, you may need to know how to get out of your kayak in a difficult situation, such as upside down, under water, or maybe both. Familiarize yourself with different exit techniques such as the wet exit, paddle float rescue, and T rescue.
A kayak roll is the technique in which a kayaker who has flipped upside down uses the paddle and trunk muscles to rotate the boat upright again. A popular kayak roll for beginners to learn is the C-to-C technique, because it is easy to break down into steps. However, Dr. Fliss recommends the sweep roll technique to paddlers who may have shoulder pain, because it is kinder and easier on the shoulder joint.

9. Know the route or go with someone who does
An unfamiliar setting combined a fast-paced river can get paddlers disoriented and off track, and many rivers have forks. If you don’t know exactly where to go on a particular stretch of river, don’t go alone. Take someone with you who is familiar with the route.  Kayakers should also always carry a map and compass.

10. Try these areas

Want to try white water kayaking but don’t know where to go? In the region, Fliss recommends checking out the flat-water Nicholos Basin in Hood River first. Then, the Klickitat, but stay away from the gorge section or the upper Klickitat, which is more advanced. Lastly, when you have a group of experienced boaters, try the lower White Salmon, from Husum to Northwest Park.

Go to AmericanWhitewater.com and AmericanCanoe.org to find descriptions of rivers, instructional programs near you, and additional safety information.