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
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.
AmericanCanoe.org to find descriptions of rivers, instructional programs near you, and additional