May 10, 2022

What Should You Do When Approaching A Low Head Dam In A Canoe Or Kayak?

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by Brad

The United States has more than 4000 low head dams across many rivers. These are small dams to raise the water level in the rivers.

Low head dams are also known as the paddlers killing machine. It is crucial to know what should you do when approaching a low head dam in a canoe or kayak. Learning this skill can save your life one day.

Table of Contents

What Is a Low Head Dam?

Low head dams are small dams that cover the entire width of the river. Most of these dams remain underwater all the time.

Companies use concrete to make these dams. It will provide benefits in the areas where it is hard to make large dams.

The low head dams are available due to many advantages. 

  • Low head dams are less detrimental to the environment and aquatic life.
  • It will improve the water supply in the areas behind the dam.
  • It can increase the water speed and help in hydroelectric power production.
  • It can help in crop cultivation.

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What Should You Do When Approaching A Low-Head Dam In A Canoe Or Kayak
What Should You Do When Approaching A Low-Head Dam In A Canoe Or Kayak?

Where Do Low Head Dams Pose a Hazard?

Low head dams pose a risk to the kayakers due to two reasons. It is hard to identify the low head dams from the kayaks. Swimmers cannot find these dams when swimming.

It takes the kayakers by surprise. They are not expecting a strong downward pressure suddenly. It uses the exact mechanism as the infinity pools. People cannot see the infinity pool edge because the water flows over it.

The second reason a low head dam poses a hazard is the rotation of water. When the water comes down from an edge, it moves towards the lower side of the currents.

These currents also increase the depth of the river. When the low-head dam currents push kayakers under the water, they are not expecting it.

It is hard to estimate the level of force a low head dam produces. Once the kayak is in the low head dam currents, it is almost impossible to paddle out without the accurate technique.

Water boil also hides the strong downward currents making it more dangerous.

Related Article: Kayaking Safety

Is a Kayak Easier to Flip than a Canoe?

Canoes are larger and have a wider surface area. It is hard to flip a canoe than a kayak because of its flat bottom. These aspects also act as the disadvantages of the canoe.

If it flips, there is no way to correct it in the water. You can take help from someone on the other canoe to correct the flip. The kayaks have a round bottom and do not resist flipping.

People flip the kayaks on purpose to have fun. If your kayak flips, you can correct it yourself. Most trainers give special training to the kayaking students to correct the course of the kayak if it flips.

People on the kayak are at more risk due to the low head dams. It is harder to identify these dams from a kayak because you are near to water.

Once the kayak flip, it is harder to correct it in the dam. The canoe will also face the dangers of this dam as there is no way to adjust it when you are stuck in the currents. Usually, two people sit on the canoe.

They have higher chances of identifying the danger in advance. They may prepare themselves before they are stuck in the currents.

Related Article: Kayaking 101 for Beginners

How Do You Escape a Low Head Dam in a Canoe or Kayak?

The best thing you can do to escape the low head dam in a canoe or kayak is to get a map of the water and portage around it. It will show you all the places where they have low head dams.

You should also look for the signs of a low head dam in advance. Early detection can make a difference in saving your life.

You have a higher chance of drawing in the water if the dam engulfs your kayak or canoe by surprise. We will give the most suitable method to avoid drowning in these dams.

If you follow the proper technique, you can save your life and inform others about the threats.

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1. Get Away From the Dam

This step will only work if you identify the location of a low head dam in advance. If you are far from the dam currents, it will be easy to paddle in the opposite direction.

The water speed increases near the dam. If you identify the location of the dam late, you have fewer chances of getting away from the dam. It is also crucial to paddle in the opposite direction of the currents.

It buys you some time to establish the escape strategy. You should stay calm during the process as paddling in confusion promotes kayak flips.

2. Paddle to Shore

When paddling in the opposite direction, you should look for the nearest point to the shore. You cannot keep paddling against the currents as it can drain your energy.

You will increase your risk of drowning if you enter the dam currents with low energy. You can combine the paddle stroke in a backward direction and towards the shore.

It is a perfect way to reach the shore and buy some time. The sooner you go to the shore, the better the chances for survival.

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3. Portage Around It

Once you reach the shore, try to get out of the kayak as soon as possible. Some people try to push the kayak to the shore and wait for the perfect spot. This act can put your life in danger.

You should get off immediately and rescue the kayak later. You can also use the kayak string to pick the kayak later. You can take your kayak and portage around the dam.

There are some crucial points to remember during portage. You should take your kayak to a safer distance as water currents can be aggressive after a long distance from the dam.

If you found one low-head dam, it does not make it easier to find others. You should call for help if you do not have a water map.

In summary

If you find yourself in the situation of approaching a low head dam while kayaking or canoeing, you can do the following steps to escape the low head dam.

  • Get away from the dam ASAP.
  • Paddle to the nearest shore.
  • Get away from the kayak or canoe once you reach the shore and rescue the kayak/canoe later.
  • Call for help if you don’t have a water map.

To finish, if you want to know more about kayaking, search through our kayaking archives.

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Last Updated on February 6, 2023 by Roger

About the author


Brad is a professional climber in the discipline of traditional climbing. He often jokes that he can get a book to read during the long climbs. Of course, it always goes well with a good cup of coffee. Drinking coffee is his safer hobby.

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