The key to a more successful solo canoeing trip is knowing and going prepared for the things that can wrong. In the next installment of “A Beginner’s Guide to Solo Canoeing,” Tori Baird outlines common hazards to prep for long before you dip your paddle.
By Tori Baird
(Feature photo of Tori canoeing by Mary Thorn)
I once made the very unwise decision to try paddling my canoe loaded with all of my gear in a blasting wind.
I was at the north end of a 20-kilometre-long lake, so the waves had a lot of time to build up to the point of becoming large whitecaps. My destination was 2 km away on the opposite side of the lake, and when I had set off, the waves hadn’t looked too bad from shore.
But by the time I realized they were too big it was already too late to turn back. I had to face my nose into the wind and keep the correct angle the entire time and allow it to ferry me across the lake. I couldn’t take my paddle out of the water for more than a second or the wind would spin me around, and I knew if I broadsided the waves I would dump.
Even if I did successfully spin my canoe around so the wind was at my back, the waves would have been too big to surf. I remember taking an inventory of all the things in my canoe that I would lose if I capsized — my fishing rod and net would be a goner, as would my backup paddle because none of them were clipped down to the boat.
I kept looking back at the point that I had started from, which was gradually getting farther and farther away, and although my destination was getting closer, it still felt like just a mirage in the distance.
READ more Tori Baird’s “Beginner’s Guide to Solo Canoeing”
When I could finally make out the characteristics of the shoreline I was approaching, I could see most of it was lined with cliffs. If I got too close I knew the waves would just slam my boat into the rocks and there would be no where for me to get out safely. Except for one tiny section, about 20-meters long — from where I was it looked like a perfect beach — and I was headed straight for it.
The “beach” turned out to be a perfectly inviting, gently sloping piece of rocky outcropping. It jutted out past the adjacent cliffs just enough to provide a small calm area hidden from the wind, which allowed me to hop out of my boat and pull it up on shore, where I took a break and re-evaluated everything that had just happened.
Canoe tripping can come with many hazards, a lot of which people may not think about when heading out. But it’s best to be aware of and prepared for any situation you may come across while out on the water.
Wind is something that’s easy to underestimate when assessing from shore; a good indicator would be whether or not the waves are breaking into whitecaps. Even if the waves don’t seem too big along the shoreline, you have to consider where you’re travelling to and your options for safety.
For example, if you’re able to travel along the shore the entire time and it’s a shoreline that allows you to hop out and pull your canoe up at any point, then maybe it’s OK to travel. But if your route requires you to travel straight across the middle of a large lake you may want to consider taking a “wind-bound day” and enjoying your campsite until it’s safe to travel.
A rule of thumb when paddling large bodies of water is to plan on 1 of every 4 days being for a wind- bound layover. Getting into a situation where you’ve capsized far from shore can be dangerous for many reasons, including losing your gear, becoming hypothermic, or drowning.
Any activity on, in or near water comes with the risk of drowning; even the strongest of swimmers can fall prey to it. It is the law in Ontario to have a properly sized PFD (personal floatation device) on board for each person on a boat, and you’d be a lot safer to actually wear it! According to the Lifesaving Society, 87 percent of boating-related drownings were not wearing PFDs.
A common misconception is that hypothermia can only occur when the air temperature is below freezing. In reality, hypothermia can strike any time in any weather condition, including rain or water temperatures that lower a person’s core body temperature below 35 degrees Celsius, or 95 degrees Fahrenheit. (The Mayo Clinic states that hypothermia “occurs when your body loses heat faster than it can produce heat, causing a dangerously low body temperature.”)
Because people are less likely to be prepared for cold conditions during the warmer months, summertime exposure to the cold can easily turn into a dangerous situation. This is why it’s extremely important to understand the real risks of hypothermia, how to avoid it, and what to do if you’ve been exposed.
Early warning signs of hypothermia include shivering, blotchy skin, blue fingers and toes, and numbness or tingling. If you find yourself exhibiting any of these symptoms, change into a set of dry clothes and get a fire going as soon as you can.
Even just wearing clothes that are damp from sweat could cause you to catch a chill as the temperature drops in the evening and nighttime. Once you’re relaxing and not producing a lot of body heat from physical activity, it’s a smart idea to change into something dry. This is why keeping your sleeping bag and spare clothes waterproofed in dry bags and dry compression sacks is paramount.
Aside from the seemingly obvious threat of dumping in a rapid or wrapping your canoe around a boulder and losing all your gear, there are many other things one should keep an eye out for when travelling in moving water.
It may be obvious that you would want to avoid plunging over a waterfall — but waterfalls are not the only type of moving water that you want to be cautious of. A swift moving current can catch you off guard, and what may seem harmless at first can quickly become dangerous if the current picks up speed.
Without knowing the proper paddle strokes or how to read a river, you can easily be dragged down stream toward more serious hazards such as a bigger rapid with large, boat-crushing boulders. Losing your canoe and all your gear in a rapid could mean you’re stranded in the middle of nowhere with no way out other than to bushwhack to the nearest road.
If you’re paddling on a river with a bit of current, you also want to keep an eye out for downed trees or low-hanging branches across the river, often referred to as sweepers or strainers. If the current is moving fast enough, you could find yourself getting pushed up against or under the branches, which can also act as hooks, grabbing your clothes or lifejacket and keeping you pinned under water.
Always be aware of what obstructions you’re heading towards, and pull over to safety to properly assess the situation from shore before proceeding.
Travelling in the rain is just a reality of canoe tripping. You’re going to have to do it eventually, so making sure to have good rain gear is always a smart idea.
But what happens if that rain turns into a thunderstorm, complete with lightning, while you’re out paddling? You and your canoe are likely the tallest thing on the water, so your best bet is to head to shore, fast! Do not take shelter under the tallest tree you can find; rather, find a grouping of trees with a fairly uniform height, or better yet a ditch or low ground.
Avoid water, metallic objects, and close contact with others. (According to Environment Canada, little is still known about what exactly happens when lightning hits the water, or how deep a strike can travel down; but we do know it travels along the water’s surface and that can be very dangerous if you’re in a canoe.) If you find yourself in the middle of a lake with no chance to make it to shore in time, stay as low as you can in your canoe, and try not to touch anything wet or metal.
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These are just a few, but some of the most common hazards paddlers may face while out on the water. Of course, how remote you are, how long your trip is, and how many people you’re travelling with, can play a factor in the level of risk.
It’s always important to be prepared, and to make decisions based on your skill and experience level. And if paddling conditions are not safe, taking a rest day is always the smartest decision. Risking your safety just to try to stay on schedule is never worth it.