Practice safe paddling

Cuyahoga River Paddling

It's always important to prepare for activities by reviewing safety guidelines. Portage Park District encourages all paddlers to practice safe paddling on every trip. Below are the guidelines from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to help prepare you for your paddling trip. 

River Gauges: Hiram Rapids; Lake Rockwell Reservoir Dam
Paddling Safety Guidelines (source: Ohio Department of Natural Resources
Boaters have been exploring Ohio's waterways by canoe and kayak since pre-historic times. Paddling is a great family activity, and Ohio's lakes, rivers, and streams provide a variety of opportunities for fun and enjoyment -- ranging from quiet lakes and slow, idyllic streams to the wave action of Lake Erie and the adrenaline-charged swift water on a high-flowing river.

Regardless of the paddling activity chosen, make your trip safe and enjoyable:

  • Never boat alone.
  • Wear a lifejacket at all times, particularly in moving water. A wearable PFD for each passenger on board must be carried in the boat, but actually wearing it greatly decreases the chance of drowning on any body of water. Ohio Law: Children less than 10 years of age must wear a properly sized life jacket when on boats less than 18 feet in length.
  • Be prepared to swim. If the water looks too hazardous to swim, then don't boat on it! Even calm water poses risk. Prepare yourself and your gear for getting wet.
  • Dress properly and bring an extra change of clothing with you in a waterproof bag. Pack your cell phone in this bag. Wetsuits or drysuits should be worn when water and air temperatures combined equal less than 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Regardless of the environment, cold water can kill. Dress in layers of clothing that will trap body heat even when wet. Polypropylene or wool are good materials for such conditions. Avoid 100 percent cotton fabrics. Neoprene shoes or tennis shoes with woolen socks are recommended footwear.
  • File a "float plan" with a reliable person indicating where you are going and when you will leave and return. Remember to contact the person once you have returned safely.
  • Do not overload or unevenly load your boat. Keep the weight in the boat centered from side to side and bow to stern. The lower and closer the load in the boat is to the boat’s centerline, the more stable it will be. The boat's capacity plate gives the maximum number of persons and the maximum weight of the equipment and gear on board that the boat can safely accommodate. If your kayak or canoe doesn't have a capacity plate, follow the manufacturer's suggestions for gear and people. Overloading is a leading cause of capsizes of small boats.
  • Always maintain three points of contact (for example, two hands and one foot touching the boat) while moving around in the boat. This includes when you are getting in or out of the boat. If you are actively fishing from your canoe or kayak, be sure to use your back, legs, and feet for bracing.
  • Watch for river hazards. (see "Paddling Hazards" below) Be alert for river characteristics that could cause harm to your boat or persons on board.
    • Strainers, such as fallen tree limbs that "strain" the water while pinning solid objects, and large tree trunks are hazards that should be avoided. 
    • Lowhead Dams: Never boat over low-head dams. Learn to recognize low-head dams and portage well above and below the dam.
    • Never fish, wade or boat too close to the face of the dam.
    • Do not attempt to stand or walk in swift moving water.
  • Be aware of lake hazards: Choosing a lake over a stream removes some risks but does not mean your outing will be trouble-free. Submerged objects, wind, and wake from powerboats pose problems on inland lakes as well as Lake Erie. Know the water depth where you are paddling and realize that while it may be shallow enough to stand up in, the lake bottom may not be safe enough to walk on.
  • Never mix alcohol and boating. Alcohol impairs coordination and judgment, two things vital to a safe boating outing. Stay sober while boating and carry plenty of drinking water.
  • Should an immersion occur, try to get out of the water as quickly as possible. If you capsize, hold on to your boat unless it presents a life-threatening situation. If floating in the current, position yourself on the upstream side of the capsized boat. Do not try to remove clothing or shoes. Air trapped between layers of clothing will aid, not hinder in keeping a person afloat and also protect from direct exposure to cold water.
  • Know your abilities. Do not attempt to navigate a swift-moving river or stream if you have not had previous training. Fast water is extremely powerful: what looks like a fun ride could be deadly. Always paddle with more than one experienced boater in your group so that if trouble occurs, help is nearby. Portage (carry) around any section of water about which you feel uncertain. Avoid overexertion and guard against extreme weather conditions.
  • Carry a rescue throw bag with sufficient line. Rivers often have a strong current which could carry a boat into danger. Be prepared to help other boats on the water should they be in need.

Paddling Hazards on Rivers

In order to have a safe trip, the boater must be aware of the various types of hazards that he or she may encounter while on a stream. The following hazards are not particular to any stream but are those which are most commonly found.

FLOODS AND SWIFT WATER: Paddlers should never boat on streams with water spilling out of the banks. High water causes hazards such as low-head dams to become even more dangerous. Unseen obstacles such as floating logs or submerged trees may also threaten a boater. Flood levels are monitored throughout the state. Know the water conditions before you go.

LOWHEAD DAMS AND WATERFALLS: Know the location of all low-head dams and waterfalls on the river that you plan to boat. Under no circumstances should you attempt to boat over a dam. Small dams can look harmless, particularly in swollen streams, but they are very dangerous because of the turbulence or hydraulic which may form at the base of the dam. Boats, as well as people, may become trapped in this hydraulic. Carry your boat around the hazard and launch at a safe distance downstream from all dams. Waterfalls should also be scouted and portaged. If possible, scout a river or stream in advance of any boating trip and plan your trip to avoid any dams or river obstructions. Click here to see a short video illustration of low-head dams. 

STRAINERS: River obstructions that allow water to flow through them, but which block or "strain" people and boats, are known as "strainers". They are frequently found in the form of overhanging branches and limbs, log jams and flooded islands. All strainers should be avoided, especially in swift water.

HYPOTHERMIA is the lowering of the body's core temperature. It is commonly caused by cold water, but may also be hastened by chilling winds and perspiration. When air and water temperatures combined do not exceed 120 degrees Fahrenheit, hypothermia becomes a hazard. Boaters should be prepared for cold air and water by dressing properly, i.e., wetsuits and woolen clothing. Every boater should be aware of the symptoms of hypothermia and be knowledgeable of its treatment.

FOOT ENTRAPMENTS: If your boat capsizes, do not attempt to stand or walk if you are in swift-moving water. A boater may slip and pin a foot between submerged rocks. Once pinned, the force of the current can push the boater's body under the water and hold it there. Always keep your feet up, pointed downstream, and swim to calm water before standing.

Continue to Ohio Department of Natural Resources page.