Opinion: River paddling is rewarding, but not without risks

Image of a person whitewater kayaking
Photo by roya ann miller

By Rick Feinberg

Warm weather, punctuated by alternating downpours and periods of sunshine, makes spring and summer irresistible for a variety of watersports. Their attraction can be mesmerizing. At the same time, they bring serious risks.

The dichotomy is nicely illustrated by recent rains and floods. Just last week, the front page of one local paper featured idyllic photos of a woman floating in a kayak on the sunlit waves of Mogadore Reservoir. That same page, just a day before, described a half dozen harrowing rescues from swollen rapids of the Cuyahoga River.

Since earning my canoeing merit badge as a 13-year-old Boy Scout, whitewater paddling has been among my most rewarding pastimes. It allows me to traverse spectacular gorges that my land-bound compatriots can never witness. Paddlers often run rivers together, looking out for one another and working as a team. People from all walks of life and a diversity of ideologies join in a common adventure. Challenging rapids provide a powerful adrenaline rush and a feeling of accomplishment when one emerges safely at the bottom.      

We never “overcome” the river but learn to work with it. I’m not a religious person, but feelings of oneness with my environment and fellow paddlers often offer spiritual inspiration.

I have paddled rivers like the New and Cheat in West Virginia and the Youghiogheny in southwestern Pennsylvania. Some of my compatriots run even more demanding waterways. Several have kayaked the Grand Canyon. A few run waterfalls, ranging from the “Sheraton section” of the Cuyahoga—just a few miles downstream from Kent—to the Potomac’s Great Falls, and beyond.

In the course of paddling, I’ve had my share of injuries. Mostly, they’ve been scrapes and bruises. Once on the New River Gorge my kayak smashed into a rock at the bottom of a six-foot drop, and I came out with two sprained ankles. I never have been close to drowning, nor have I lost friends on the water. But tragedies occur, and the possibility is always in the back of our minds.

Experienced paddlers are aware of certain common hazards. At high water it is easy to get swept into the branches of a downed tree. Rescue from such “strainers” is difficult and puts the rescuer in danger. One also should beware of low-head dams. These may feature a drop of only a foot or two, and they look innocent. The water at the bottom, however, recirculates so that a paddler, once caught, is unable to get out.

Serious paddlers recognize the risks inherent in our sport of choice. Before setting out, we evaluate our skill level, the river’s difficulty, present conditions, and the degree of risk that we are willing to assume. We tacitly commit to rescuing our comrades should they find themselves in danger, and we train in rescue techniques. We do not expect bystanders to place themselves in jeopardy to save us. To varying degrees, we willingly risk our own safety, but a fundamental value is never to endanger others.

When we see novices preparing to take on a river that’s beyond their competence, we warn them of the dangers. We may refuse to paddle with them; should we set out together, we might feel obliged to put our lives at risk to rescue them from perils stemming from their lack of judgment and experience. Our stance is typically that they are free to risk their own well-being but not place others under threat.

For anyone who wants to get out on a river, here are a few points to bear in mind:

  • Make sure you have appropriate equipment. That includes a suitable boat such as a whitewater kayak with float bags or a self-bailing inflatable. Wear a helmet and a quality personal floatation device (commonly known as a life jacket).
  • Learn how to control your boat. That means mastering the standard paddle strokes and learning how to read the river. If you’re paddling a kayak and capsize, it’s possible to roll back up and continue on your way. But that requires instruction and practice.
  • Go with others who are more experienced. We welcome new paddlers and are happy to offer appropriate guidance. If you don’t have paddling friends, join an organization devoted to the sport. The largest such group in northeastern Ohio is the Keel Haulers Canoe Club. In southwestern Pennsylvania, the Three Rivers Paddling Club (TRPC) is a mainstay.

Life always comes with risks, and an interesting life increases the potential dangers. We should exercise good judgment, consider the risks, and do our best to minimize unnecessary ones. We should avoid placing others at risk, whether by driving drunk, refusing a COVID vaccination, or running a river beyond our skill level. But when it comes to rivers we can hone our skills, increasing both our safety and enjoyment of an indescribably rewarding sport.

Rick Feinberg is professor emeritus of anthropology at Kent State University, president of the Kent State University Retirees’ Association and a long-time member of the Keel Haulers Canoe Club.

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