Our dangerous waters

Wednesday, August 22, 2012 - 11:35

Two canoeists died [in Eagle River] after they ran up against something found in nearly every Alaska river: a log jam.

Our rivers, especially the flat and smooth ones, too often lure even relatively experienced boaters into disasters of this sort.

Raging whitewater canyons, such as the Nenana River on the east side of Denali National Park & Preserve, have their obvious dangers that discourage most boaters.

The canoeists died last week on the upper stretch of Eagle River, near Anchorage. That section is mild in comparison to the Nenana and is easily accessible by road. It is, in those respects, similar to the upper Chena and Chatanika rivers near Fairbanks.

But these rivers are just as deadly as the Nenana, if not more so. Too many people, especially those who have considerable experience in boats, look at the relatively slow water and figure they’ll have no trouble.

These non-whitewater rivers occasionally neck down into a narrow channel with strong current that pushes everything toward the outside bank. There, the current cuts under trees and topples them into the water, where they form sweepers and strainers. When the bends are especially sharp, they tend to collect logjams. Both are dangerous to boaters who run up against them.

Too few boaters understand what can happen when even a slow, flat river pushes against a canoe or kayak made stationary by a log jam or sweeper. In fact, many people have had it happen and never experienced a problem. They’ve managed to scoot off and continue, never knowing what disaster they’ve just avoided.

When a boat stops in a river, enormous pressure can build on the upstream side. The boat becomes prone to flipping. If it does, the water will push everything and everyone inside into the logjam or sweeper. Sometimes, a person can haul himself out, sometimes not. The current might push too hard, a piece of clothing might get hooked on a branch or a rope might catch on a foot.

There are good techniques to avoid obstacles in rivers and too handle stuck boats, but they’re counterintuitive. To use these methods, most people need to be trained on the water by an instructor or another experienced boater. They don’t come naturally.

Alaskans who have flipped on a sweeper or logjam and survived become evangelists for such training. It only takes one to learn why.


— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner

Aug. 12

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