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  • Writer's pictureCliff Jacobson



Round the bend you see the dancing horsetails of a familiar rapid. Pangs of conscience tell you to check the pitch from shore before you proceed, but you arrogantly dismiss the warning and plunge confidently ahead. Then you see it—a storm-downed sapling that blocks the way. The canoe spins sideways and overturns. Seconds later, the golden Kevlar hull is tightly wrapped around a midstream boulder. Safe on shore, you and your partner helplessly watch the craft break up.

Fantasy? Hardly! It happened to me on a Canadian river I’d paddled five times before. I thought I knew every rock and eddy in the water course. But it hadn’t rained for weeks, and my ordinarily clear channel was a dry boulder bed!

Not scouting a rapid you’ve paddled many times can destroy your canoe...or even kill you! What's easy when the water level is low, can be a killer when it's high...and vice-versa!


You’re broiling from the heat of your life vest, so you peel open the zipper to let in air. Ahh…cool at last. Seconds later, you’ve capsized and are swept into the branches of a downed tree. The wings of your unsecured vest wag in the water and an armhole catches a tree branch. You stop with a jerk and are momentarily held under water. Thank God you’re able to get free! Next time you go canoeing you’ll keep your life vest zipped up tight!


You have capsized in a shallow rapid and are thrown clear of the canoe. Instead of turning on your back, feet up (the "rapid swimming position)", you instinctively drop your legs and try to walk. Seconds later a foot becomes lodged between rocks and the current mows you down. Luckily, you're wearing low quarter sneakers you can get out of! "Foot entrapment" kills paddlers every year! Important: The rule is to never attempt to stand up in a rapid that is more than knee deep.


Sharp rocks, sticks, broken glass and tin cans in the water, can cause nasty wounds or worse on bare feet. Protective footwear is a must if you have to step out of your canoe. And if you capsize, you will!


Well anchored, wide-spread knees provide pressure points from which you can heel the hull right or left or, brace far out with confidence. Don't be fooled by the success of down-river racers who never kneel in their canoes. The seats of racing canoes are slung too low for kneeling, and the bows are too narrow to spread your knees wide for purchase against the hull. Yes, you can have good boat control while sitting but only if your canoe has a low seat and foot and knee braces.

Snake River, Yukon. Cliff and the "caribou rack"


Loose items like paddles, shed antlers, fishing rods, folding stools, pack frames and ice chests must be streamlined with the load and not come much above the gunnels. Objects secured to the deck of a kayak can be particularly dangerous!

Example: My wife Susie found a nice caribou rack along the Snake River in Canada’s Yukon. She insisted that we lash the shed antlers on top of our spray cover so we wouldn't lose it overboard. Later that day we came to a tight, narrow turn with pointy spruce trees spearing out (three fourths of the river width) from the outside bend. There was no room to maneuver so I set up for a back-ferry and told Susie to paddle like hell.

As the canoe began to turn, the bow ran aground on a rock and spun around (bow upstream) into the current. An over-hanging branch locked between the tines, which brought us to a dead stop. We were facing upstream with the current going hell-bent-for-leather all around us. About 20 feet behind us (down-river) there was another sweeper. What to do? The solution was to cut free of the holding branch then cut right and forward ferry. Reluctantly, I drew my sheath knife and cut the cord, praying I wouldn’t be impaled by the tines when the rack rolled. As the canoe slid back (downstream), I angled to shore and we powered forward with all our might. Yes, we made it!

I was lucky to be spared, not speared! Oh, did I mention that Susie stopped paddling during the ferry and grabbed that rack before it could sink. It currently resides in our back yard.

Kayakers take note! Don't tie bulky items on to the back of your kayak! In 2003, my friend Martha Schouweiler was leading a kayak trip on Lake Superior when a kayak capsized in big waves far from shore. Folding chairs and sleeping pads bungeed to the decks prevented a proper roll, and the paddler had to exit the boat. Fortunately, Martha was close by and able to organize a T-rescue and rafted tow. This was a very dangerous situation!


You're canoeing a rapid when your paddle breaks. You reach for the spare but it's tightly wedged under thwarts, tied in or buried beneath camping gear. Suddenly, a rock looms ahead. Bang! And, capsize!

Keep your spare paddle handy! Better to leave it loose in the canoe where it can float free and be lost in a capsize, than to slow accessibility by wedging it under thwarts or between packs.


I can think of few things that are more dangerous than running rapids while wearing something around your neck. Some years ago, I paddled a small, rain-swollen river with some friends. Their canoe upset on a bridge piling where the current speed was at least 10 miles an hour. The man was wearing a Sierra cup on a cotton string around his neck. The string caught on one of the canoe's yoke pads and held the man under for some time before it broke and set him free. For months afterward, his neck bore the scar of that capsize.

Rule: Never wear anything around your neck--camera, binoculars or a strong necklace! Be wary of pocket lanyards (Swiss Army knife?) that could stream out and catch on something.

This is a just small sample of dangerous canoeing mistakes you won't want to make as you grow with the sport.

*My flagship book, CANOEING WILD RIVERS, 5th Edition, contains a wealth of advice on "how to safely canoe difficult rivers."

*My teen book, "Justin Cody's Race to Survival" mixes a fictional wilderness survival tale with practical outdoor tips everyone should know--a first for books of this type. Adults love it too!


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