What Should You Do When Approaching a Low-Head Dam in a Canoe/Kayak?

We who like kayaking sometimes go to not only in the safe zone but also in the danger zone (Low head dam). In this regard, what should you do when approaching a low-head dam in a canoe or kayak!

You started your kayaking journey well wearing a drysuit or, wetsuit. And as you approach the second half of your journey, enjoying the surrounding scenery, you suddenly notice a warning sign saying Low Head Dam Ahead! What are you supposed to do?

Obviously, many ideas run through your mind. As you remember the many sad stories you have read about people who perished after coming across such structures. In some cases, there are no warning signs at all but your instinct tells you there is such a dam right ahead of you. Should you jump off your canoe and walk around it? Should you paddle ashore? Or shun the sign altogether? Options are many but only one will work. In this article, besides detailing all you should know about low head dams. We will elaborately explain how to navigate around the dam. Read on.

What Should You Do When Approaching a Low-Head Dam in a Canoe or Kayak?

The meaning of Low-Head Dam

It is an artificial structure that normally runs the full width of the river and which causes a perfectly uniform reduction in the depth of the river.

Also called a run-of-river dam or drowning machines, a Low Head Dam is deliberately constructed to raise water levels so as to boost water supplies and enhance irrigation in the surrounding areas.

However, these structures pose significant risks to watercourse users like canoeists, and swimmers.

How the Sucking Force Is Created

The dams are usually small in size and cause a small drop in water level which may deceivingly appear less dangerous. However, as water goes over it, a back roller (strong recirculating current) is created at the base of the structure. The force of this boil, irrespective of the size of the river, can trap your kayak against the dam and pull you down into the water. Even more perplexing is the fact during high water or on large rivers, the boil, as it is also called, can be situated up to 100 feet away from the low head dam.

Reasons the structures Are Perilous

  • Difficult to spot

Low-head dams are difficult to spot because they are completely submerged yet their top can lie several feet underneath the surface of the water. The situation is particularly worse when kayaking because some of these vessels do not give you the necessary elevation to notice sections of disturbed water that often indicates the presence of the dams. It is, therefore, not surprising that statistics reveal that between the years 1960 and 2016, a total of 377 fatal accidents were recorded on low-head dams in the United States, half of which involved paddlesports enthusiasts that include canoeists.

  • They are rarely marked or inventoried

A research conducted in 2014 on low head dams in the USA showed that 28 states do not have an inventory of the total number of these dams in those states. What does that show? That there are a possible 2594 low head dams across the United States that do not have the obligatory warning sign. This finding further shows that even if you exercise your due diligence and conduct your research to establish the presence of these structures in the river you are planning to canoe in, your endeavors may not yield fruits.

  • The sucking force is enormous

Regardless of how strong and masculine you are, these dams exert such a strong force you cannot possibly overcome it; research shows that the force can pull one hundred people and thrust them to beneath the dam. Your natural instinct to hold onto branches and wait for external rescue help can’t help either. The current will continuously suck you up and at some point, the pulling force will overcome you. In May last year (2017), two women who tried to kayak over such a dam were caught in the strong pulling force of the recirculating water beneath the structure. Their journey ended tragically; the body of one was recovered immediately while that of her partner was recovered the following day.

  • Rescue is extremely difficult

The dams are as dangerous to rescue boats as they are to kayaks. On many occasions, the boats have been pulled by strong boils and capsized while attempting to retrieve persons caught in the boil. Even PFD (Personal Floatation Devices) cannot protect you from the potent hydraulic pressures associated with boils. So, even though it is advisable to wear the gear at all times, should the structure capsizes your vessel, they will not save you.

What to do if you come across one

  • Avoid it

Immediately you see a sign warning you of the presence or you just notice any of signs that indicate its presence ahead avoid it at all costs. There is no proven technique on how to safely over it. So do not attempt to even lower your speed and canoe over it or even come close to it. Even a mere suspicion by you or your partner is enough for you to pause and take precautionary measures.

  • Paddle to the nearest shore

Given low head dams can exert its effect hundreds of feet away, it is crucial that you leave the watercourse as fast as you can. Do, not even rely on any structure, masculinity, or help from rescuers; paddle to the nearest shoreline (where you can walk along), safely exit your kayak and walk around the dam.

  • Portage around it

Once you safely exit your kayak, circumnavigate around the dam as you portage your vessel around it. Be sure to move a considerable distance away from the dam because the area of disturbed water can extend over a large area. Treat the dam as a very dangerous structure that deserves a wide berth. Do not engage in activities that can endanger your life. Life is precious and it is always better to be safe than sorry, right?

Low Head Dam – Safety Tips While Kayaking

  • Research widely about the river so as to identify any inventoried low head dam. If you can tell the location of a probable disaster in advance, you can significantly lower the risks it poses to your life.
  • Seek advice from seasoned paddle sports personalities and ask them to tell you of any dams that they have discovered while canoeing. Also, ask for signs of the structures and tips on how you can lessen the risks associated with these dangerous structures.
  • Watch carefully the horizontal smooth line that marks the boundary of the blue sky and the stream. Any disturbance downstream, along with the course, can be an indication of the presence of life-threatening low head dams.
  • The dams are usually associated with concrete retaining walls. These walls are a lot easier to spot and as such can give you a more reliable warning for the case of non-inventoried dams. So, be on the lookout for such structures and immediately adopt the safety measures above if you spot one.
  • Maintain a significant distance away from the dam while portaging around the barriers. Do all you can to avoid falling victim to the low head dam; if you notice it safely kayak to the shore.
  • Always use high-quality canoes and service and maintain them to keep them in good working conditions. You should also consider using high elevation canoes so you can spot the signs early enough. Besides, helping you stay safe, the best vessels make your canoeing experience fulfilling.


Plan your journey adequately regardless of how well you think you know the river or the number of years you have done the route. Low head dams can be constructed any time and with the current invention in construction techniques, any structure can take a short time to complete. If you are kayaking in a stream that you are not sufficiently knowledgeable about, make good use of guides and maps. Do not solely rely on warning signs; some spots do not have them. Instead, know how to spot them and be prepared to instantly take safety measures. Knowing the signs and what to do if you come across the dam is paramount for every canoeist.


Low-head dams are exceptionally dangerous structures, to paddlesport enthusiasts in general, and kayakers in particular. There are no safe ways to go over the dams; the only thing you can do is avoid at all costs going anywhere close to them. So, make sure you gather as much information as possible on any dam you may come across in your journey. Even after getting all the information, keep your eyes wide open so you can notice signs of dams explained above. Also, look out and for any new signage indicating their presence because not all are properly signed or marked on the maps. Remember the safest way is to paddle to the shore, leave the water, and portage your way around it.

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