What Should You Do If A Low Head Dam Approaches?

What should you do when approaching a low-head dam in a canoe or kayak?  You’ve undoubtedly seen a pretty small dam in your region being used to support a lake or control water flow to prevent flooding. To the uninitiated whitewater kayaker, this may appear to be a lot of fun to run! But is it safe? Are you sure where you will head?  What should you do if you know you’ll be approaching a low-head dam? “Avoid Them!” is the simple answer. Don’t take the chance of going into these low-head dams and you could end yourself in danger and disaster. This post will explain why you should avoid it! 

What Is A Low Head Dam?

Low head dam Kayak
Low head dam Kayak

Low-head dams are typically built in a pretty simple manner. They are built parallel to a brook or river. Walls on each side prevent the river from just rising and pouring over there. At the dam’s beginning, there is a primary channel through which water pours onto a long smooth sloped surface. The water from here drains into a pool beneath the dam, where a good-looking hole forms. These are most likely the most deadly holes on a watercourse.

The reason for this is that the holes run straight across the river and have a ton of rotation power as well as an enormously huge zone where the river will pull you back into the hole. Any of these factors would make a hole deadly on its own, but when combined, they create an extremely dangerous river feature that you should avoid.

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Which Is the Characteristic of Low Head Dams?

Low head dam Kayak
Low head dam Kayak

Low-head dams are distinguished by their low height, which ranges from one to fifteen feet, allowing water to flow over the dam’s top. Water cascading over the dam creates highly aerated, swirling currents beneath the surface, trapping persons and objects underwater against the dam’s face.

These forces constitute an almost impenetrable trap for even the strongest swimmers, boats, and kayaks. People are frequently unaware of these dangers or underestimate their likelihood of becoming victims of them. Because of this risk, these constructions have been dubbed “the murderer in our river” or “drowning machines.”

Signs That You’re Nearing a Low-Head Dam?

There is no one-size-fits-all response to this topic because the warning indicators that a low-head dam is approaching differ based on the dam’s size and design. However, some general warning indications that a dam may be on the way include: 

  • The water is moving significantly faster than usual. 
  • The water is unusually rough, tumultuous, or muddy. 
  • The water contains trash or froth. 
  • The sound of the river or stream changes abruptly. 
  • The surrounding banks have been substantially undermined. 
  • The bottom of the river or stream cannot be seen.

What To Do If A Low Head Dam Is Approaching?

  • Stay away from them! 
  • Paddle to the nearest bank and have a walk around the dam! 
  • You should plan your route ahead of time to avoid a low-head dam! 
  • You should not rely on signs while you travel. 
  • Gather as much information as possible on the river you intend to kayak on before heading out! 
  • It is best to paddle with locals in the area because they are familiar with the route. 
  • Purchase Reliable Maps & Guides.
  • Before you go, study a map to find prospective dams and hazards, or ask a local for more information about dam locations. 
  • Always be on the lookout for potentially hazardous situations. 
  • When kayaking, canoeing, or boating, always portage around the structure or turn around well before reaching the dam. 
  • Respect all posted notices and obstacles. 
  • Let someone know when and where you’re going and when you’ll be back. 
  • Never into the water to assist someone. Instead, call 911 and try to pull them back to safety using a remote assistance device such as a rope or throw bag.

Low Head Dam Hazard You Should Be Aware Of

Low head dam Kayak

Low Head Dams are nearly impossible to detect! 

These full-sized dams have much larger spillway gates that appear far more frightening. They float beneath the surface of the water and are, at best, impossible to detect. Low-head dams, on the other hand, can be practically unnoticeable in the correct conditions. You won’t notice a low-head dam until you’re on top of it, whether you’re in a canoe or a kayak.

Canoe seats have a modest edge in terms of elevation and visibility. Kayakers sit lower on the water, worsening the situation. As a result, understanding what to do when approaching a low-head dam must be an immediate reaction because you may only have seconds to act.

Low-Head Dams Are Frequently Unmarked

There is no official inventory of low-head dams in the United States, with all but a few states failing to maintain track. Only three states, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Virginia, publish rough estimates, and only three have statutory control for public safety at low-head dams. Because there is no legal necessity for it, most dams are largely unmarked, with no warning signs. You’ll also rarely find their whereabouts on maps.

You’re up against strong currents.

Many people either underestimate or overestimate their physical capabilities to overcome the severe currents that exist around low-head dams. The magnitude of the dam isn’t the adversary here; it’s the destructive strength of the currents. Water flow forces can be so high that they suck everything – boats, people, and trash – over the dam and into the recirculating stream below. There are large hydraulic forces and low buoyancy. A deadly recipe for disaster that could be fatal to anyone unfortunate enough to become trapped under its pressure.

There is a wide variety of floating debris.

Higher rainfall is frequently accompanied by debris, with branches and other solid things floating in the water. So, in addition to fighting the currents, you must defend yourself from debris, which increases your chances of becoming caught and can result in severe injuries.

You Might Get Caught Up In The “Boil”

The “boil,” a powerful and recirculating stream that originates directly beneath the dam, is the most destructive force in a low-head dam. The turbulence caused by the water flowing over the dam’s face swallows everyone and everything in its path. No matter how hard you fight, you’re hammered by the relentless hydraulic forces that draw you off the surface, drag you underneath, and pin you against the dam’s wall.

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Difficult to Escape and Rescue

Low head dam Kayak

Even if you make it to the surface, the constant flow of water and recirculating currents pull you back down, and the nightmare begins all over again. Wearing a personal floatation device (PFD) is always suggested, however, the highly aerated, turbulent waters of a low-head dam generate enough water pressure to render life jackets worthless. The terrible part is that once you’re inside, you’re completely alone. Rescue at the Low-head Dam is nearly impossible, and many rescue crews end up becoming victims themselves.

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Conclusion | Low head dam Kayak

If you’re approaching a low-head dam, you should avoid it! The actions described above should be taken into account to keep you safe. Remember what to do while approaching a low-head dam, whether you’re in a canoe or kayak, and exercise caution with all of these low-head dam hazards. The easiest way to avoid any of these low-head dams is to plan your route ahead of time to ensure that you will not meet this terrifying low-head dam.

In the meantime, I’d love to connect with you on my Facebook, and Instagram accounts for more cool tips and recommendations on paddle boards and kayaks.

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Review written by: Tom

Hi! My name is Tom. During the year I try to be on a paddle board as much as possible. By reading this blog you'll stay updated on everything I test on the water :)