With kayaking sports now the most popular participatory outdoor activity among Americans (even more than softball) bringing increasing numbers of paddlers to the Elkhorn, a coalition of organizations saw the need to alert those un-familiar with this popular whitewater stream to a safer way to enjoy its many and varied wonders. While recognizing that the natural environment poses risks for the boating public, the purpose of this is to describe some of these risks and how to better manage them.
Always keep in mind that the gauge on the US 460 Bridge pylon is color-coded: red covers levels above 3 feet (means do not paddle unless an expert paddler. as the dam life-threatening), yellow covers 1.5 – 3 feet (means that your skills need to be intermediate or expert with no children in open boats under 10), and green covers all levels up to 1.5 feet (means appropriate for novices in the company of intermediates through expert paddlers). Kayaks and rafts are more stable than open canoes and thus may be appropriate at higher levels. Stay within the level commensurate with your skills.
The Kayaking People
Safe paddlers always travel in groups of three: one needs help; one gives help; and one goes for help. If you are not sure of your skill level, assume that you are a novice. Make sure the people you paddle with know the water, care about your safety, are not under the influence of any drugs or alcohol, and are physically able and capable to lend assistance.
All groups should have at least the following: a watercraft designed and built the rigors of whitewater; a throw rope; first aid kit; a US Coast Guard approved PFD fitted snugly on each person; a map with river information; a knife to extricate a pinned or entrapped kayaker; a paddle plan (someone should be aware that others are on the river and when they are expected to complete their run), and food/water.
The Elkhorn’s hazards consist of the dam at the Jim Beam Distillery (dams can and have killed people at any level, dead-falls which create strainers, and significant turbulence at four rapids within the first six miles below the Forks. The dam must be portaged on the left side going downstream (river left). Place the bow of the boat at the dam and the left shore, secure the craft to avoid its being swept over the dam, get out and carry the boat across the left side to a point at least halfway down the ledge, and start paddling immediately upon getting back in the boat to avoid being sucked back to the dam and to get a good angle at the rapid immediately below the dam. The dam is more risky to portage at higher levels.
Strainers allow water to flow through a deadfall (dead tree), but traps solid objects like boats and people. The force of the water is very powerful, usually requiring assistance to retrieve such objects. If one capsizes and is swept into a strainer, make sure your head is above the water. The best thing to do is to avoid strainers altogether by looking ahead about fifty to 100 yards, whichever is necessary to steer clear.
Strong rapids and turbulence increase with higher water levels. The “Gorge Section” has the only rapids classed above Class I on the International Scale of River Difficulty. Some would classify the Elkhorn Gorge as a Class III, because there are 3 low and one high Class III rapid among a dozen or so. Generally, keeping boats parallel with the current makes for a dryer trip, especially in these rapids. Canoeists can take the extra precaution of having the bow person kneel be-hind the forward seat to make the bow lighter and, thus, less likely to penetrate large waves.
Weather – Be aware of potential changes in weather and the resulting hazards heavy weather may present to paddlers. High winds and torrential rains can affect the responsiveness of watercraft as well as turbulence of the water. Take note of how to deal with this situation. In the case of high wind, stay away from overhanging trees with dead limbs. In the case of lightning, stay in a plastic boat which is non-conductive, or seek a low spot in an open field to wait out the storm, particularly if in an aluminum canoe.
High water makes the trees along the banks turn into vertical strainers – no place to safely pull out, and a place to avoid. It also attracts other debris which can adversely affect boat control, or worse if swimming. Flood waters are no place for safe paddlers.
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