At last spring showers are falling and rivers are back on the rise. Rising water is often the trigger for our migratory fish to start swimming upstream in search of spawning grounds. It is also the trigger for many paddlers to start paddling downstream through the rapids.
Massachusetts offers a bounty of paddling opportunities. Though it is the whitewater paddlers who will don a drysuit or wetsuit, life jacket and helmet this early in the season when water temperatures may be hovering just above freezing. Fortunately, there are opportunities in Massachusetts to enjoy a whitewater paddling excursions throughout the summer and fall.
Regardless of whether you explore rivers in the company of a professionally trained raft guide, as part of a fishing and boating tour, by renting a canoe or inflatable raft or simply grabbing your kayak and paddle in your garage, there are several things you should keep in mind.
River recreation has certain risks that can be minimized with proper judgment and equipment. Safety is an attitude and awareness, as much as a set of rules. Have an honest knowledge of your skills and experience, and only attempt activities within your ability.
- Because whitewater releases from the hydropower dams can raise water levels quickly, visitors are advised to be alert to changing conditions. River flow forecasts and water level reports for several river segments in Massachusetts may be obtained by phone and online at www.H2OLINE.com.
- Practice extra caution above and below dams. Do not paddle close to the tops of dams, or approach the outfall below the dam. Despite a seemingly benign appearance, the hydraulic created by the outflowing water can create a deadly trap.
- Brush, fallen logs, bridge pilings or anything else which allows the river current to sweep through but pins you or your boat against it can be dangerous. This is especially true due to recent storm events and fallen trees. Keep in mind, fallen trees provide many benefits to fish and wildlife. Check out DER’s and Appalachian Mountain Club’s Trees, Paddlers and Wildlife: Safeguarding Ecological and Recreational Values on the River brochure and video for guidance on ways to assess and ways to address obstacles in the river created by woody vegetation.
- Do not stand up in fast water if deeper than mid-calf. Your feet and legs could be trapped, allowing the current to push you under. Instead, float on your back with your feet on the surface “in front of you” or “downstream of you.” Hold your boat downstream of you so you do not become trapped between your boat and a rock or barrier. Wait to stand up until the current slows or the water becomes shallow.
- If you hear thunder and see lightning, get off the water. Take shelter in a thick stand of trees if lightning strikes nearby.
- Know without a doubt what poison ivy looks like. In some areas of the river it is plentiful as some of us outdoor enthusiasts have come to know all too well.
Be a well-prepared paddler:
- Wear a U.S. Coast Guard approved personal flotation device (PFD), especially if you are in rapid current, are a weak swimmer, or the water is cold. By law children are required to wear a properly fitting PFD, and each adult is required to have one in the boat. Think of it as a seatbelt—it only works when you are wearing it.
- Wear footgear to protect against sharp rocks or other hazards, and sunscreen and a hat to protect from the sun.
- In case the boat tips over (mishaps do happen), stow your items neatly in a waterproof bag, so they can be retrieved easily. A duffel or backpack lined with plastic bags that is secured to the boat works well.
- Be aware of the signs of hypothermia. Symptoms include: uncontrollable shivering, mental confusion, physical sluggishness, pale complexion, and an inability to get warm. Hypothermia can occur even during the summer if you’re not equipped properly.
- Don’t drink any surface water unless it has been chemically treated or physically filtered.
Now that you are well-prepared (or, if you prefer, being a spectator), then you might want to check out some river events happening this spring listed in the DER’s Rivers and Wetlands Month calendar.