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The Hazards of Canoeing on Large Rivers

Updated on April 15, 2018
Missing Link profile image

Missing Link is originally from rural Ohio. He currently lives in Hillsboro, OR. with his Wife and two Sons.

What have we gotten ourselves into?  A picture of me.
What have we gotten ourselves into? A picture of me.

In 1989, Russ and I canoed from Chillicothe, Ohio to New Orleans, LA.  Russ is a treasured, life long friend and was a fantastic partner on this epic adventure  The trip covered 1,550 miles and took 37 days. We made it in a standard canoe to Cairo, Illinois. Cairo is where the Ohio River merges into the Mississippi River. In Cairo, we suffered a serious accident. We regrouped however, modified the canoe and, eventually did make it to New Orleans.

It is an absolute miracle we made it to Cairo. I'm currently 42 years old and in retrospect, I cannot endorse traveling a long distance via standard canoe on a large river. For those who choose to go ahead and do so I have some advice and some warnings for you to take heed of.

River Crossings

Large rivers like the Ohio and Mississippi are very treacherous for those in a canoe. If you are traveling a long distance, you will need to cross the river once in a while. The primary reason for this is the need to pass through a lock which you can only do from one side of the river (or at least this is true for the Ohio). By crossing in certain areas you can cut several miles off from your trip. At other times you may want to cross to visit a town or to avoid a congested area.

Rivers such as these are very wide and it takes a long time and lots of effort to cross via canoe. Once out into the river you'd be surprised at the waves and choppy conditions you can run into...especially if there is bad weather or wind. If you get the canoe sideways in a situation like this you are in deep trouble. You will either take on lots of water or will be flipped entirely. You must, in general, keep the canoe pointed in the same direction as the flow of the river. You must cross gradually however and if you do not allow the canoe to get sideways you may make it.

We had a great device to help us. We had a hunting curtain like device (see the last picture) around the canoe. We input fastening buttons around the canoe. The curtain/canopy of the device then snapped into the buttons. There were holes for our two torsos to stick out of and these could be tightened up around our stomachs. So, when waves and rain hit the canopy the water would roll right back into the river instead of accumulating inside the canoe. This was a godsend on several of our crossings; we would not have made all our crossings without it.

The inside of a lock on the Ohio River
The inside of a lock on the Ohio River

A Canoe Can Get Hung Up

Another danger is getting hung up on something. I'm not talking about grounding out on bottom but actually running up on something in the river. The best example for this are tree stumps. Along both sides of the river are submerged tree stumps or those breaking surface. It is easy for one part of the canoe to run up on a stump and get stuck. In the meantime the river current continues to pull at the rest of the canoe. In this situation the canoe can get turned around in an unnatural way which can easily cause the canoe to flip. Once upon the tree stump or other object you must quickly push off of the tree stump with your paddle or hands to break free.

Remember, in this article, I'm not talking about a small river where friends can drink beer together and it doesn't matter if the canoe flips because that is part of the fun. I'm talking about extreme canoeing where flipping can be deadly serious. By flipping a canoe on a major river you could lose many of your possessions, the canoe could continue to float several miles down river before you recapture it or, you could lose the canoe entirely and, you could very well die.

A barge pushing freight up river.  Part of our modified canoe in bottom left
A barge pushing freight up river. Part of our modified canoe in bottom left

Boats and Barges

You will frequently see boats and barges on large rivers. As you draw closer to the ocean you will begin to see ocean liners. Keep your distance as the waves they give off can easily swamp your canoe. Some small, privately owned, motor boats get too close without realizing the danger they are causing for you per waves they are creating. People may wish to approach you via boat because they are curious; you are viewed as a novelty (and a nut case) for having a canoe on a large river. These people mean well but the waves their boat gives off can be dangerous.

To a huge barge you may look like a piece of driftwood. A direct hit from a boat or barge upon your canoe is possible but unlikely if you are careful. If this happens you may very well die. From a mile away a barge may look like it is traveling very slow. It is however traveling faster than you think. It can be upon you quicker than you ever would have guessed. This is very dangerous. You must prepare well ahead of time to avoid large boats and barges. In bad weather or poor visibility you will have less time to react.

The freight cars being pushed by a barge can be far out in front of the barge itself. The freight being pushed, while enormous, is virtually silent. The only significant noise is coming from the rear of the barge itself. You may not hear this noise at all until the outermost freight car starts to pass you. In other words, the freight cars can really sneak up on you.

Two barges pushing freight about to pass one another.  Notice the distance from the rear of the barge to the outer most part of the freight cars.
Two barges pushing freight about to pass one another. Notice the distance from the rear of the barge to the outer most part of the freight cars.

Disorientation at Night

Never canoe on a large river at night. This mistake often happens by passing up a good camp site thinking you can squeeze in a few more miles and then find another good campsite. Then, you do not find another camp site and before you know it it is dark. This is an extremely dangerous situation. For one thing, you can't see well at all now so if you happen to somehow spot a decent camp site you may be past it before you can get to it. You can try to come back to it by turning around to then paddle up river back to the site but this is difficult. As you remain on the river, you will get cold and your mind and body fatigued. The longer you stay on the river at night the worse things will must get off. Can you imagine tipping the canoe at night?  Even once you do get off the river now you have to set up camp with little light which is a pain.

The other huge danger of canoeing at night on a large river is one of faulty perception. Your mind and senses easily play tricks on you. You may see a light in front of you thinking it is a boat when in fact it is coming from a house on a hill. You may see a light that you think is on shore when in fact it is a boat coming right at you. Sounds will trick you too. Never ever travel via a standard canoe on a large river at night!

If You Proceed With a Standard Canoe

If you are determined to canoe on a large river I suggest you don't go more than 30-50 miles. Stay on one side of the river the entire time without crossing. You don't have to hug the bank of course but don't go out much beyond...let's say...70 yards. If an accident happens, being relatively close to shore will greatly enhance your chances of a halfway decent outcome.

Obtain maps ahead of time to see if there are any dams or locks per your route. If so make sure you are on the same side of the river as the lock. This way you can pass through the lock without having to cross to the other side of the river. Lock Masters are not crazy about locking through a single canoe but on occasion they will---most of the time they make you wait until another boat or two comes along.

Try to stay away from moving boats and barges per the waves they give off. Never canoe at night. If you do these things you will probably be ok. If you go beyond 50 miles you are pushing your luck.

Modifying the Canoe Changes Everything

To make the long, epic canoe trip safe you need to modify your canoe with an outrigger or two. We modified ours on both sides after almost getting killed per an accident in the Cairo, Illinois area. Outriggers add incredible stability to a canoe and with them I see no way you can tip. In fact, we use to angle in right after a barge passed to ride the huge waves that their engines gave off. What a blast!

With the outriggers you can easily stand up in the canoe no problem. Your only threat now is a direct hit by a boat. Barges can be seen from far away so if alert you will have plenty of time to get out of the way. Smaller pleasure boats should easily see you and you will hear them too. If you are in heavy rain, thick fog, etc. your chances of a collision go up. If the weather is really bad just simply get off the river and hunker down somewhere.

Once you have the outriggers the biggest danger is fatigue or not paying attention; these factors can lead to a collision. If you are not paying attention or are sleepy a barge or ocean liner can be upon you in no time at all. With the addition of outriggers, most all danger is eliminated and you can much more enjoy the incredible beauty and adventure!!

I hope you enjoyed this hub!

That's me standing in our modified canoe.  Notice the protective canvas (mentioned earlier) unbuttoned and rolled up from both ends of the canoe.   The paddle in the water behind me is actually tied to the canoe.
That's me standing in our modified canoe. Notice the protective canvas (mentioned earlier) unbuttoned and rolled up from both ends of the canoe. The paddle in the water behind me is actually tied to the canoe.

© 2010 Missing Link


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