Paddler Trip Safety: 7 Steps to Prepare

By Walter Opuszynski

Paddlers know that our corridors of travel are unpredictable environments. The water levels can change rapidly with rainfall making what was a Class 2 rapid into a Class 3. There could be a strainer just around the bend. You could challenge yourself too much, or misread a line. It is said that you never paddle the same stretch of river twice, and change is the only constant. This makes our journeys intriguing, but also prompts due diligence to plan, prepare, notify, scout, and continually be on top our your game while traveling on water.

Swanton Vermont EMTs arrive on the scene of a mock emergency as part of the NFCT intern training.
Swanton Vermont EMTs arrive on the scene of a mock emergency as part of our intern training drill.

For plan and prepare recommendations, visit the Northern Forest Canoe Trail (NFCT) website. There are also many resources available from the American Canoe Association. The most important aspects of planning and preparing before a trip are as follows:

1. Know your route. When traveling on the NFCT, access the most information you can about the route you will be traveling. Our guidebook and maps are available for purchase from the NFCT Store. You can also access other resources like river gauges, AMC guidebooks, topo maps, Google Earth, request information from other paddlers on the NFCT Forum, and by scouting as much of the water body as possible from the road or by hiking in to areas you think will be challenging (respect private property).

2. Have the appropriate gear. NRS has useful online checklists to help pack for paddling and camping trips. Think through all the challenges that your trip will present to you and accommodate for them. Remember that by far the most important gear item you can have with you is your life jacket, and it will likely not do you any good if it is sitting on the floor of the boat.

3. Constantly monitor the weather and water conditions. You need to know your limits. Paddling is a recreation where people gradually push their limits under safe controlled conditions in situations where they are learning from people that have more experience. Sometimes you can look at some fast water or a windy day on a lake and think that taking on the challenge will be a good next step in your development. Only proceed if you have fool proof safety plans in place.

For extended trips it is always a good idea to forecast and plan around potential weather issues. It is also a great idea to monitor the weather by use of a weather radio, having background in weather prediction based on natural signs, or using a small portable weather station. Weather in the Northeast is hard to predict: Be prepared for anything.

4. Scout. When in doubt, scout. If you see those white riffles or a horizon line on the waters ahead and you can not get a good read on the appropriate line, do not hesitate to get out and give yourself a good vantage point so you can plan your line, or determine if you will portage.

5. Notify others of your trip details. This is an aspect that often gets overlooked. Before you head out, choose a reliable point person to give your proposed itinerary to and make a point to either develop periodic check-ins or, at a minimum, contact them when the trip is over. (If you agree to do this, be sure to carry through – it could save a false search and rescue from being dispatched). Many paddlers are using SPOT devices to keep loved ones notified of their progress and have a system to send out an emergency signal if they do not have cell service.

This season, NFCT is using InReach devices from Delorme for our Trail Crew so we can keep in communication in areas along the NFCT where there is no cell service, and so that our members can watch our field crew work their way from project to project

6. When on the NFCT sign-in to all Sign-in Boxes. As part of the NFCT’s Emergency Preparedness Plan we have installed 27 sign-in boxes across the Trail. These boxes are helpful for our stewardship efforts (understanding and accommodating use), and can also be used if there is a search and rescue by narrowing down the location of a paddler.

NFCT volunteers install a sign-in box.
NFCT volunteers install a sign-in box.

7. Paddling Safety. This is an entire topic unto itself. Safe paddlers do not just happen, they develop. The more you paddle the more you understand the water and the more you become humbled. There are many instructional programs out there. The American Canoe Association is a good place to find a list of trainings. If you are able to find a good mentor or two this will make all the difference. Value the opportunities you have to paddle with someone with more experience and watch them like a hawk – you will begin to pick up the subtleties of how their efficiency and knowledge is transferred to their paddle.

Mock Rescue Builds Our Confidence

We work with Emergency Responders across the 740-mile waterway to educate them about the type of trail use that occurs in their regions. An example of the Northern

NFCT Trail Maintainer, Steve Boal, being cared for by NFCT interns during the mock emergency response.

SteveBoal_Loaded on the boat_6-14-13Forest Canoe Trail preparing for emergency situations is a mock rescue we carried out during intern training week in northern Vermont. The towns of Swanton and Highgate were very supportive of this initiative and it was a great learning opportunity for all. Steve Boal, NFCT Trail Maintainer for a portion of the Missisquoi River, was our “injured” person and did a realistic acting job of a leg injury and being stuck on a small island below the Highgate Falls Dam, near where our field training was occurring.

Swanton Rescue arrived with their river boat and transported Steve to the mainland where Highgate Rescue administered care. It was an exercise that represented how small towns work together and volunteer their time to keep their communities safe.

A big thank you to all that made this mock emergency a success. We hope to continue this tradition of using similar exercises to raise awareness among emergency response personnel and paddlers alike. Paddle Safe and Have Fun!





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