Arkansas Game and Fish
A man who grew up in Yell County was a regular paddler on the streams that zig-zag through the Ozark and Ouachita mountains. One of his favorite fishing, swimming and paddling spots was Big Piney Creek in Pope County.
Big Piney’s Long Pool recreation area is popular among people who canoe and kayak, and this young man knew well the five-mile run to Twin Bridges.
Big Piney can be a beast when its narrow watershed is raging after a downpour, although it wasn’t particularly rowdy on a particular spring day.
After he began his paddle at Long Pool, he dropped through a fast chute, was turned sideways and his canoe wrapped around a rock he had paddled by many times before.
His boat, weighted down by the stream, trapped him underwater within sight of people on the bank.
By the time they were able to reach him, he had drowned in less than 4 feet of water before his 30th birthday.
Paddlers with wide ranges of skill levels drown for various reasons every year on Arkansas waterways. That includes lives lost this spring.
The rapid rise in sales of recreational paddle boats, especially kayaks, means more people with little experience are on the water. Experienced paddlers carry no guarantee of safety, but their inexperienced colleagues certainly stand less chance of survival when trouble appears.
With a little forethought, preparation and practice, some disasters can be avoided.
- Above all, wear a well-fitting, U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket with the proper amount of buoyancy. It’s no guarantee, but no matter a paddler’s skill level, this is the best way to avoid drowning.
- Assume you will be immersed at some point during your adventure. Dress for the water temperature, not the air temperature. In cool weather, always pack dry clothes in a waterproof container to avoid hypothermia. Also pack an extra paddle with someone in your party.
- Research the water where you’ll be paddling. Many small streams can become raging torrents with only a slight bit of rain in the watershed. Rain miles upstream can cause sudden rises in water level and current. Be prepared to change locations or cancel if the forecast calls for rough conditions.
- Paddle water suited to your skill. This goes hand-in-hand with knowing the water you plan to paddle. Do not rely on someone else in your party to know all the details about the water level, where the put-in is and where the take-out is. Who will you call in a dangerous situation? Know this information before you go.
- If you’re a novice, paddle with someone who’s experienced and don’t paddle alone. Watch what they do and ask questions.
- File a float plan that lets someone know where you’re going and when you expect to return.
- Buy a boat that fits what you intend to do. If you plan to spend your time on white-water, buy a white-water boat. The same goes for recreational boats made for slower streams and flat water.
- Take your boat to a calm, shallow lake or pond and become familiar with it, preferably with an experienced paddler. Fill it with water to see how it changes (notice how heavy it is). Get in it and turn yourself over with someone nearby to help. It’s going to happen sooner or later, and it’s best to learn how to deal with capsizing before you’re on moving water.
- Learn how to get back in, which is called self-rescue. This could save your life.
- After you’ve taken these steps on still water, do the same thing in a slow-moving creek. Work your way up to faster currents slowly. There’s plenty to enjoy along the way.