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Canoeing and Kayaking Pennsylvania’s Scenic Waterways in the Age of Climate Change

May 24, 2019 12:00 AM
By: Jim Hyland, District Forester, Tioga State Forest

Canoeing and Kayaking Pennsylvania’s Scenic Waterways in the Age of Climate Change

​​The great American conservationist, Aldo Leopold, wrote these words in 1940 as development began to swallow up his favorite wilderness areas:

“…perhaps our grandsons, having never seen a wild river, will never miss the chance to set a canoe in singing waters…..glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in.”

But unlike the wilderness waters of the Midwest that this great American conservationist feared lost, waterways that course through Pennsylvania’s state forestlands will remain forever wild.

Your grandchildren’s grandchildren will have this wild country to be young in. No future generation will miss the opportunity to set a canoe in our singing waters, and the music of these waters will only grow sweeter through the ages.

Navigating our wild waterways is not without risk, however, and boaters must take heed.

Increased Rainfall Escalates Danger for Paddlers

Subtle or pronounced increases in annual rainfall can unseasonably swell normally calm creeks and rivers to dangerous levels.

According to National Weather Service data, annual rainfall amounts have steadily been increasing for the past decades, with a very pronounced increase since 1990. The numbers below tell the story.

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Source: National Weather Service

The chart shows us that since the turn of the 21st Century, rainfall in Pennsylvania has increased on the average of about 10 percent.

What’s more, the Nation Weather Service reports that rainfall is occurring in brief storm downpours that are up to 70 percent wetter than in previous decades.

Risks That Can Be Encountered When Paddling

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For boaters, heavy downpours can lead to increased risk on our waterways. Stream and river levels can rise quickly, and gusty winds in unusually strong thunderstorms can knock trees into the water, creating life threatening “strainers.”

Avoid Strainers

Strainers are typically trees or other debris that are partially submerged in the creek. They block your way but let water strain through.

The most dangerous strainers occur on an outside bend of the creek, where the water volume and current are greater.

The tremendous force of the moving water will pin you against them. 

Avoid them at all cost! If you can’t avoid an obstacle, fight to climb on top of it as your boat hits. Get off the strainer as soon as possible, dismounting on the downstream side.

In the Water Heading Towards a Strainer?

At the last second, switch from a foot-first to a headfirst position and swim hard, trying to launch yourself atop the tree to escape the current. Don’t let your body swing parallel to the trunk or allow your boat to pin you.

Dress Appropriately for Water Temperatures

In Pennsylvania, cold water kills people every year. Water temperature averages a very dangerous 50 degrees in the springtime!

Immersion in water this cold can render you helpless in a matter of minutes. Dress appropriately and prepare for the worst! Bring a waterproof drybag with warm, dry clothes!

Leave Rapids and Rocks to the Experts

In the springtime, or when the water level is high, paddlers may encounter Class III rapids in Pennsylvania, which means that passage can be difficult, and best left to experts.

Go ashore and inspect before attempting passage, or portage (carry your boat) around to be safe.

Know and Abide by Rules and Regulations

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Non-powered boating rules and regulations are in place for your safety. Be familiar and abide by these Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission lifesaving rules and regulations:

  • All persons must wear a Coast Guard approved personal flotation device (PFD or life jacket) during the cold weather months from November 1 through April 30 while underway or at anchor on boats less than 16 feet in length or any canoe or kayak.
  • Children 12 years of age and younger are required to wear a life jacket in all canoes and kayaks.
  • All boats must have an approved PFD on board for each person.
  • All operators of unpowered boats (canoes, kayaks, rowboats, paddleboards) are required to carry a readily available whistle or other sound producing device.
  • Boating under the influence of alcohol or a controlled substance is illegal, and penalties are the same as while driving!

Additional Paddling Safety Tips

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Before you head out to paddle, be sure to check the USGS water level data for the gauge along the stream or river you plan to paddle. Boaters can view the current water level of the creek.

On Pine Creek, for example, readings between 2.5 and 3.5 feet are considered good, and below 2 means that you may scrape bottom in some of the riffles.

Check with your local outfitter, canoe livery, or water trail website for more information.

When you are ready to paddle, be sure to follow these important safety tips:

  • Wear your life jacket -- 80 percent of all recreational boating fatalities happen to people who are not wearing a lifejacket.
  • Expect to get wet -- even the best paddlers sometimes capsize or swamp their boats. Bring extra clothing in a waterproof bag.
  • Be prepared to swim -- if the water looks too hazardous to swim in, don’t go paddling.
  • If you capsize -- hold on to your boat, unless it presents a life-threatening situation. If floating in current, position yourself on the upstream side of the capsized boat.
  • Scout ahead whenever possible -- know the river or stream to avoid surprises.
  • Be prepared for the weather -- get a forecast before you go. Sudden winds and rain are common and can turn a pleasant trip into a risky, unpleasant venture.
  • Wear wading shoes or tennis shoes with wool, polypropylene, pile, or neoprene socks.
  • Never take your boat over a low-head dam -- a deadly mistake, period.
  • Portage (carry) your boat around any section of water about which you feel uncertain.
  • Never boat alone -- boating safety increases with numbers.
  • Keep painter lines (ropes tied to the bow) and any other ropes coiled and secured.
  • Never tie a rope to yourself or to another paddler, especially a child.
  • Kneel to increase your stability before entering rougher water, like a rapid.
  • If you collide with an obstruction, lean toward it -- this will usually prevent your capsizing or flooding the boat.
  • File a float plan with a reliable person indicating where you are going and when you will return. Remember to contact the person when you have returned safely.

For additional information about kayaking and canoeing in Pennsylvania state parks and forests, visit the DCNR website.


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