CLINTON — Warning signs have been installed along a stretch of the Wapsipinicon River following several occasions during the last year when first responders were called out for search-and-rescue events due to kayaking incidents involving downed trees in the river.
Due to the number of emergency calls in that area, Clinton County Emergency Management Agency’s drone program flew the area of the river and discovered a number of downed trees that are submerged and extending out of the water. These trees are making the river passage dangerous, especially for kayakers with little experience.
This led officials with EMA and Clinton County Conservation to install large signs warning boaters of the dangers in the 1 1/2 miles (north fork) stretch of the Wapsipinicon River.
EMA Operations Officer Dan Howard, EMA lead drone pilot, has observed a lack of emergency training among kayakers.
“From the search-and-rescue calls I have responded to with the drone, some kayakers are not experienced enough for this stretch of river and have little or no training on how to properly handle a kayak in a dangerous situation,” Howard said. “It is one thing to calmly paddle down an easy, slow-moving river, but when the conditions change and the current picks up because you enter a dangerous area with downed trees in the water, the circumstances can turn deadly in a very short time.”
He said kayakers who miss signs of dangerous conditions can easily find themselves trapping their kayaks in downed trees or other debris, causing a potentially fatal emergency.
The search and rescue missions on the Wapsipinicon River have mainly taken place in the north fork of the river, west of the Hagenson Pond Area off U.S. 67 in Clinton County. The north fork of the river is about 1 1/2 miles long and is in heavy tree cover, with large trees and other debris in the water that can be dangerous to kayakers.
Howard said the current and the depth of the river vary during different times of the year depending on snow and ice melt, rain, or lack of rain. He added the river can change daily and the dangers can also change, making each kayak trip a different adventure.
Howard said there are more beginner kayakers due to the pandemic. He recommends beginners seek experienced kayakers’ opinions on safety and purchase of equipment.
Howard offers these safety tips for kayakers:
• Get maps of the river or waterway that you will be traveling. Maps of the Wapsi River can be found at https://www.iowadnr.gov/Portals/idnr/uploads/riverprograms/watertrails/watertrail_wapsi _cs.pdf
• Always know your location so if you do have an emergency you will know how to direct rescue personnel to your location.
• Never paddle alone, take a friend.
• Let someone know where you are going. Give them a map of the area you will be in, if possible. Let them know when you expect to return home, and that if you are not back and cannot be reached by phone, call 911 to get help started.
• Always carry a cell phone or a handheld VHF radio tuned to marine channel 16 that you can call for help with. Keep the cell phone or radio in a waterproof case to keep it dry and, if at all possible, keep it on your person.
• Have a dry bag, commonly referred to as a “ditch kit”, with some survival gear so if you have problems you can easily spend the night where you are until rescue personnel can find you. Some of the basic items to keep in this survival dry bag are dry clothing, drinking water, survival food or some type of energy bars to get you through the night, a flashlight, a fire starter, a sounding device such as a whistle, a survival blanket and a signaling device
Howard also suggests kayakers know the state laws as to which kayaks have to be registered and which pieces of safety equipment must be on their kayak.
Howard adds that beginners should not exceed their kayaking skills and should know their limits. Howard said kayakers should be aware of how far they can safely paddle, remembering they have to have the energy and strength to get back to their starting location.