HELENA – Those who have had to give up and return to shore due to poor boating conditions know it can be a tough decision.
“When spring is in the air, snowmelt creates high water in our streams and rivers and high expectations for some good boating or rafting,” said Sara Smith, the boat education coordinator for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks.
The combination of high water and high expectations can be deadly when it turns out that the conditions are too extreme for safe boating.
“It can be hard to put safety ahead of adventure when you’ve spent hours planning a boating trip, but sometimes the only safe choice is to stay off the water,” Smith said.
Smith stresses that all floaters wear a well-fitted Personal Flotation Device or life jacket when on and around the water. “If you are in a boat or even near a rapidly flowing river, wear a life jacket,” she said. “It could save your life. If you fall into cold water without a life jacket you could drown in a matter of minutes.”
Smith says boaters should not assume a river is the same as it was during a previous trip. “Rivers change their channels and new hazards, such as overhanging or broken tree branches and log jams, may exist,” she said. “Make it part of your plan to reschedule a trip if conditions deteriorate,” Smith says.
There are other times, especially for less experienced boaters and floaters, when the dangers aren’t readily apparent until they’ve entered the water.
Here are some tips for navigating the dangers of high water:
- Don’t boat alone.
- Make sure someone on shore knows where you plan to put in, take out, and when you plan to return.
- If the water is in a stage you wouldn’t choose to swim in, then don’t launch your boat
- If you do launch, wear a well-fitted life vest and–in rough waters–a helmet.
Smith also recommends that boaters make a study of high-water hazards and be prepared to cope with dangers that may include:
- debris in water
- cold water
- logs that get lodged together and create a hazard where water can flow through and around them but a boat can’t get through
- bridge abutments that catch debris and create swirling waves
- turbid, muddy water that makes other hazards in the water difficult or impossible to see
the possibility of capsizing and having to rescue yourself or others, or to warm wet boaters quickly to prevent hypothermia
Anyone planning on recreating near water should first check the FWP website for safety information at fwp.mt.gov.