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Indiana Department of Natural Resources

Outdoor Recreation > Trails > Indiana Canoeing > Common Sense Common Sense

This chapter is devoted to reminding ourselves that a sensible canoeist is a safe canoeist. A sensible paddler respects the rights of property owners at the put-in, along the river and at the take-out. These lands are usually privately owned and should be treated as such. DO NOT TRESPASS ON PRIVATE PROPERTY.

Canoe entry, exit or portage often requires climbing up and down streambanks. Minimal damage should result to streambanks with proper care. Trampling on areas of steep slope, loose soil and shallow-rooted vegetation should be avoided as streambank damage and subsequent erosion is likely to occur. The canoeist should choose gradual slopes, areas of deep-rooted vegetation or gravelly and rocky areas. With a little foresight, a canoeist should be able to use access points, and no one should be able to acknowledge his presence.

Vehicles should be parked in designated areas for canoe drop-off and pick-up. State or county parks, highway right-of-way pull-offs or other appropriate sites should be utilized so that private access is not blocked or dangerous conditions created by the canoeist's vehicles. If an overnight canoe trip is planned, vehicles should be left only after approval has been received. Canoeists should use public or private campgrounds, unless prior permission has been received to camp on private property. The use of campfires should be restricted to safe designated sites, and portable camp stoves should be used in other areas.

Since safety should be considered to be the principal concern of every canoeists, some elaboration on safe canoeing practices is in order. Paddlers should travel in groups of at least three canoes. Sometimes this is not possible, but the careful exercise of good judgment will determine exceptions to this rule. The less the skill of the paddler, and the less that is known about the stream, the more important this rule becomes.

Life jackets are required by common sense and by Indiana law. Most canoe spills take place in shallow water and swift current. There is a substantial probability that a dumped canoeist could hit his head on a rock or his boat. Additionally it is nearly impossible to swim in rapids, or through downed trees. A life jacket is essential to the well being of every canoeist, but it does not help if it is not worn.

A very serious danger and the most underrated hazard to the off-season canoeist is the effect of cold water. Hypothermia is a condition where the body loses its natural thermal regulation. This can be fatal! At 32.5 degree F a body can remain immersed in the water less than fifteen minutes before unconsciousness sets in. At 40 degree F it takes an average of about thirty minutes. For this reason it is imperative that cold weather canoeists carry waterproof dunk bags with warm dry clothes, and warm weather canoeists should do the same. Wet canoeists in cold water must be dried out and warmed up immediately!

Hot weather can be as dangerous as cold weather. Water and aluminum canoes cause considerable reflection on sunny days which may lead to serious sunburn, heat exhaustion or sunstroke. Everyone enjoys getting out in the sun but canoeing in a bathing suit may be a fool-hardy experience. All canoeists need to wear or carry a shirt, blouse or jacket. Hats or other head coverings may be in order to prevent heat exhaustion or sunstroke. Know the symptoms and first aid procedures for these illnesses. They can be extremely serious.

Do not forget your shoes either. Tennis shoes are best for canoeing and should be worn at all times. Bare feet have no place in canoeing as the terrain of the land and the bottoms of streams may be hazardous.

A common, but often exaggerated, concern of canoeists is the fear of snakes. Poisonous snakes are uncommon in Indiana and will rarely, if ever, be observed by a canoeist. Copperheads and timber rattlesnakes are found in southern Indiana, and massasauga rattlesnakes in the northern portions of the state. There are no water moccasins in the state. These poisonous snakes are all nocturnal; so they will be inactive during daylight hours. The snake most often observed by canoeists is the banded water snake which is non-poisonous. Snakes should present little or no concern to Indiana canoeists.

Indiana streams have one hazard which is more common than all the others combined. Trees! When the river gets out of its banks, it will exert several tons of force on a canoe pinned against a tree or bridge pier. An aluminum canoe can also be pinned under a log jam or downed tree, trapping its paddlers. DO NOT canoe on flooded streams. They are extremely dangerous.

One of the most important lessons in canoeing is what to do when you dump, swamp or otherwise fill your canoe with water. Stay with your canoe unless you judge that doing so will endanger your well being. If you can stay with the canoe you can guide it into quiet water. Stay at the upstream end of the canoe so that if the canoe becomes pinned, you do not. If possible hold on to your paddle, you will need it. Do not try to swim in rapids. Float in your life jacket on your back, with your feet downstream. If the water is cold, get ashore quickly.

If someone else's canoe has dumped, try first to rescue the people, then collect their equipment. If it is cold, get them ashore, dry them and warm them immediately. It may not occur to them that they are uncomfortable because they may be confused by the turn of events. Above all, keep calm and encourage the "dunkees" to do likewise.

A comment should be directed towards canoe rescue. If the canoe is full of water, turn it upside down in the water, then lift it out. In deep water the canoe rescue can be accomplished by sliding one canoe out of the water, and onto another canoe. Then turn the dumped canoe right side up and slide it into the water. While the canoe is in the water and submerged, it should be kept clear of all immovable objects which are in the current.

Some canoeists have been observed to tie their paddles to the canoe. If that canoe spills and their feet become tangled in the loose rope, they would not have the opportunity to make that mistake again. There is truth to the old adage-"give them enough rope and they will hang themselves." Let there be nothing which could "permanently attach" someone to a swamped canoe. Loose ropes can be deadly.

Someone on each trip should have maps, and know the location of the nearest road at all times. It may be five minutes out by foot and an hour out by the stream. The locations of medical assistance should also be known. Canoeists in each canoe should also be able to see the canoes in front and behind. Canoeists in the lead (first) canoe should be familiar with the stream, and canoeists in the sweep (last) canoe should be skillful paddlers and be prepared to aid in emergencies. These are easy things to do and should no be overlooked!

Common sense also dictates courtesy. Give canoeists ahead of you a chance to get through fast water before you enter. If someone encounters trouble, be willing to stop and offer your assistance. At put-in and take-out points, be courteous and take turns.

As canoeists, we must cherish our water resources and their environments. One of the main attractions of a stream is its natural undisturbed setting. Canoeists must respect rivers and lakes, private landowners and the rights of other to perceive the resource in its natural beauty. Private property should be entered only after permission has been received, and trespassing should be strictly avoided.

Litter is a major problem along our waterways. Canoeists should take along a waterproof garbage bag and remove all refuse for proper disposal. An environmentally conscious canoeist will not only take out the litter he has brought in, but will pick up after others. Community groups, clubs, school classes, organizations or other groups of environmentally concerned citizens could form stream clean-up weekends for large scale litter removal. Nothing disturbs the aesthetic beauty of a canoe trip more than an abandoned auto, refrigerator or tires in the water. With minimal effort from all users, the waters of Indiana can retain their natural beauty indefinitely.

Respecting the rights of landowners and other stream users also refers to sight and sound. The quiet canoeist will have little disturbance to surrounding wildlife or other stream users, and a more pleasant and interesting trip will result. By leaving no signs of human disturbance, the canoeist further enhances the outdoor experience for himself and other stream users.

The success of canoeing in Indiana is based on the image you present to streambank landowners. It is impossible to expect that the state can or will acquire every inch of land along the streams. A good canoeist looks at preservation of natural conditions as his responsibility and takes the appropriate measures to ensure their retention. No one can blame a landowner for becoming irate when canoeists illegally camp on his property, harass his livestock, vandalize his buildings or litter the streambanks. A canoe trip should leave nothing behind but fond memories. YOU represent the image of all canoeists when you take a trip. Govern your actions accordingly or expect increasing difficulty in finding streams to canoe.