Ohio has seen an explosion in the number of residents using kayaks and canoes on the state’s waterways in recent years, but area experts urge those people to be careful when traveling on rivers and streams.
"I know people are eager to get their boats on the water, but I urge new kayakers to use caution," said Mary Jo Monte-Kaser, a local certified canoe and kayak instructor, who was appointed this year to the Ohio Waterways Safety Council, which is part of ODNR.
"Rivers are very unpredictable — even our Tuscarawas River. It may look benign, but the Tuscarawas River has the same potential for disaster as any river. The current can be deceiving. When the river rises, it carries with it a lot of heavy debris that isn’t necessarily visible at the surface. Large trees, carried by strong current can tip a boat easily. With high and muddy water, these floating hazards are invisible until it’s too late."
Added New Philadelphia Fire Lt. Bobby Smith, a member of the department’s water rescue team, "Please, just wear a life jacket. That just avoids so many problems. And of course, you don’t want to be consuming any alcohol or anything like that while you’re on the water. It just makes it so much more dangerous."
During the recent Memorial Day weekend, Tuscarawas County law enforcement and firefighters were called upon to perform water rescues twice in one day Sunday on the Tuscarawas River.
Two women were rescued from the Tuscarawas River at approximately 7:05 p.m. Sunday near Moose Island after their kayak had capsized. A sheriff’s deputy investigating calls for help found the women sitting on a log in the river after the kayak was swept downstream.
Firefighters from the Uhrichsville department rescued the women.
Earlier in the day, four people were rescued after their kayaks overturned in the rough water. The Warwick Township Fire Department was dispatched at 12:35 p.m. after a motorist traveling on Route 416 south of Tuscarawas observed empty kayaks floating down the river.
Navigating the river in boats, firefighters located two people on the bank and two in the watcher clutching a log. Two of the kayakers were from Newcomerstown while the other two were from Virginia Beach, Va.
None of the four were wearing life vests, but they managed to escape uninjured.
"The Tuscarawas River has some dangerous spots," Smith said. "So if you don’t have a little bit of an idea what’s going on, you can get into trouble before you know it."
In the New Philadelphia area, the river is about 8 to 9 feet deep, but near the Buehler’s store on S. Broadway there is a spot where the river is 25 feet deep, he said.
The rescues performed on the Tuscarawas River came after the area received heavy rains on Saturday.
"That swells up the river, so it makes it a little more dangerous," Smith said. "There’s things that were normally not underwater that are now underwater — limbs and things that can catch you and pull you under. It just makes it faster."
Coshocton County officials also had to rescue a 22-year-old man from the Walhonding River on Saturday.
The man and a 26-year-old male, both Coshocton residents, were floating down the river with two other friends in separate boats when the boats became separated. The 22-year-old man jumped in the river and began swimming, but was not able to make it to the shore.
The 26-year-old was able to exit the river after the boat hit a sandbar and reported the other male was missing.
Crews searched the river banks for hours until a 911 caller reported seeing a male in the river going under water for extended periods of time before resurfacing. Deputies and fire company dive boats eventually located the male and pulled him from the river.
The male required medical attention, but was able to walk from the rescue boat under his own power. He was later taken to Knox Community Hospital in Mt. Vernon for additional treatment.
Authorities said he traveled the river from the Route 751 area and through the spillway of the Mohawk Dam before being rescued. Alcohol is believed to have been a factor in the incident.
Monte-Kaser said new boaters should head to a lake first before trying to tackle a river.
"If you have any doubts about your safety on the river, go to one of our many nearby lakes," she said. "If you choose to paddle a river, especially our smaller streams with lots of bends, stay alert and listen. If you can hear water moving and you can’t see what’s up ahead, take time to get to shore and scout the river ahead of you. These small streams are littered with impassable obstacles, like fallen trees.
"If you’re new to paddling, head to a lake — and not a river — to check out your equipment and your comfort level. Familiarize yourself with your boat, so you know how to handle it before you take it to moving water. Current is just another variable with which you do not need to contend as a beginner."
Access to the Tuscarawas River has increased in recent years with new boat ramps being established, including ones at Dover and Tuscarawas. The city of New Philadelphia is in the process of developing ramps at the former Carlisle Livery on state Route 416 and on S. Broadway by Water Works Park.
"That’s going to be a big help for us getting our boat in the water," Smith said of the S. Broadway ramp. "It’s really hard to get into the river. It also will probably increase our potential for needing to be called, because I think more and more people will be using that for kayaking and things like that."
Preparation is essential before taking a canoe or kayak trip on the river, Monte-Kaser said. She recommends checking the U.S. Geological Survey website at https://waterwatch.usgs.gov/index.php for area river and stream levels before heading out. If water levels are high, don’t go into the river.
"Your time on the river is supposed to be fun and enjoyable," she said. "It’s worth a little extra time to make sure your trip is safe and within your ability level."
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources offers the following safety tips:
• Never boat alone.
• Wear a life jacket at all times, particularly in moving water.
• Be prepared to swim.
• Dress properly and bring an extra change of clothing with you in a waterproof bag. Pack your cell phone in this bag.
• File a "float plan" with a reliable person indicating where you are going and when you will leave and return. Remember to contact the person once you have returned safely.
• Do not overload or unevenly load your boat. Keep the weight in the boat centered from side to side and bow to stern. The lower and closer the load in the boat is to the boat’s centerline, the more stable it will be.
• Always maintain three points of contact (for example, two hands and one foot touching the boat) while moving around in the boat.
• Watch for river hazards. Be alert for river characteristics that could cause harm to your boat or persons on board.
• Strainers, such as fallen tree limbs that "strain" the water while pinning solid objects, and large tree trunks are hazards that should be avoided.
• Lowhead Dams: Never boat over lowhead dams. Learn to recognize lowhead dams and portage well above and below the dam.
• Never fish, wade or boat too close to the face of the dam.
• Do not attempt to stand or walk in swift moving water.
• Be aware of lake hazards: Choosing a lake over a stream removes some risks but does not mean your outing will be trouble-free. Submerged objects, wind and wake from powerboats pose problems on inland lakes as well as Lake Erie.
• Never mix alcohol and boating.
• Should an immersion occur, try to get out of the water as quickly as possible. If you capsize, hold on to your boat unless it presents a life-threatening situation.
• Know your abilities. Do not attempt to navigate a swift-moving river or stream if you have not had previous training.
• Carry a rescue throw bag with sufficient line.