A viral video on YouTube (above) showing an ice dam breaking up and sending a torrent careening down Vermont's Felchner Brook got us thinking: What can paddlers do to avoid this kind of situation, and what can they do if caught?
For answers, we went to ACA-certified whitewater kayak instructor trainer and Swiftwater Rescue Instructor Trainer Nick Wigston for his insight. Here's what he had to say:
On Getting Caught: "While no one would likely be paddling on a creek like this at this time of year, similar situations could arise. And while most rivers with enough water to paddle in the winter would probably have already broken any upstream ice dams, tributaries could still harbor such dams that could break and cause a flash flood."
On Avoidance: "When paddling in the winter, paddle on lower elevation drainages that are reasonably far from the high elevation source. This will give a flash flood time to flatten out before it gets down to where you're paddling. If there's a period of very cold weather followed by warm weather, wait several days to paddle so that ice dams have a chance to break up. The amount of time you should wait depends on the specific river, how long the cold period was, and how warm it gets. If the change is drastic, then the ice dams will probably break up sooner. Also look at a topographic map to spot the location of creeks flowing to the main drainage from higher elevations. If you know where these tributaries enter, you can be more prepared as you approach them."
On Strolling Close: "When walking near a stream in the winter, whether on your way to paddle or simple hiking, stay far away from the edge. If an ice dam breaks and a flood ensues, the snow on the banks will quickly collapse into the river. Give the creek a wide berth and only cross in a place that is very obviously safe, and always one at a time."
On Swimming: "This would not be a very good thing to be caught in as a swimmer. Getting yourself out of a river with snow on the banks is difficult. You'll be extremely cold, even with a drysuit on, and it will be hard to grab hold of anything with your hands. I remember paddling on a snowy day and not even being able to turn the car key at the takeout. Swim to the side and climb out, then get moving immediately toward safety and warmth. Always know your surroundings and where you need to go for safety before putting on. If you are caught in the flash flood while in your kayak, keep heading downstream until the surge mellows out or you find an obvious safe spot. Trying to stop or eddy out too soon could cause you to flip over or get hung up near the banks."
On Preparation for Cold Paddling: "Preparation for cold conditions is of utmost importance. When paddling in the winter, go overboard with warm clothing. A dry suit is mandatory. If you don’t have a quality dry suit that is actually dry, don’t paddle in the winter until you have one. And never paddle with a dry suit without carrying a patch kit with you. Wear multiple fleece layers under your dry suit, and wear skull caps, extra socks and gloves. Also have a first aid kit that is geared toward winter. Pack emergency blankets, bivy sacks, fire starting sticks, lighters and matches, extra food, hand warmers, extra clothing and more."
–The ice dam video was shot and donated by Lewis and Susan Case.
–See more videos from C&K.