How to stay safe paddling Ottawa's rivers this spring

If you're thinking of canoeing this spring, you should always be aware of potentially cold and dangerous water conditions, and make sure you have the gear and skills required for river paddling, according to safety experts.

Water can be inviting on a warm spring day, but can also be deadly

Canoeists paddle on the Ottawa River in calm conditions. (CBC)

If you're thinking of canoeing around Ottawa this spring, you should always beware of potentially cold and dangerous water conditions and make sure you have the gear and skills required for river paddling, according to safety experts.

An Ottawa runner rescued two men from the frigid and swift waters of the Ottawa River Sunday after their canoe tipped. Neither man was wearing a life-jacket, according to the man who saved them.

While they all made it out safe, the incident presents a good opportunity to remind canoeists about the potential dangers of spring paddling, says Cameron Taylor of BOATsmart Canada.

"You want to mitigate those risks by making sure that you're doing things like wearing a life-jacket, watching the weather, and letting people know where you're going and when you expect to return," said Taylor.

Cold water can be deadly

Cameron Taylor is with the safety organization BOATsmart Canada. (Supplied)
Even with outdoor temperatures warming up, rivers and lakes can still be very cold this early in the spring, and that increases the risk of cold water shock and hypothermia, according to Taylor.

"Cold water shock happens when you unexpectedly fall into cold water, particularly when there's a difference between the air temperature and the water temperature," he said. "Your body just has this automatic reaction where it gasps for air. You can ingest water at that time."

He adds that hypothermia can set in within as few as 10 minutes, and that can greatly hinder your ability to swim. Without a life-jacket on, you can be in "serious trouble," Taylor adds.

Know the conditions

And with rivers like the Ottawa potentially running high and fast due to spring flooding, he says it's vitally important to become familiar with the waterway you're paddling on.

"We've got a lot of spring runoff, and you want to make sure that even though you might be a seasoned paddler or canoeist, that you want to check those conditions before you head out, that you are aware of what you're getting into, and that you're not overconfident on what skills and abilities actually are," he said. 
Canoeing on the Ottawa River in the spring can be dangerous due to high water levels and cold temperatures, say safety experts. (Jacques Corriveau)

"So you want to err on the side of caution at any time of year, but particularly when you've got that cold water to deal with, if you're in substantial rapid conditions and conditions that you really don't have the skillset for, just as we saw yesterday, you can be thrown from your canoe and be in that water."

Lessons recommended

To learn the proper skills, Taylor recommends taking a canoeing course through organizations like Paddle Canada or at a local club like the Ottawa River Canoe Club.

"Canoeing is a great activity, and it is very relaxing and enjoyable, particularly when it's done with confidence and with safety," he said. 

"So if you're new to the sport of canoeing, or maybe just a part-time canoeist without a lot of experience under your belt, then that's when you want to go test the waters when things are calm, when the water's warmer, when you've got a life-jacket on, when you've let somebody on shore know where you're going and how long you plan to be out there for."