Dam It!

When our friend Jim suggested we take a trip down a stretch of the Mohican river, we accepted immediately. None of us had been on this stretch of the river but the Mohican is generally placid, the upper part of which is popular with families and novice boaters. Our planning included how to get there and what kind of snacks to pack. We had the usual gear; boats, paddles, PFDs and all that. I also printed out the ODNR water trail map for Mohican, stowed nicely in a ziplock. Water levels were a little low but do-able. We felt we were ready. This planning will come into play a bit later in the story. On a nice October morning the three of us headed for the town of Gann, where the take-out point is located to drop off Jim’s car for the return trip. Then we headed north for nearby Greer with our boats, where we could launch for a nice 5-mile tour. 

Nice reflections

It was a little overcast when we launched and cool enough that we didn’t feel motivated to remove the layers we wore to fend off the damp morning. The Mohican is lovely in this stretch; several juvenile bald eagles accompanied us down the river. They would fly ahead and perch. When we caught up with them they would dive out of the trees and glide over the water to the next perch. They repeated this for a mile or so down river. We saw a lone adult eagle perched in a tree; it was uninterested in us and the youngsters and remained on its branch. Kingfishers darted over the water, and the sun finally made an appearance in the afternoon. 

A young eagle plays tag with us. Click to enlarge.

On the approach to the take-out in Gann, there is an old low-head dam that must be navigated. It’s known as the Brinkhaven Dam. For those of you not acquainted with low-head dams, read on. Low-head dams are also called weirs. Those of you who read novels set in the 1800s probably have seen the word; you who do not now know the meaning of weir. They are a low obstruction designed to raise water levels slightly to help with navigation by raising the water level upriver. It is a very old technology, but very popular in its time. There are thousands of these dams all over the country. They look innocent enough, some are low enough that they look like small humps in the water, but they are incredibly dangerous. If you want to know more about these structures, here’s a link to an article from the excellent “Practical Engineering” blog. The article is titled, ominously, “Drowning Machine: The Dangers of Low-Head Dams.”  

The Mohican water trail map has a notation about the dam; it has been partially dismantled, but remnants still stretch across the width of the river. The map says the dam is passable on the right of the river, with an option to portage left in the case of high water. Jim, Ben and I approached the dam to check it out. We scoped the right side and couldn’t judge the drop, so we decided to head for the portage. Ben hung back a bit, as he has had less experience on moving water. Once we reached the left, we decided the right side didn’t look that bad after all and headed back over to cross. Those of you who paddle can predict what comes next. As we headed back parallel to the dam, I got too close, the current caught my boat and in two seconds I was pinned on the upriver side of the dam. When the dam was “demolished” concrete was broken up into large chunks, and I was surrounded by huge mossy stones and submerged chunks of concrete with no visibility between them. Trying to get out of the boat on slippery rocks in rushing water would have been a great way to break an ankle.  Ben and Jim had eddied out on the right. We all stared at each other and contemplated options. 

Ben and Jim

It’s a bad idea to go over a low-head dam of any height any time. It’s even worse to go over sideways or backwards. I managed to waggle my boat around so that the bow was pointed downriver, and I found myself looking at a medium-ish hole. A hole in whitewater is a place where a paddler is likely to get “whomped.” It’s caused by forward current backwashing into itself and making, well, a hole in the water. Many years ago when I paddled in whitewater I got whomped many a time. It’s like being thrown about in a clothes washer–in fact, paddlers call it being “Maytaged.” A hole like that in front of a low head dam means the area below water is likely undercut, with obstacles to divert the water flow. Not good.  Also not good, I was stuck on top of the remnants of the dam in a recreational kayak, which does not have a specialized keel. If I tried to drop off into the water, I’d go bow first straight down and my boat would certainly swamp. 

While I was sitting on the rocks simultaneously contemplating the hole, the probability that my 60-ish year-old self was unlikely to be as agile as my 20-ish year old self and life in general, Ben and Jim were busy patching together a throw rope. The Mohican is wide and the ropes we had were too short. Jim rigged together a tow rope, a tie down strap, a paddle leash and a stuff bag filled with items for weight. After about four tries, the bag landed on the stern of my boat. I grabbed it and Jim hauled on the line while I hung on for dear life and tried not to tip my kayak. By some miracle I kept upright, and eddied out behind them.  I took a moment to recall the old saying “God watches over babies and fools.” 

We paddled well upriver and headed for the left side to portage. Jim was soaked and exhausted, Ben had a headache from grinding his teeth. I was busy playing all the possible grim outcomes you’ve been reading about in my head, grateful for the outcome that came to pass. Jim took off to get his car, and Ben and I waited with our gear. While we were waiting a livery van pulled into the parking lot. Shawn Furin, owner of Valley Kayak Rentals had come to pick up a customer. We chatted a bit, then Jim returned. He and Ben rode off to retrieve our car with the kayak trailer. I decided to talk to Shawn who was still waiting to pick up his client. 

Shawn has owned his livery business for 7 years. An avid fisher, hunter and boater, he offers kayak trips on most rivers in the area. He will also transport private boats, something that none of the other liveries in the area will do. The pandemic has been a blessing and a curse for him. Business has been booming, but he takes the situation seriously and limits the number of people in his van and on trips, forcing him to turn away business that in other times he would have taken. He told me “I don’t want to be ‘the guy who got a bunch of people sick’ on a trip.” 

I told him about my run-in with the low-head dam. He told me he never recommended his clients run the river right side noted on the map as ‘passable,’ unless someone really wanted to do it. To the left of that section the dam was more or less intact, and just over the down-river side of that section the water was 8 – 10 feet deep from years of water cutting out the river bed and littered with chunks of the portion that had been demolished. The place I was stuck wasn’t the most treacherous part of the dam, but it certainly was a risky place to go swimming. In whitewater lingo, going swimming means falling out of your boat and flailing around until the river spits you out. Hearing that made me more grateful for Jim’s quick thinking. The guys returned, Jim threw his boat in his car and took off. Ben and I loaded our kayaks on the trailer and headed for home. All things being equal, it was a beautiful day on the river.  

I’ve read that sales of recreational boats has skyrocketed during the pandemic, which means a lot of new boaters are on the water. I’ve been boating off and on since college which was a long time ago indeed, but I am hardly an expert. It is so easy for even very experienced boaters to make a mistake.  The serious mistake I made was deciding that I was going to cross the river parallel to the dam. Hindsight being what it is, I should have paddled upriver first, then turned and paddled down river to the right side. As it was, the current grabbed me and when you are being pulled sideways it’s hard to overcome the physics of powerful water and humble paddler. I was lucky in that the volume of water over the old dam was irregular, otherwise I would have been swept over.  As low-head dams go, this one was pretty minor and I’m pretty sure that had I gone over I would have ended up soaked and collecting my gear from the water, but…maybe not. Still, I wasn’t a total bonehead. I remembered the most important rule to never boat alone.  The second and third most important rules which I overlooked are to never let a river lull you into complacency, and never trust a map over your eyes. River conditions can change surprisingly fast.  

It’s easy to misjudge miles of gentle riffles.

I re-learned two lessons. The river always wins, even a river as benign as the Mohican.  Always have rescue gear that is adequate for the situation. Ben and I had rescue gear suitable for deep water, like lines to tow an exhausted paddler’s boat, re-entry assist straps and the like, but no throw bags, which are weighted bags with long ropes. They are designed to be thrown from land to a paddler who might be trapped in a rapid—or on an old dam. Those are definitely on the shopping list before our next trip.  

I looked at this and wondered why it looked so treacherous when I was pinned.

I walked back to the dam to take some photos. When I got home to review them, I was surprised at how inconsequential the dam and the water appeared. I almost didn’t post the picture here because it just doesn’t look that dangerous. I can imagine some of you looking at the pictures and saying “I could have run that no problem.” Maybe so and maybe not. I felt vindicated when I read Irv Oslin’s 2014 blog post about running the same section of the river and the dam. A quote from his blog: “The Mohican River is rated International Class I, which is suitable for all skill levels. However, Brinkhaven Dam is one spot on the river that demands paddlers’ full attention. Like other low-head dams, it can be a drowning machine.” So Irv, thanks for backing me up.

As another writer once observed, “all’s well that end’s well.” It was a beautiful day on a beautiful stretch of river and I had a lot more subject matter for this blog than I expected, which is every writer’s delight.  You all be safe out on the water, dear friends.

Extra Links:

The Keelhaulers Canoe Club is based in Northeast Ohio. If you’re interested in learning to paddle, they are a great group. It has published an excellent safety code. You can check it out here. Keelhauler Safety Code.

Is all the paddling lingo confusing? Here’s a nice list from Northwest River Supplies (NRS) in Idaho about Kayak Terminology This website is also packed with other information about kayaking. If you are a boater, put your credit card away before you start poking around this site.

Low-head dams are prevalent in Ohio waterways. Here are some safety tips from the Association of State Dam Officials (Who knew there was such a group?)

Irv Oslin is one of my favorite writers. He’s written for several papers but I knew of him best for his work on Hoot, a humor tabloid. You should follow his blog.

Valley Kayak Rentals. I liked Shawn; when he came down to the river bank he grabbed my boat and hauled it up the path. In talking to him about his business, he came across as the real deal. Check out his business. Valley Kayak runs river trips through November.

2 thoughts on “Dam It!

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