Please Don't Kayak or Canoe on Floodwaters. It's Crazy.

Yesterday firefighters found a body believed to be Edgar Castro, missing since his kayak flipped on the Trinity River in Fort Worth four days ago. A day earlier while searching for him, Castro’s family found another body in the river, still unidentified.

A month ago a high school student died after his kayak flipped on a swollen creek in suburban Arlington. Two days earlier a Lake Worth man died when he paddled over a submerged fence into a restricted area around an outfall on the Trinity River.

For people who know kayaks and canoes, it’s deeply distressing to see people out there on flood waters that have besieged the region since heavy rains began to fall in Spring. Charles Allen, proprietor of Trinity River Expeditions, is the most experienced canoe outfitter I know in the region. He told me today he has been pretty much out of business because he knows better than to put people on flooded streams and rivers.

“It’s really really dangerous,” he said. “People will get fooled because it looks like it’s just wide open and flat and you can just ride on it and have fun. And it can be easy for a long time until it’s not, until you run into something you’re not familiar with. You can be in bad trouble quickly.”
Randy Johnson, horticulture manager of the Dallas Zoo and another experienced river and stream paddler in this area, told me the first thing that fools people is the increased speed at which flood water carries them. “You’ve got increased velocity, so you’re going faster, and your reaction time when you see things in front of you is extremely limited.”

What kills people in creeks, he said, often is not what they see out in the middle of the channel. It’s what they don’t see soon enough on the banks.

“On creeks especially, where they don’t have the bank width or depth that a river will, the waters rise really high.” The high fast-moving water, he said, propels a boat into trees lining the banks straight into branches that would be overhanging at normal water levels.

“The trees on the banks become strainers,” he said, “just like a strainer you would use to strain spaghetti or whatever. The water is running through this web of limbs and tree trunks and you’re not. The potential to get caught in that strainer is great. You will be held there and probably drown.”

Even though the banks of the Trinity River are broad under these conditions — a quarter- to half-mile apart at some points — Allen told me the river has its own hazards lying in wait for the unwary paddler.

“In the main Trinity River channel right now, a series of logjams have formed underneath the bridges. At I-30 and I-35 there are three killer logjams, plus all of the construction equipment there has set up strainers.”

Allen said he thinks even so-called “flat water” – on lakes where there is no current – can be hazardous under flooded conditions because of the things that may lie invisible just beneath the surface of the water.

“Especially in park areas there can be all kinds of posts and signs and bollards, cables and all kinds of crap that you can’t see. It’s not the giant logs and rocks you can see that get you. Sometimes it’s the stuff you can’t see right underneath the surface. I also kind of wonder what happens to all those bathrooms after the parks are flooded.”

And there is that.

Randy Johnson said wind can be a significant hazard for inexperienced paddlers who decide to throw a boat on a broad open lake during turbulent weather. “You need to be sure you paddle into the wind on your way out so you can make it back on your way back in.”

Both Johnson and Allen said the one rule everybody needs to follow when paddling on creeks, rivers and lakes in this region is to wear a life jacket. “It’s the one thing you can do,” Allen said, “that will increase your survival chances by about 95 percent.”

Allen says he has scouted a couple of stretches of river in the area where he thinks he will be able to put canoe parties on the water again soon. He’s as eager as anybody – maybe more so – to get out there again safely:

“I’m not doing any business. Haven’t done any for months. It’s killing me. I get calls. People are interested because the water is up. But I can’t put anyone on the water. It’s not worth it to kill people.”