August 3, 2022

Train on the lake, check the weather, wear a life jacket

Canoes and kayaks look simple. Being much less complex than cars and even bikes, they should be easy to use vehicles, right?

Appearances can be deceiving.

Already this season, two men have lost their lives paddling the Tuscarawas River. A 72-year-old Dennison man drowned on May 29 after his kayak capsized while cruising with his family in Gnadenhutten. A 25-year-old Baltic man died June 4 after his dinghy capsized near Port Washington.

Rescue personnel search the Tuscarawas River for a 25-year-old Baltic man on June 6.  He disappeared on June 4 after his canoe capsized.  He was found dead near Port Washington.

After:Personality Profile: Mary Jo Monte-Kaser

After:Tuscarawas River Canoe & Kayak Race returns July 16

After:The body of a missing man from the Baltic region was found in the Tuscarawas River on Tuesday morning

After:Man dies Monday from brain injury caused by drowning after kayak flips on Sunday

Rescue personnel from the Bolivar and Mineral City Fire Departments tow duck hunters ashore after they became stuck on the ice of the Tuscarawas River on January 29 at the Wilkshire Golf Course in the Township of Lawrence.  According to the Tuscarawas County Sheriff's Office, a passerby called the incident.

The Times-Reporter turned to local paddler Mary Jo Monte-Kaser for advice on how to navigate the river safely in small boats. His accomplishments include crossing the Panama Canal in April 2011 as part of a four-person canoe team. Previously, she taught an introductory paddling course as a United States Canoe Association Certified Instructor. She is the race director for the Tuscarawas River Canoe & Kayak Race, scheduled for July 16 in Dover.

Joey Clark of the Dover Fire Department Dive Team swims to a sunken jon boat June 10 at the Lake Atwood boat launch in Warren Township.  Personnel from the Dover Fire Department, Bowerston Volunteer Fire Department and Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District Rangers were involved in the recovery.

Monte-Kaser shared these points about paddling on the river:

• Wear a lifejacket and adjust it enough so that it does not slip. A life jacket can keep you afloat if you end up in the water, buying you time for help to arrive or getting you out of harm’s way.

People aren’t usually as strong swimmers as they think they are, Monte-Kaser said.

“How many times have you seen a young man say, ‘Oh, I’m going to swim across the river,’ and then they drown,” she said. “Swimming in the current is not so easy.”

Water weighs about eight pounds per gallon. Imagine the pressure you would fight if the flowing river pushed its full volume against your body.

On June 6, rescue workers search the Tuscarawas River for a 25-year-old Baltic man who disappeared in the water on June 4.  He was found dead near Port Washington.

• Stay away from the river on windy days. The wind pushes against your body and your boat as if they were sails. Even a light wind might be too much for a paddler to overcome, meaning the wind will tell your boat where to go, not you. The wind will also raise waves.

“Even an 8 mph wind on Lake Atwood might be too windy,” Monte-Kaser said. “When in doubt, avoid the river.”

• Be aware that the river can be cold, triggering an involuntary gasp reflex in a boater who falls into it. This creates a greater risk of drowning even for confident swimmers.

“I fell in the water in May. The water is still cold,” Monte-Kaser said. “The water can be cold in August if it’s just after a rain.”

According to the National Weather Service, cold water drains body heat up to four times faster than cold air. Cold shock and hypothermia affect your ability to think and act.

• Always get the weather report to know what might happen. Stay out of the water when storms are forecast. Watch for signs of adverse changes while sailing, such as cloud build-up.

• Stay away from the river when the water level is high, but understand that drowning can occur even in shallow water. Depth information is available online with a US Geological Survey Ohio water data search for the Tuscarawas River. Kaser will call off the July 16 race if the USGS gauge below Dover Dam shows the water is deeper than 3.5 feet.

“A lot of drownings happen when the water is actually at a very normal level, not necessarily when it’s flooding, because most people can look at the river and say, ‘Oh my God. She’s in the flood phase, better stay away,'” Monte-Kaser said. “They need to know that water is dangerous at all levels.

• Get directions, such as those offered by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources or the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District. The American Canoe Association offers water safety resources.

“I wouldn’t do downhill skiing without instruction,” Monte-Kaser said. “I wouldn’t just strap skis to your feet because you’re going to break both your legs. But still, people will jump in a canoe or a kayak and just be like, ‘Can this be hard? This’ is a canoe.'”

• Before going on the river, practice using a canoe or kayak on a lake or pond. Make sure you can steer, stop and reverse.

“The movement of water takes you through things, and sometimes it’s a lot faster than you think. It’s always faster than you think,” Monte-Kaser said.

“You have to play with the boat in calm water to see, where is that point where the boat turns over?” she says. “How far can you tilt a boat before it enters? Where are you stable? Where are you unstable? Practice falling from the boat. Swim with your life jacket on.”

Sailing partners must have certain skills to deploy, as a team, if they have to steer or stop suddenly. Group members must stay together.

“The river can be a fun place to have a good time paddling, as long as you’ve made sure you have certain skills. Don’t go out on moving water without skills.”

• Do not drink alcohol before or during navigation. It impairs alertness and response.

• Be aware of potential hazards. The noise could be caused by disturbances in the water.

• Watch for and avoid “strainers” such as fallen trees. They will allow water to pass, but not boats and people, who could get tangled in them.

“These are potentially real killers,” Monte-Kaser said. “Often the strainer is right where the fastest current is flowing, which is where – if you’re not good at controlling your boat – your boat will try to go. It will follow in sort of that fastest current, and that’s where the strainer is, usually.”

• Watch for whirlpools, found where an underwater object interrupts the flow of current. The current in a whirlpool flows in the opposite direction to the main flow of the river.

“It’s a place where he can actually knock you over and you won’t know what happened to you,” Monte-Kaser said. “The river… there’s more to it than meets the eye. You just have a current flowing in all directions.”

• Wear shoes as the river bottom may contain unseen hazards, such as glass or concrete piles and rebar from abandoned bridges.

• Put the equipment in sealed plastic bags, tied to the boat and possibly attached to floats. Monte-Kaser leaves his phone on dry land.

• Make sure your boat has sufficient flotation capacity to support the weight inside. An overloaded boat is more likely to capsize.

• Think about what you will do if something goes wrong, the same way families have a fire plan. Before entering the water, think about what you will do if you hear lightning, if a heavy storm blows, if someone falls in the water. What would you do if someone were to experience an emergency where the river bank is steep, slippery and covered in thick, thorny undergrowth? Keep essential medications, such as asthma inhalers or heart medications, readily available to members of the boating party who use them. Take a first aid kit.

• Know how to set priorities if you find yourself in the water. First, save yourself.

“If it’s calm water, stay with the boat,” Monte-Kaser said. “If not, the boat doesn’t matter. You can get it another time.”

Let the boat go if it’s headed for a strainer, she says.

“And then, of course, the equipment is always last. Your water bottle, your cooler, whatever, floating in the river, you can’t care about that. You have to save yourself first because the water is colder than you think.”

What happens when I fall into cold water?

After the first 10-15 minutes, you lose control of your muscles, according to, who also notes:

• Your muscles will be weak and stiff, and you won’t be able to hold on to anything like a rope or a stick to help you get out.

• When body temperature drops to between 89.6 and 82.4 degrees, your chills stop and your consciousness becomes impaired.

Contact Nancy at 330-364-8402 or [email protected]

On Twitter: @nmolnarTR