COLUMBIA — A normally serene low-water crossing turned into a torrent of swift-moving water after heavy rainfall Wednesday night. The influx of storm runoff prompted a group of Columbia kayakers to take some of their Thursday afternoon to enjoy rare rapids on Bass Creek in southern Boone County.
“It’s the fun part about being a boater; you’re the only one who gets excited when there’s this much rain,” kayak enthusiast David Wilson of Columbia said. Wilson, known as a filmmaker and co-director of the Ragtag Cinemacafe and the True/False Film Festival, has been kayaking for 18 years and is a certified whitewater instructor.
Paddling local creeks and rivers that are swollen by heavy rain is dangerous. Here are some safety tips to consider. ABSOLUTELY AVOID THESE STREAMS if you don’t have significant experience paddling whitewater rapids. Rafting experience doesn’t count. NEVER paddle alone. ALWAYS wear a personal flotation device, a helmet and appropriate clothing. ALWAYS carry a first aid kit and appropriate rescue gear. RECOGNIZE that kayaks and canoes designed for paddling whitewater are much different from those you might use to float a lazy stream such as the Current River. If you’re an experienced boater but unfamiliar with a particular creek, ALWAYS make sure to go with people who have paddled it before.
The launch site off U.S. 63 is a favorite for Wilson and two of his friends.
“This is a great run for central Missouri, but compared to what we usually do, it’s pretty easy,” Wendell Coonce, an advanced boater with nine years of experience, said. All three are qualified to handle Class V rapids, considered the most difficult and dangerous level of navigable water among kayakers, canoeists and rafters.
The group came out to the launch site around 9:30 a.m. Thursday to check the water conditions before deciding to go out on the creek. It’s rare that the ideal conditions for expert boaters to make the winding four-mile run fall into place.
“We only get to run this about once a year, if we’re lucky,” Wilson said.
Coonce, a sales representative for Lexis Nexis, said he took off work early when we heard conditions were right. He also called his wife, who is familiar with his boating hobby.
“She knows we go on a moment’s notice,” he said. “She understands, too, that we are very safety conscious.”
Coonce said that since he is the least experienced and, at 49, the oldest of the trio, he usually follows Wilson’s lead.
“These guys read the river real well,” he said. “That’s why I let them go first.”
Coonce said the key to a successful boating run is balance.
“Everybody thinks it’s upper body but it’s all about the abs and legs,” he said.
The three men have all kayaked this portion of the creek before, but they emphasized that flood-stage conditions present new challenges — and hazards.
“Anytime you run water that is at flood stage, it’s a whole new experience,” Wilson said.
The most dangerous obstacles the group looks for are “strainers” such as trees that allow water to flow through but can snag and entangle a boat or person. Boaters who paddle smaller creeks also must watch for floating debris, cattle fences, barbed wire, low-water crossings and rocks. In urban streams, pipelines, rebar and concrete can be dangerous as well. Storm runoff also can be highly polluted, so boaters do everything they can to avoid diseases that can result from coming into contact with the water.
It’s clear that boating in these conditions is not for the inexperienced boater. It can even be deadly. A Columbia woman who was kayaking on Hinkson Creek died near a low-water crossing just east of Providence Road in May 2002.
Wilson said he and his paddling friends know the risks and prepare accordingly.
The group wears personal flotation devices, helmets and a sealed “drytop” with latex gaskets at the wrists and around the neck to keep water out. On colder days, boaters will wear additional layers, some made of neoprene, to protect from being wet and cold on long runs.
They also carry ropes for rescue and retrieval.
Most paddlers also wear protective shoes for walking along the rocky shores of creeks and rivers or for wading in streams. Wilson might consider some replacements. His big toes stick out of both his weathered water shoes.
“I get made fun of for these shoes,” Wilson said.
The potential for severe consequences is why Wilson said only experienced boaters should try to paddle in these conditions.
“All of us have first aid training and have rescue training,” Wilson said. “We understand that we are going into a wilderness environment. ... When we paddle, we are all looking out for each other.”