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Dangers of Low-Water Bridges
by Marc W. McCord

If you paddle enough rivers, then sooner or later you will encounter a low-water bridge. Such structures are built where streams generally run very low, and they allow passage of automobiles from one side to the other while water flows through culverts under the bridge. Usually, these bridges are a mere nuisance, and occasionally a paddler can safely navigate under them rather than having to portage around them. Every now and then whitewater paddlers encounter submerged low-water bridges that create exciting drops to be run in canoes, kayaks and rafts after determining the risk factors of such decisions.

Recently, while in Arkansas to paddle 10 days on the Buffalo National River, a few in our group arrived a couple of days early so we decided to check out our put-in for the trip at the Ponca low-water bridge. When we scouted it we discovered that the water was too low to start at Ponca, so we decided to begin our trip about 24.7 miles downriver at Ozark Campground just about Pruitt where the water would be adequate. That night, the skies opened up on us and rained about 5 inches throughout the Boxley Valley. That gave us hope that we would be able to squeeze in a run on the seldom navigable Upper Buffalo, and possibly even the Hailstone, which is actually the uppermost end of the Buffalo.

On Saturday morning we arrived at Ponca to find about 18 inches of airspace under the bridge - a sure sign of adequate water for a run from Boxley bridge, so we decided to go a little over 14 miles from Boxley to Kyle's Landing. We arrived at Boxley to find water about 40 yards closer to our access road than it was the day before, and we were elated. Since we had four people in four boats, one of which was definitely NOT a whitewater boat, we decided against considering a Hailstone run. That proved to have been a great decision.

Our craft included an old Grumman tin can (aluminum canoe), a Royalex Mad River Legend 15, a SOAR S-14 inflatable canoe and a SOAR S-16 (my boat.) We loaded lightly, carrying only safety gear, lunch and non-alcoholic beverages for what should be a short trip of three hours or less on a raging current. All the way down the river we encountered Class IV to IV+ water with 5-6 foot standing waves and strong cross currents that constantly pushed us all over the river, especially while we were trying to keep our boats straight in the haystacks.

The two guys in the Grumman and Mad River canoes skirted the teeth of the largest waves, though they still got major adrenaline rushes all the way down the river. The two of us in SOAR inflatables ran right through the meat of those waves, often seeing our bows rise 60 degrees as we ploughed our ways through the rapids. We had plenty of time for photography, but not while in the rapids, and we must have hit at least 25-30 big ones in the 6.3 miles between Boxley and Ponca. It seemed like we were hitting them every 5 minutes or so.

About one hour 15 minutes into our run we approached the Ponca bridges. From 200 yards away, in the lead boat, I could see the high bridge, but the low bridge appeared to be submerged indicating a rise in the river of about 2 feet since our launch. "No big deal", I thought to myself. "I'll just run the bridge and then await the others to follow." At about 150 yards I saw the yellow paint strip on the top of the upriver curb, and realized that there was not quite enough water to flow over the top of the bridge, so I began moving to river left for a portage around the low-water bridge, and signalled for the others to follow me.

About 15 yards off the left bank, and perhaps 30 yards above the bridge, my S-16 was suddenly turned toward the middle of the river and a tractor beam current began dragging my boat toward the culverts under the nearly submerged bridge. The culverts were not visible, but you could clearly see a major rush of water being sucked under the bridge at tremendous force and volume. The entire river, which was at least 50 yards wide at that point, was being diverted under the bridge. Now, I am a fairly strong witewater paddler with a lot of experience in Class IV to IV+ water, and I was in a VERY stable inflatable canoe for which I have nothing but praise because of its responsiveness to gentle paddle strokes, yet I was unable to extricate myself from the pull of the water, and so the SOAR S-16 got sucked down to the bridge and pulled across the river as if a cable was attached and being drawn to the culverts under the bridge.

Realizing what would happen when boat met culvert, I decided to roll out of my boat on the left side onto the bridge, then pull my boat up behind me. Just as I was moving to disembark the bow slid under the first culvert, lurched sharply forward, and then launched me into the river upstream of the bridge. From years of swiftwater rescue classes I knew that this was a very bad situation that could possibly end my life and ruin a great trip for the other eight in our group who had planned on a 10-day epic journey. I grabbed as much air as my lungs would hold just as my head disappeared under the bridge. Using my right hand (my left hand was clinging tightly to my expensive ZRE carbon fiber paddle) I felt the bottom of the bridge two or three times, and when I could no loonger feel the bridge I surfaced a few feet downstream of the obstacle, the whole episode taking less than 5 seconds.

Realizing that I was okay, I assumed a passive swimming position and began to survey my prospects for getting out of the raging waters of the flooded Buffalo. I steered myself to river left, but the current was dragging me into a stand of willow trees that did not look inviting, so I prepared myself, and then used my legs to steer myself off of and away from the trees. By this time I was still in a very strong current, but the water was getting shallow enough that my butt was bumping every boulder in the river, and I knew that it was going to be sore the next day.

After passing under the Ponca high bridge I was finally able to get out of the river, and then begin the arduous task of getting back to the low bridge, wet and slightly tired, but otherwise in good shape. I had, somehow, managed to escape with my Tilley still on my head, my underwater camera still in the pocket of my PFD, my reading glasses still hung over the neck of my shirt and my ZRE still in my left hand. THIS is why we study swiftwater rescue techniques, because the lives we save MAY be our own!

My friends, seeing what had just happened in front of them, all managed to scramble out of the river well above the low-water bridge and were approaching the bridge on foot as I returned from my wet and wild ride. We returned to the culverts under the bridge and we could not see my boat, but nobody ever saw it pass through and pop up on the downriver side. Using a paddle shaft, I determined that the boat was pinned and wrapped under the bridge and under about 12-15 inches of water. We spent three hours trying to recover the boat before deciding that it was not likely to come out until the water dropped, and who knew when that would be? It might be a few hours or a few days - more rain was in the forecast.

We immediately postponed the planned start of our downriver trip for 24 hours, and then returned to our base camp at Ozark Campground to prepare dinner and plan a strategy for the next morning. Several other paddlers in tandem and solo canoes had flipped and swam out in the first mile or two of the 6.3 miles from Boxley to Ponca. They had no idea where their boats or gear were, so I felt lucky. At least I knew where my boat was, and where it probably would be the next morning.

With a very early start, we arrived at Ponca around 7:30 AM to discover that one of our other group members had arrived the night before, and had gone directly to Ponca rather than to the campground where we were expecting him. That was my good fortune because two other groups had arrived earlier than us to make a recovery attempt on my boat. One was a part of a group that had lost a canoe in the first mile the day before. Tom Taylor had run those two groups off and made sure they did not get my boat. THANK YOU, TOM!

The water dropped about 18 inches overnight, and we arrived to find the stern of the boat actually visible on the surface. I quickly secured a 100-foot climbing rope to the grab handle, floated the majority of the rope under the bridge, and then used the remaining 15 feet to pull the stern up high enough so that I could deflate one of my side tubes. That done, we easily aligned the boat parallel to the current and slide it under the bridge, belayed it to river right and pulled it from the river. The effort by the five of us working on the recovery took about ten minutes from the time we started.

This incident cost me a Garmin GPS Map76CSx receiver and destroyed my softside cooler, washing away my lunch and water in the process. The force of the water under the bridge also put enough water inside my SealLine drybag to ruin my cellphone and get a few things wet. But my $1,900 SOAR S-16 survived with only one small wear hole and three other abrasions on my floor tube - damage that is easily repairable. Larry Laba, owner of SOAR Inflatables sent everything I need to make the necessary repairs and provided detailed instruction in how to most efficiently plug the hole and get the boat back in navigable condition. I had taken my Bell Yellowstone tandem canoe with me for the downriver trip, so losing the use of the SOAR was not a major issue that affected the rest of the trip.

So, what lessons did I take from this experience? First, all my previous experience paddling whitewater paid off in spades. Second, the dozen or more swiftwater rescue classes that I have taken since 1996 significantly contributed to saving my life and minimizing my injuries, which were limited to a very sore tailbone for the first four days of our downriver trip. Third, always paddle swollen rivers in the company of other competent paddlers who can assist in times of trouble. Fourth, never panic, even when things get hairy.

Most importantly, NEVER underestimate the power of a swollen river to take control of you and your boat, especially after you have just spent more than one hour fighting big waves and holes that ate much of your strength, not that having full strength would have made any real difference - the power of the water to draw my boat across the river and under that bridge was awesome, and it made me realize just how truly fortunate I was to be alive to tell this story! My advice to anybody paddling a flooded river is to start very early in avoiding obstacles, and that applies expecially to low-water bridges. If those culverts beneath that bridge had been clogged by tree debris, fence posts with barbed wire attached, a car or any other solid object, then I might still be there today! Going over that bridge would have been one thing, but going under it is something that I never want to do again in my life.

Read previous "On the Water" Feature Stories
[ Surviving Hypothermia ] [ Rescues in Hydraulic Currents ]
[ Texas Water Safari ] [ Wilderness Tripping Protocols ]

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Copyright © 1998-2010, Marc W. McCord dba CobraGraphics. All rights reserved. Southwest Paddler, CobraGraphics and Canoeman River Guide Services are trademarks of Marc W. McCord dba CobraGraphics. The textual, graphic, audio, and audio/visual material in this site is protected by United States copyright law and international treaties. You may not copy, distribute, or use these materials except for your personal, non-commercial use. Any trademarks are the property of their respective owners. All original photographs on this web site are the exclusive property of Marc W. McCord or other designated photographers and may not be copied, duplicated, reproduced, distributed or used in any manner without prior written permission under penalty of US and International laws and treaties.