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Bow River boating basics with Kananaskis Country Public Safety

Before you get out on the river, make sure you read this!

The sun is out, everyone is enjoying the weather either hiking, biking or another outdoor activity. You want to take it easy, so why not do a float down the Bow River? What could possibly go wrong?

A lot.

Paddling, floating, boating – whatever you do on the Bow River should be taken just as seriously as backcountry skiing. The most common mistake people make when they get on the river is one often made in the backcountry – an underestimating the elements. 

“In both contexts, the hazards are often hidden below the surface,” says Matt Mueller, Kananaskis Country Public Safety (KCPS) specialist. “What appears to be gentle flowing water can often have more extreme currents underneath that aren’t visible to the untrained eye.”

The water flowing in the Bow River is constantly changing – just like a snow pack. In the sense that hazards are not seen and lurk under the surface. 

“Like snow, the power of water can be easily underestimated. If caught, people are often overwhelmed and swept away with it,” says Mueller.

And just like heading into the backcountry, it is advised to have training before getting on the river.

“There are specific skills that are required to manage water. The preventative skills, but also what to do (or not do) when things go sideways,” Mueller says. “Timely self-rescue is critical in both environments. Learning, and practicing these skills is essential. They have to be instinctual when the time comes.”

Things can go wrong quickly. The amount of people on the Bow River has dramatically increased over the past years and so have the rescues. Both KPS and Canmore Fire and Rescue have had to respond to these calls and they often find people who don’t meet the equipment requirements for boating on the Bow River. 

The entire river is in the parks system, something people are often unaware of. The section of the river between Banff and Exshaw falls under national and provincial parks, there are actually rules requiring people to have certain types of equipment for different vessels. These rules are enforced by conservation officers and there are fines for violations. 

20210529 River Rescue 0120Canmore Fire-Rescue assists KCPS on the Bow River in Canmore on Saturday (May 29). EVAN BUHLER RMO PHOTO

“A throw bag/heaving line is probably the most overlooked and useful item,” says Mueller. “Being able to throw a rope to someone caught in the water is much safer than going after the person.”

It also matters how sturdy your vessel is, because there is loads of debris from log jams to unseen, underwater lumber that can rip a flimsy boat or paddle board apart. 

If you ever find yourself in a situation where you need help, call 911 – this is why it is important to have a dry bag – and you can get onshore and stay onshore. 

People often don’t wear appropriate clothing on the glacier fed Bow River. Hypothermia is certainly a possibility depending on how long you are submerged for. The Canadian Safe Boating Council follows the 1-10-1 principle of one minute of exposure leads to cold shock, 10 minutes leads to cold incapacitation and one hour can result in hypothermia. Thermal protection like dry suits, or a wetsuit are not too much to wear on the river. 

“Appropriate clothing should address the weather of the day, as well as any unexpected change in the weather. Be prepared for sun, wind or rain at all times,” says Mueller. “It's recommended to carry extra clothing in a dry bag in case of a weather change. Also, if there is an unanticipated swim, there will be a dry set of clothes to help re-warm.”

All of this information might sound daunting, but it could be life saving. If you are curious about how and where to start getting training, the non-profit, Bow Valley Kayak Club is an excellent place to start. Visit their site