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KY Afield Outdoors: Safety important during high water

Rain swollen lakes and rivers make water safety more important than ever

By Lee McClellan

Frankfort, KY -- The middle of July usually means less grass mowing because of the parched, brown conditions of most lawns. Streams normally run low and clear in mid-summer and concern about drought clouds people's minds.

The Kentucky River at Frankfort looks like a flowing ribbon of foamy chocolate milk. This week, Buckhorn Lake in eastern Kentucky's Leslie and Perry counties rose 13 1/2 feet above normal summer pool while central Kentucky's Taylorsville Lake swelled to 18 1/2 feet above it. The unusually high water makes for unsafe conditions for boating, canoeing and kayaking as well as swimming on Kentucky lakes and rivers.

"I drove across the dam at Taylorsville and there are floating tree tops and debris everywhere," said Maj. Shane Carrier, assistant director of law enforcement for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. "High water causes lots of floating debris which is extremely dangerous. Running at high speed or at night is extremely difficult right now from the debris."

Carrier and Zac Campbell, boating safety coordinator for Kentucky Fish and Wildlife, both recommend reducing speed during the day during this high water period. "I would also recommend only running at idle speed at night," Carrier said.

The wacky weather this year, beginning with record cold and snow and now with unseasonal torrential rains in July, corresponds with 13 boating fatalities and a dispiriting 25 accidental drowning in public waters so far in 2015. Kentucky only suffered 10 boating fatalities and 11 people drowned in public waters all of last year.

A pontoon boat seems to the eye one of the safest and easiest boats to operate, but they are actually problematic. Current makes pontoon boats hard to maneuver and their canopy and tall sides catch the wind. They are often underpowered, especially with several occupants aboard.

Carrier said pontoons are the most commonly used boat by inexperienced operators. "When I used to work Taylorsville Lake, it was common to see pontoon boats overloaded," he explained. "People would rent them and load them up."

Pontoon boats have a capacity plate showing the weight limits and number of occupants for safe operation of the boat. Operators must consult that plate before loading a pontoon boat with people. Do not exceed the stated limits.

Streams swelled from rainfall are also dangerous. "The water right now in our streams is fun for highly experienced whitewater runners," Campbell said. "I have a lot of experience in a kayak, but I wouldn't get on most streams and rivers in Kentucky right now."

Campbell recommends paddlers wear their lifejacket at all times, regardless of water level, but it can save your life if you upset in roaring water.

"You can download our 'Kentucky Boat Safe' app onto your phone for free at either iTunes or on Google Play," he said. "Use this app to file a float plan before your trip."

It is disturbing to ponder on the 25 people who drowned so far in 2015 in public waters. Most were simply having fun and tried to do too much.

"Many people misjudge the distance on the water because it's flat," Carrier said. "The other side of the cove looks closer than it really is. People also overestimate their ability when it comes to swimming."

Several of the drowning cases this year involved people swimming across coves for fun or to fish or swimming out to navigational buoys and back.

"Sometimes, peers can pressure people to do stuff above their ability," Campbell said. "Many of our reservoirs are flooded hilly regions. A lot of people don't realize they can be in 50 feet of water in two steps from the bank. Wear your lifejacket always when swimming in public waters."

Boater's fatigue is another dangerous factor impacting boat operators in summer. The combination of sun, wind, motor noise and boat movement can induce a near trance-like state, dulling reaction time.

"If you add the consumption of alcohol into the mix, you make for a dangerous situation," Carrier said.

Be careful when boating during this high water period. "Your lifejacket doesn't do you any good if you aren't wearing it," Campbell said. "Remember, your lifejacket has your back. Wear it all times with this high water."

Author Lee McClellan is a nationally award-winning associate editor for Kentucky Afield magazine, the official publication of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. He is a life-long hunter and angler, with a passion for smallmouth bass fishing.

This story was posted on 2015-07-23 19:01:55
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KY Afield Outdoors: Boyd's Branch Boat Ramp 2011

2015-07-23 - Kentucky Lake - Photo by Lee McClellan.
High lake levels, like this scene from Kentucky Lake in late spring of 2011, make for dangerous boating conditions. Recent torrential rains have many Kentucky lakes well above normal summer pool levels with streams high and roiling. Kayakers, boaters and swimmers should wear their lifejacket at all times during high water.

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