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Essential Paddling Guide: Staying Safe On The Water

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Everglades National Park is a paddler’s paradise with its endless options. / NPS photo.

All throughout our National Park System there are waters perfect for paddling that range from placid ponds and lakes to tumultuous rivers filled with boulder-studded cataracts that require a careful eye and deft paddle.

While paddling can open incredible vistas and portals into the parks, a measure of caution should be carried with you at all times, along with a dose or two of experience. Large lakes such as Superior and Yellowstone are frightfully cold even in August and you will only have a few minutes to avoid hypothermia if you fall in, while fast rivers can feature shallow spots with foot-trapping cobble beds or downed trees—strainers—that can be threatening.

So wherever you paddle, be sure you’re prepared, both with your skills as well as with your gear. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

* If you’re paddling in the ocean (FloridaBay at Everglades National Park) or along coastlines (Cape Lookout National Seashore), know the tides. If the tide is running against you, you won’t be able to travel as fast as when it’s with you. Pace yourself and be realistic when it comes to how many miles a day you can cover.

* Wherever you paddle, everyone should have, and wear while on the water, a Coast Guard-approved personal flotation device. Carrying an extra one in each boat is a good idea, as is having an extra paddle per boat.

* Safety gear such as throw ropes, bailing buckets or bilge pumps, and First Aid kits should be on your gear list. Headlamps or some other lights are good if you find yourself paddling after sundown, and are required in some areas.

* In lakes such as Superior (Apostle Islands National Lakeshore and Isle Royale National Park), Yellowstone (Yellowstone National Park), and Rainy (Voyageurs National Park), approaching storms can quickly whip up winds and waves, creating inland seas that can flip boats if you’re not careful. Keep an eye on the skies while paddling, and as a general rule stay within a quarter-mile of shore.

* A GPS is handy, but batteries can die at the most inopportune time. A compass and set of pertinent topographic maps (not the maps parks hand out at entrance stations) provide sound backup if you’re adept at using them.

* Whether you’re heading out for a day, or a week, let someone know where you’re going and when you expect to be back. At parks that require it, file a float plan before you leave shore.

* Cellphones are becoming ubiquitous, but you might not always be within reach of a cell signal. If you’re really heading into the outback, consider renting a satellite phone.

• Check with the specific park you’re visiting as to whether they require or suggest any other items, such as wetsuits or paddling helmets.

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National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide