Always check weather forecasts before beginning any journey on the water. One source of river-specific weather forecasts is the NOAA River Forcast Center website. Carry a radio and check local radio stations for weather information and alerts. Hazardous conditions can develop very quickly, so be alert and prepared for weather changes. Get off the water quickly when the weather looks threatening. The Columbia River, particularly along the Columbia River Gorge, is renowned for strong, steady winds that occur on a nearly daily basis. While that type of environment is wonderful for the wind surfers who flock to the area, it is dangerous for small boaters, particularly paddlers. High winds can quickly churn up large waves on open water that will easily capsize a small boat.
Fog is also a concern in the Northwest. While this phenomenon can occur year round, it is very common during summer and early fall. Fog develops very quickly, often reducing visibility to near zero. This is very disconcerting and dangerous for vessels that don’t have the proper equipment (e.g. radar and GPS) to navigate in those conditions. Regardless of your experience, if fog is predicted or you see fog developing, get to shore quickly and wait for conditions to improve before continuing your expedition.
In the summer, sun and exposure are big concerns. Drink plenty of liquids to keep yourself hydrated, but don’t drink alcohol. Sunscreen and sunglasses with UV protection are also suggested.
Water and Hypothermia
The waters of the Clearwater, Snake, and Columbia Rivers are fed by melting snows and are cold year round. As a result, sudden cold water emersion and hypothermia is always a danger, regardless of the air temperature. Hypothermia occurs when your body’s core temperature drops below normal levels, so water does not have to be icy to induce this condition - it just has to be colder than your normal body temperature. Remember, cold water robs the body of heat 25 to 30 times faster than air.
Protecting Yourself from Hypothermia
- Cold water kills quickly. Wearing a lifejacket can save your life! It can double your survival time in cold water.
- If stranded, do not try to swim. Remain still to conserve heat and assume the fetal, or Heat Escape Lessening Posture (HELP). This position only works if you wear a life jacket.
- If your boat capsizes, stay with the boat if it is still afloat. Get yourself as far out of the water as possible. This will help stave off the effects of hypothermia and offer a much larger target to those that may be searching for you.
- If stranded in groups, huddle together to preserve body heat.
- Dress appropriately for the water conditions.