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Canoe and kayak club warning paddlers about dangers of low-head dams

INDIANAPOLIS - People who venture out of on the water, especially a stream they aren't familiar with, could find themselves in a dangerous spot without much warning. The Hoosier Canoe and Kayak Club is warning paddlers about low-head dams that can potentially be life-threatening if someone gets stuck in one.

The club has a booth at this year's Indianapolis Boat, Sport and Travel Show, which ends Sunday at the Indiana State Fairgrounds.

“They’re like an infinity pool," said Dwayne James, a spokesperson with the club. "You come up on them, you can’t see that they are there.”

The club has setup a demonstration that shows how kayaks, canoes, and other small vessels can get stuck in a low-head dam.

“If you go over them, you go into the churn," James said.

Even downstream from the dam, there is a place in the water the stream can pull the paddler back towards the dangerous water.

"You can’t get out," said James. "It’s full of aerated water. You can’t swim in the air.”

According to James, there were more than 20 water rescues and roughly a half dozen drownings in 2017 along Indiana waterways. James said his numbers came from the Indiana DNR.

“It’s very dangerous for the people who get stuck and people who are trying to rescue the people," he said. "That's why you see firefighters throwing a rope or a flotation device, rather than going into the dam."

The club's demonstration comes the same time that Indianapolis fire officials warn Hoosiers to stay off the White River.

The department's Twitter account said safe water conditions run between one and three knots. The White River reads between nine and 13 knots, as of early Saturday morning.

James said he and other members of the club have planned a trip on the water for next week, but it could change if the water conditions don't improve.

His club has been working with DNR officials to more accurately point out all low-head dams on a state map. The map, which is relatively new, can be check via phone before a paddler hops in the water. Currently, there are approximately 180 dams marked, but James said many more haven't been identified.

It's also pushing for more signage at launch points or other locations along rivers to give people a warning about what lies ahead.

“Somebody now, they go buy their boat, they run down to the stream, throw it in and they have no idea this is waiting for them down there," said James.

He said in Noblesville, the local water company uses the dam and has placed warning signs in the area, while creating a portage around the dangerous spot. He said there had been drownings there before, but its safer now. He wants to see more areas do something similar.

After the boat show, which ends Sunday at 5 p.m., the club plans to take its demonstration to area schools to teach children about the dangers of low-head dams and what to be on the lookout for if they go in a waterway.