My kayaking failure in the Rockaway river(NJ), need advice

Stories of (interesting, funny, bad, sad, happy, etc.) things that have happened while paddling. Post your links to your blogs as well.

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My kayaking failure in the Rockaway river(NJ), need advice

Post by NicholasV » Wed Sep 14, 2011 8:13 pm

This post turned out more epic than I thought, here is the tl;dr:
Tried to kayak the local Rockaway river, was fun, short, then wiped-out, then manhandled by the current while still holding the paddles till I got ashore. How do I avoid/better handle these failures next time?


It has been a while since I got my Advanced Elements Dragonfly XC tandem inflatable kayak and I already got bored of using it on lakes. Me and a friend tried going down a local river, called the Rockaway River that runs through Wharton - Dover - Rockaway - Denville - Boonton, in Morris County, NJ. But the water was too shallow and we kept getting stuck on rocks that day, so we aborted. Hurricane Irene hit NJ on August 28 and it caused massive flooding, especially surrounding the Rockaway river and that solved the problem of depth and I figure it will be my last possible chance to go down the Rockaway River before Winter. I monitor the river and see that the flooding subsides, check the bridges in downtown Dover to make sure we can pass under and on August 31 when the river is still high we try and at first it is a total blast, but then disaster hits.

A fallen branch blocks most the path of the river, we manage to duck under it, but immediately after is another branch that wipes us both out. My friend bails first, but I try to stay seated on the kayak, grab the branch and contort underneath it, but instead I fall into the river. Since the current there was quite strong, immediately like a punch in the face, my glasses get taken from my head and claimed by the river. I see the paddles and kayak drifting away from me downstream. Since the paddles cost me $110 each and they are closer, I grab both of them, but then the trouble really starts. I need my bodyweight to help me stay low and grounded to fight the current and get ashore, but holding the paddles lightens my weight and makes the current more formidable. The current manhandles me and sends me about 1000 ft. or so downstream I would estimate before I can grab a branch and get ashore. Though, at no point was I in danger of drowning, I was still dismayed by this overpowerment. I see my friend at the opposite end of the shore on the high ground of the Krauzer's/Bassett Highway Parking lot, since I know the area, I know I can walk around to him and I do so. When I meet up with him he points out the inflatable kayak which is further upstream stuck pinned underneath the branch of a tree, which I cannot access from walking around again due to impenetrable plant growth. From the previous experience, I know I should walk at least 50-100 feet upstream before re-entering the river to cross, because the current will drag me down in my attempt to cross close to the kayak. Luckily I make the swim across and manage to free the kayak.

Another mini-disaster strikes as my friend informs me he sees white people eyeing us intently from the parking lot he is in and to hurry up before they do something. He throws me one paddle and I launch again downstream till I find a lack of growth and manage to get to the shore next to PJs Plumbing supply on W. Clinton Street. Luckily I find a couple there right at the point where I reach the shore, and the guy is kind enough to help me lift the kayak ashore after we dump out the excessive water that was in the interior after it was pinned upside down under the branch. When I get the kayak near the train tracks, I yelled to my friend to come around to meet me. I cannot hear him and instead hear an undecipherable and unknown response, so I yell again. Then my friend yells that the cops came, I see the cop, and figure obviously the white onlookers called them before asking us if we were ok or not. Fortunately the cop is relatively cool by the standards of his profession and lets us off with a warning, saying to not go into the river again. Luckily the other guy was there or else I possibly never would have been able to get the considerable water out to get it ashore, which would have left me in the river to face the cops dictum to get out and perhaps abandon the kayak. Another slap struck me as I opened the dry bag -- I found that it was saturated with water, I took out my cellphone and the screen was blank, so I could not call my brother to pick us up.

In hindsight:
1. Days after this debacle, I walked that same parking lot to get a better view of the twin fallen branches and see that if we veered to the extreme right, we could have easily passed under both branches. Perhaps from our perspective on the kayak, this was much harder to discern, or possibly we did not scan far enough ahead.
2. We should have waited past the 31th for perhaps two or three more days, since the river was still quite high making the current more potent.
3. My friend should have worn shoes as instead of going to his house a few minutes away to get old shoes, he insisted we save time by going directly to Water Works park in Wharton where we launched. He said he would just go barefoot. He paid for this as in the parking lot waiting for me to recover the equipment he stepped in dog shit, and it was so hot that it caked onto his foot, which he had to clean with his hand, lol.

I have some questions so I know what to do next time to avoid the same travails:
1. This is ulimately guess work perhaps, but in such a river that ranges from normally too low so that you would constantly hit rocks, to too high resulting in too much current and the inability to pass under bridges, how do you best determine when a good passage is possible?

2. When you do wipeout like we did, at an area with a powerful current, how should you handle it? I sure as hell didn't want to just abandon the investment in the paddles and assume I could find them later.

3. Do you think my cellphone could have gotten saturated because I put it in the dry bag with two bike water bottles, which could have been the source of the leak? The water bottles seemed to still be full to me afterward. Or would any dry bag forced to stay pinned upside down stationary under a branch with a fairly powerful current pounding at it for a prolonged period, get waterlogged?

4. How do you get back upstream from kayaking a river? We were planning to call my brother, have him pick us up and bring us home, hence the cellphone. But now I am weary of trusting a cell in a wetbag.

5. If you wear glasses how are you supposed to handle that situation? I figure next try I should not wear them and have my friend with his better vision up in front, as I cannot afford to keep losing them.

I just checked the forecast and there is suppossed to be rain the tonight and tommorrow:
I checked the river today at various point throughout Dover earlier today and if anything, it was perhaps too low to pass some rocky areas. This could likely be my last opportunity, I don't want to go the whole winter with this defeat in my mouth without tasting some victory. If anyone who is more experienced kayaking, would like to go tandem with me in lieu of my friend down this river when it is possible after these latest rains, perhaps that would be better instead of two inexperienced people trying together and making assorted epic failures.

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Post by JimD » Thu Sep 15, 2011 3:54 am

Wow! looks like you learned a lot in a short time!
A couple of questions.
Why did you put water bottles in a dry bag? Is the river polluted, so you don't want to risk getting the necks contaminated? If so what were you doing going into it!
I assume you had PFD's or you might not have got out at all!
What right would the police have to stop you kayaking the river? You weren't trespassing were you?

I'm afraid I'm not experienced enough to help much with your main questions, but I think you could try putting your cellphone etc inside a waterproof container, inside a dry bag. Those plastic food-storage boxes with rubber seals and clips all round are pretty good. Pad things to stop them rattling around. Dry bags should be called damp bags, because they're not really waterproof.

I wear glasses too, and in rough water the least I do is wear one of those elastic straps supplied for sports use. If I was sure they were going to come off, they'd go in the plastic box as well.

Also look into getting Paddle Leashes so the kayak and paddles will stay together, but beware of getting tangled in them.

Better luck on your next try.

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Post by dspid2404 » Thu Sep 15, 2011 12:20 pm

Nicholasv - For years I did competition white water canoeing with a close friend of mine. You made a few mistakes. Let me see if I can help you out.

When kayaking or canoeing rivers, especially white water you need to learn about gauges. The USGS set various gauges up on bridges and other structures and employ people to check the gauges every few hours. These are listed on various websites. You can also use your phone to check them. Look up USGS River Gauges and look for New Jersey. It will usually be listed by River Regions or Watersheads. Guide books or sites on rivers in New Jersey will tell you what gauge ratings you should go or no go and will describe what to expect.

NEVER go under a tree that is lying in a river. Just trust me on that one. There are too many unseen obstacles.

When you flip, and you will, its part of the experience, always keep your feet down stream. In fast moving water this is critical. Also NEVER go barefoot. If you are in fast moving water you will need your feet to feel for obstacles and eventually to stop you. You can tear your feet up pretty good if you don't at least have bootys on. Neoprene bootys are what I suggest.

If you lose equipment you have to figure out what its worth. Paddle straps are a good idea but do get in the way. I personally don't like them.

Alway double bag everything. A dry bag is fine but just the humidity in them can cause dampness. I put my cellphone or GPS in at least a zip lock bag in addition to the drybag.

If there are two of you on the trip, take two cars. Park the first car downsteam. Take the second car with the boat(s) upstream and unload. Stow the ropes, etc. to strap to the cars and head downstream. Pack the boats on the car and go get the other car. That is the basic idea depending on how many cars have boats on them.

I used to wear glasses and used to wear a neoprene band that holds them on. Not the loose ones but the tight neoprene ones that stretch around your head. I can't remember the names. Sorry.

I can go on for hours on various river boating but I'm at work and really need to get back to it. Have fun and stay safe.

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Post by PJohanson » Sun Oct 09, 2011 8:27 pm

Wow! What a story -- thanks for posting it.
You've reminded me that the few times that members of my paddle group have been at serious risk of drowning were almost all when they were paddling in a rain-swollen stream that is usually too shallow for kayaking.
I do recommend using paddle leashes to keep a paddle with the kayak -- but make them slim cord and practice cutting that cord with the knife that you carry while paddling. (One of the local kayak stores does not recommend paddle leashes since one of their students flipped over and had the leash wrap around his neck. You Have Been Warned!)
The cop was giving good advice, and it's his job to help people make good choices about their activities. Anyone thrashing around in a rain-swollen stream long enough to get onlookers calling 911 is usually in need of advice if not actual help.
I think you'll have a lot of fun in the future with your kayak, especially if you find out where the local canoe and kayak clubs are paddling and go with them a few times. That'll help you be familiar with good places in your area to paddle. You'll be able to do safety practise with them. They'll give you the practical local knowledge to have a good time on the water.

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