Despite traffic, Ohio River can be a safe kayaking destination

Despite traffic, Ohio River can be a safe kayaking destination
Kayakers paddle the Ohio River, which courses along the boundary of western and northwestern West Virginia. (Photo courtesy Christian Bowen)

WILLIAMSTOWN, W.Va. — As interest increases in kayaking on the Ohio River in West Virginia, officials advise paddlers to be especially attuned to safety.


While the Ohio may seem a sleepy reprieve in good weather, paddlers should be on the lookout for barge traffic and inclement weather, according to Michael Schramm, visitor services manager for the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge.

In addition to wearing life jackets, Schramm advises boaters in kayaks to watch for wind, flooding, and waves that can also be powered by wind. Despite, barge and ship traffic, kayakers should have ample time to paddle out of the way.


“Waves, to me, are the biggest threat on the Ohio River," Schramm said.


"Most people think more about currents if they aren’t a kayaker already. The current really isn’t that strong: it’s only one to two miles per hour. It is annoying to paddle against it if you’re going upstream, but it’s not the end of the world."

Ships and Barges

If ships or barges are heading down the river, kayakers should have ample time to prepare and avoid their wakes.

“It’s all about how you orient your boat to those things if you don’t want to get broadsided by them. It helps if you can kayak them at an angle,” Schramm says. “Typically, you’ll have no problem getting out of the way of a barge if the wake intimidates you.”

Though wakes left behind by large boats are usually no more significant than waves on a windy day.


“Actually, they can be quite a bit smaller than the normal waves that you see on a windy day. The waves can get very big, and the key advice is don’t go kayaking on a windy day,” he says.


“Many kayakers new to the river might overlook the influence of wind on surface conditions,” he says.

“If the wind is blowing parallel to the river, that’s a long stretch without any obstructions where the wind can whip up large waves. It doesn’t take much wind to create dangerous conditions.”


Kayakers unaccustomed to big rivers should also pay close attention to the river’s conditions. In the days following a rainstorm, the current tends to run faster, and there may be large debris floating downriver. Schramm says he would avoid kayaking during a high-water event.


Anytime the area experiences weather or runoff, Schramm says he would not go kayaking and would not advise it at all during the winter. But in the summer, even though the region then experiences most of its precipitation, there is more plant life to absorb that water.

“It doesn’t cause the flood events that you see following every rainstorm when there are no leaves on the trees,” he says.

Schramm says he would only kayak on a calm day if it hasn’t rained in a while, with no floodwaters coming into the river.

“If the river is full of mud, that’s a big warning sign. If it’s essentially green or clear, then that usually means it’s at a normal flow level, and it will be okay to go,” he says.


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