Strainers, Sweepers, and You
By Tamia Nelson
You can never know, till you try it, what a dead pull
a river makes against a man. Death himself had me by the heels, for this
was his last ambuscade, and he must now join personally in the fray.
Robert Louis Stevenson, An Inland Voyage
April 16, 2002
Whitewater! It's that time of yearat
least in northern North America. Even in near-drought areas, the winter
snowpack's melting, and the ice is off the water. The rivers are running
fast, and paddlers' pulses are keeping step. It's a good time to be in a
boat, on a river. It's a good time to be alive.
Alive. Get it? Spring whitewater is cold and
fast. And it can kill as well as thrill. Even tiny streams hold
What's "whispering death"? It's my name for one of the deadliest
killers on the water: the strainer. And what's a strainer?
Anything with holes big enough to let water through, but still small
enough to stop a boator a body. There are a lot of them around:
culverts, downed trees, undercut ledges, fences, even abandoned cars.
Why are strainers deadly? Have you ever watched a fly that's been
caught in the blast of air from a fan and then thrown against a screen?
The blast slips right through the metal mesh, but the fly is pinned down
by the force. It struggles and buzzes until you shut off the fan. Or
until it dies.
The same thing can happen to a paddler caught in a strainer. The water
slips through easily. The paddler doesn't. She struggles, of course, but
unless she can haul herself up and out of the water, or unless she's
rescued by someone else, she stays pinned like that fly on the screen.
Nobody's going to shut off the water, after all. And what if her head
happens to be under the surface when she's pinned? Then her life
expectancy is measured by the length of time she can hold her breath.
Ledges and abandoned cars notwithstanding, the commonest strainer on
most rivers is the fallen tree. It's a familiar story. Spring floodwaters
eat away at the riverbanks on the outside of each bend, where
the current is fastest. Sooner or later, the undercut banks collapse,
often bringing one or more trees down at the same time. Sometimes the
trees keep their connection to the bank, hanging down over the water.
(Then they're called sweepers.) Sometimes the whole tree is
submerged and wedged fast where it fell. Either way, the end result is a
thicket of branches. The river sweeps right through. But you won't, will
Where does "whispering death" come into the picture? The next time
you're on a riveror walking on the bankkeep your eyes open.
When you spot a downed tree in the water, stop and listen.
(CAUTION If you're paddling, approach strainers from
downstream only! Never float down on a strainer from upstream. And
if you're walking along the bank, be sure that it's not about to give
way, tumbling you in.)
Listen! Hear the water's sibilant shush, shush, shushing
through the branches? That's the siren song of whispering death.
Chances are good that you won't have to look very far to find a
strainer. They're not rare. You can see them almost anywhere: big rivers,
small streams, even along the margins of reservoirs with fast-moving deep
currents. And while spring floodwaters are the most dangerous times,
strainers can be killers at any season of the year. Farwell once rescued
a woman who got into trouble in early summer, on a placid reach of a tiny
trout stream. The current probably wasn't moving along at more than
one-half-mile an hour, but that was enough. The water was still cold. The
woman was weak. And she was stuck in the branches of a downed sycamore
like a fly on a screen. Happily, she survived. She was lucky.
Not all downed trees are dangerous to paddlers, of course. On the
margins of lakes they're part of the scenery, and good habitat into the
bargain. Lunkers often lurk among the tangled branches of lakeside
Still, any combination of fast (or even not-so-fast) water and downed
trees can be deadly. This isn't a new discovery. The nineteenth-century
English writer Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island, Dr.
Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) was a keen kayaker. But a sweeper nearly put an
end to his career before it had properly begun. Here's the story, just as
he told it in his first book, An Inland Voyage:
I was aware of another fallen tree within a stonecast. I had
my back-board down in a trice, and aimed for a place where the trunk
seemed high enough above the water, and the branches not too thick to let
me slip below
. The tree caught me about the chest, and while I was
yet struggling to make less of myself and get through, the river took the
matter out of my hands and bereaved me of my boat. The Arethusa
swung round broadside on, leaned over, ejected so much of me as still
remained on board, and, thus disencumbered, whipped under the tree,
righted, and went merrily away down stream.
I do not know how long it was before I scrambled on to the tree to
which I was left clinging, but it was longer than I cared about
The stream ran away with my heels as fast as I could pull up my
shoulders, and I seemed, by the weight, to have all the water of the
[River] Oise in my trousers' pockets. You can never know, till you try
it, what a dead pull a river makes against a man. Death himself had me by
. And still I held to my paddle. At last I dragged myself
onto my stomach on the trunk, and lay there a breathless sop, with a
mingled sense of humor and injustice
. On my tomb, if ever I have
one, I mean to get these words inscribed: He clung to his
Stevenson may have hung onto his paddle, but he did one Very Bad
Thing: he tried to slip through the branches of a sweeper. He didn't make
the same mistake again. Neither should you.
There's only one way to tackle strainers. Avoid them.
How? Any way you can. Sometimes you'll have to portage.
Sometimesparticularly in springyou'll even have to pick a
different river. But most places, most of the time, your paddle will keep
you out of trouble.
Here's the deal. Sweepers are most often found on the outside of
bends. Unfortunately, that's right where the current wants to take you.
But be of good cheer. If you're a strong, competent paddler, you can
almost always take the
ferry out of trouble.
"Take the ferry"? What does that mean? Back in the old days of
wagon-roads and cart-horses, there weren't as many bridges as there are
now. Many roads ended at the riverbank. If you wanted to cross, you had
to take the ferry.
But how did the ferry get across? Ferry operators, being clever folks,
looked for a free ride. They gazed out at the river. It's too bad all
that energy couldn't be harnessed, they thought. And then they realized
that it could. Just string a pair of cables across the river at the
ferry-crossing. Tie the ferry to the cables at bow and stern, with loops
in the lines. Kick the stern (upstream end) of the ferry out into the
current. Cast off. What happens next? Magic. The rushing water pushes
hard on the angled boat, but the cables keep it from slipping downstream.
So it slides sideways, from one bank of the river to the other. The bow
points where you've been. The stern points where you're going. It's fast.
It's cheap. It's easy. It's a piece of cake. A lot of ferry-operators got
Of course you're not tied to a cable when you're in your boat, are
you? But you have a paddle. All you have to do to hold yourself
stationary is to back-paddle. The force of the current will do the rest.
Strainer coming up? No problem! Just point your bow at ityes point
the bow at the strainerkick the stern toward the
inside of the bend, and back-paddle. You'll glide away from danger
as easily as if you'd taken the ferry.
Well, maybe it's not always that simple. You have to get the angle
right, for one thing. You need to remember that the current doesn't run
parallel to the banks in bends: it heads for the outside. And you have to
set your angle relative to the current. When you're headed downstream,
you aim your bow toward the thing you want to avoid and then kick the
stern away from it, making an angle across the line of the
current. If you're still heading where you don't want to go, open the
angle: push the stern over even more.
Of course, the faster the water, the harder you'll have to paddle to
hold your own against the current. And you'll have to close the angle to
keep from being swept downstream, too. In slow water, you can afford to
be almost broadside to the current. As the river speeds up, however, you
have to tighten the angle. Then, when the river runs faster than you can
paddle even when you're paddling as hard as you can, it's time to open up
the angle again. But now you can't help slipping downstream. Fast. So be
sure that you've given yourself plenty of room to maneuver.
Confused? I'm not surprised. You can't learn to do this in your living
room. Supervised practice is essential.
Fast water is one thing. Big waves are something else. Executing a
ferry in Class III-IV whitewater is neither simple or easy. So start out
in safe water first, with skilled friends standing by and not a strainer
in sight. You'll also want to work on the bow-upstream ferry. It gives
you more power and better control, but you won't be able to see where
you're going. You'll need to remember that you've swapped ends, too: when
you've turned around and you're facing upriver, you want to point your
stern at the danger, and angle the bow away. (Need help
keeping this straight? Just remember to point the downstream end of your
boatwhether bow or sternat the thing you want to avoid, and
angle the upstream end toward safety. That's all there is to it.)
Of course, it's even better to avoid trouble in the first place. Stay
off rivers in flood. When rivers rise over their banks, even familiar
things can become lethal traps, and there's no strainer more deadly than
a barbed wire fence. Once the water falls, scout every drop you plan
to run, every time you run it, even if you ran it just last week. A
single heavy rain can create new strainers overnight. And except for the
low-water days of summer, stay on the inside of bends. This is
where the ferry comes in handy. If in doubt, simply keep your stern
tucked in and back-paddle.
Taken by surprise? (This shouldn't happen, but from time to time it
does.) No time to set up a ferry? In a narrow stream you can sometimes
eddy out in the slacker water on the inside of a bend, drift down till
you're clear of danger, and then peel out into the main current again.
It's worth trying.
And what if, despite your best efforts, you find yourself caught in a
strainer someday? Don't try to swim through the branches! You don't want
to be pinned underwater. Instead, lean downstream and grab your would-be
killer with both hands. (Forget about your paddle. Sorry, RLS!) Then haul
yourself out and upout of your boat and up toward safety. Leave
your boat to look after itself. Get right up on the trunk of the tree if
you can. If you can't, concentrate on keeping your head above water. And
be very glad you never paddle fast water alone.
Does this sound scary? It is. And there aren't any guarantees that
you'll live to tell the tale. I don't call strainers "whispering death"
for nothing. So when danger looms up in front of you, use your head and
take the ferry. You'll be glad you did.
Copyright © 2002 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights