When I was a boy, my father and I were unexpectedly swept into a log jam (pile of logs the size of a house) on the banks of the Elk River while canoeing near our home.

Somewhat similar looking jam, but think bigger pile of logs, and more rapid waters: enter image description here

My Dad, being an experienced voyageur from NW Ontario, instinctively jumped out of the canoe up onto the log jam. Me, being barely 13, watched the water hit the hull of the canoe with wide eyes for about 2 seconds before the canoe suddenly flipped in the swift current and took me under the log jam with it. Fortunately for me, the logs were piled there during higher waters, so after a couple of seconds of getting drug along the rocks at the bottom of the river under the logs and my canoe, I eventually popped back up on the other side of the jam, with my Dad close behind me (he jumped in after me when I got towed under).

After that incident I just considered jumping out of the canoe onto the jam before it gets sucked under to be the appropriate course of action in this situation. But now that I'm a father, I've been wondering, "What would my Dad have done, if there was no way out the other side?". He just dove in blindly after his son, and we were lucky that there was room under the jam for us to go all the way underneath.

What if there was no way out the other side?

What can you do to help yourself or someone else if they get sucked under a jam and get pinned against the logs underneath by the current?

  • 2
    My Dad acknowledged after the fact while we were drying off on a sand bar, that it was foolish to try and navigate around the log jam, despite appearances, logs get put where they are by the current, so naturally the river would have pushed us up against the logs. Funny enough, while we were drying off another canoe came down the river behind us, and the same thing happened to them (we tried to warn them away, but they just waved back at us with smiles before they realized they were in trouble.)
    – ShemSeger
    Commented Apr 8, 2015 at 14:47
  • 2
    "How do you survive getting towed under a log jam?" You don't, unless you are lucky enough to pop out the other side. If there had been no way to pass underneath the logjam, and the current was too strong to get back upstream, you both would have been dead. I suppose the best thing to do would be to grab at branches and whatever and "climb" your way back. That will only work in limited cases, but it's better than staying there trapped and drowning for sure. Commented Apr 8, 2015 at 16:00

3 Answers 3


While I was crossing a stream, I was caught in one such but not so serious kind of a strainer. We call that strainers. These are formed when some obstacles get piled up and let a very narrow window for a person to pass through, but the water pass through it. Most of the strainers that you will (unfortunately) come across are likely to be formed by trees and wooden logs.
When I could feel being pressed under, I realized that swimming defensively isn't helping at all. Few things to start with:

  • When it rains damn heavy over a day, you can see abrupt rise in water level. Avoid going rafting/kayaking or if you are already out, avoid taking narrow paths in such a situation. That said, you should also consider other water bodies and hazards they may pose.
  • These are easy to locate, whenever you are passing through a narrow water passage with thickets, small trees in contact with the water stream, keep your eyes peeled. Its a perfect place for a strainer to form.
  • If you locate one such strainer, try to get closer to the shore. If you can't and are sure that you are going to go at it, be alert, aggressive.
  • You are likely to be tossed up from your ride. In such a case swim aggressively towards the strainer and with the pace try to stay somewhat above the water that passes below the logs and loft yourself on the log instead letting it swallow you. By aggressive swimming here, I meant go head-first, just when you are about to hit the log, loft up and grab the log, keep your torso up and out of the water. When you can't get around it, go over it with pace.
  • Most of the people who get trapped under one such strainer, have their legs locked in water and thats why they can't get out of the water and get swallowed. So, Try and get your feet up on the surface, that should help you get out quickly with the help of the strong water current.
  • If at all you have to rescue someone out of a strainer, start from the sideways or downstream. Never go upstream as you may end-up at the same place as the victim. He/She will be panicked and approaching him/her upstream would pose a lot of danger as you go against the flow.

Oh....you don't.

It would only be a matter of luck, physical strength and breath holding capacity...much emphasis on luck.

I was once kayaking with my GF in Florida when I was in my early 20s and still very althletic ally capable. We kayaked through a tidal creek, and the tide was on its way out. We were drifting down stream. The river looks navigable for power craft, but it really isn't and so there were three piles barring passage for anything larger than say 4 ft wide.

The water was only moving maybe 2 MPH, maybe 3. It was moving slower than I walk.

The kayak turned with the eddies and The kayak got pinned with my bow and stern across two of the piles. I say pinned. I was stuck in the seat and under water from the chest down. I wasn't in any immediate danger because the kayak was pinned so hard it was stable. It took me 5 minutes to get Myself out of the kayak in such a way that I wasn't swept down stream, and it took another 30 minutes of shoving the kayak a couple inches at a time until I got it free again.

The barnacle gashed the beeguz out of the kayak while I was dislodging it, and when it came free I was shoved across the barnacles myself and still have the scar on my back.

The point of the story is, Moving water is very powerful. You aren't "climbing" back upstream if the water is moving even just a couple of MPH unless you are super strong and can hold your breath during the exertion...this of course all while being unprepared for it.


Stage 1. You come around the corner and see the strainer.

Backwater. The technical term is a backferry. You want to move slower than the water. Move the stern over a bit in the bank you want to land on. Net result if you are any good, and the current isn't too bad is that you move sideways across the river. Google "backferry" on youtube.

This is not a trivial skill. Your steering actions are reversed, and because most canoes are used stern heavy, steering is much harder. The bowsman has a much more important role.

Practice backferrying.

Practice it a lot.

(It's useful for more than saving your life from a strainer. I use it all the time in rapids to change lanes, buy time to figure out a route, give my bow time to rise over a wave.)

Stage 2:

Ok. The backferry isn't working. You know you are going to hit.

Hit it sideways.

When you are going to hit something, lean downstram. Lean toward what you are going to hit.

This is counter-intuitive. You tend to shy away from the impact.

Suppose that you are drifting into a strainer sideways. At the moment of impact you have water rushing under you canoe, dragging the bottom of the boat downstream. You also have water striking the side under the water line. That water travels down under the boat dragging that side down with it.

The contact point on the obstacle is above this, so the tendency is for the boat to roll upstream. Once that gunwale is under it fills very fast.

So when you are drifting down on the strainer get ready to kiss it. The person padding on the strainer side leans out as far as he feels secure. The person on the river side stays in the middle. Both people make sure their feet are unencumbered.

On contact get out on the strainer as fast as possible. If you have bow and sternline rigged try to take and end with you. Do not let keeping the end slow you down.

Once the canoe has no weight in it the drag from the current drops a lot. Light tension on the lines can counter the roll. Now you have time to think. At this point, you can portage the canoe over the strainer into the water below.

Strainers kill

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