A kayaker in the annual Naugatuck River Canoe and Kayak Race shows excellent form in navigating through a tricky stretch of whitewater this past May.  Not all boaters on the Naugatuck are as skilled, or prepared.

Column By Kevin Zak and Photographs By John Murray

   Four young adults from a local church group went looking for adventure on the Naugatuck River, and on a bright day in June, they found it. They borrowed four colorful kayaks and headed to the river. None of the four had ever been in a kayak before. They would make no scouting attempts to examine what trouble spots they might encounter. They had no knowledge of the river. No one was wearing a life preserver. No helmets. The only knowledge they had was that there was a way to enter the river in the Platts Mills section above a breached dam. Below the dam were rapids.

  The images and excitement of the May race was in their minds and the adrenaline was flowing. They parked the return car in Beacon Falls and drove back to Platt Park. If any of the four had doubts about entering the river they kept it to themselves.

  Two days before there was not enough water to pass several areas without getting stuck, and the kayaks would have bounced off rocks like a pin ball. Twenty four hours later rain had swollen the Naugatuck River to levels that would have made a seasoned kayaker excited. The Naugatuck River is a chamelion and can morph in hours from a slow languid flow into a mad rush of water racing towards Long Island Sound.

   Three minutes into the trip when all four were in trouble. They flipped over one right after the other before they reached the Bristol Street Bridge. Each struggling for their own survival they could not help one another. Not everyone was wearing footwear. Cell phones and cameras were packed carefully into a kayak in zip lock bags (not a dry bag), and within seconds the boat disappeared below the surface. There were no spectators, no rescuers and the drama would not have been pleasant to watch.  Slippery rocks and boulders were everywhere. No one was exempt and they found rocks in ways their bodies and shoeless feet were not made for.  The shore was steep and comprised of only large angled boulders designed to stop erosion. One by one they crawled out of the river and over the rocks to safety.

   As shock and survival dissipated, worry took over. Where were the others? They became so disoriented they had completely forgotten how long they were in the water and how far they had kayaked. Three of the group quickly came together, but one female in the group was missing. A passerby on the bridge saw them and offered assistance. A short while later the fourth member crawled from the banks and through the short wooded area to the road. All four kayaker’s got in the stranger’s car and did not realize they were only a 10 minute walk from where they began.

  This is a real story that happened in June 2010. Can you imagine the headline if these people did not make it out of the river?

  Kayaking on the Naugatuck River can be thrilling, and if the kayaker is unprepared – dangerous. The kayaker pictured above was a participant in the 2011 Naugatuck River Canoe and Kayak Race. He wore a helmet and life jacket and when his kayak overturned, the boater displayed proper technique in staying with his boat.

   You do not have to go far to read or hear about the tragedies and rescues on our local river’s after Hurricane Irene. A canoeist drowned on the Pequabuck River. Four floaters were rescued on the Housatonic last week. A 56-year-old kayaker died on the Housatonic. How many rescues went unreported?

   The ease and inexpensive purchasing of a kayak is out of hand. There are rules of the road. There are things people need to know before and after purchasing a small craft. Putting it into running water creates a necessity for additional knowledge. It could be like owning a gun without proper training.  Would you let just anyone use your gun? Would you let someone drive without knowing what a stop sign meant or what a turn signal is for?

A stretch of the Naugatuck River in the Platts Mill section of Waterbury is particularly treacherous.  The river flow is forced through a narrow section of a breached dam, and dozens of giant boulders lie just beneath the surface of the flood swollen river.

   Collinsville Canoe and Kayak on the Farmington River has strict policies regarding the rental of their whitewater kayaks. They will not just rent to anyone without a test for basic skills in the river behind their shop. You’ll have to perform a wet exit, and it doesn’t matter if the water is cold. They will get you wet. If you want to rent a kayak you need to know how to use it, period.

   Basic things you should consider:  River kayak/canoe skills, proper fitting Personal Floatation Device (aka, PFD), helmet on the Naugatuck because of its rocky terrain, non cotton clothing, a second set of dry clothes, closed toe footwear, an extra paddle, dry bags for personal items like cell phones, a wet suit in cold water, a throw bag (practice using it), float bags, a skirt if you will encounter waves, a bailer if you do not have a skirt because when water enters the craft it becomes unstable and hard to control.

The river sprang to life after a tropical storm dumped nearly ten inches of rain in greater Waterbury. High water lured adventure seekers to rivers throughout northwest Connecticut, resulting in two drownings and several dramatic rescues.

  There are many types of kayaks and canoes. Learn what yours is used for. Learn what it can and cannot do. If you do not have closed bulkheads your kayak will be extremely heavy if it takes on water, and it will get worse if the water is moving. Would you take an aluminum canoe in the Naugatuck with all the rocks?

   It is best to have at least 3 people paddling together. If a problem occurs one paddler can assist in rescue and the other can assist in retrieving lost equipment. I personally have been called to the river to loan a paddle to someone who capsized in the rapids of the Breached Dam area of Platts Mills Road. The old saying up a creek without a paddle can be a real problem.

   Scout the river even if you think you are familiar with it. Conditions change after there has been rain. New trees enter the system and old ones move. Never attempt to go under a tree. If you are holding on to a tree hold on until help comes. If you go under a tree your clothes or PFD can get caught. A knife can cut you free. If you capsize, try to stay with the craft. If you are floating down stream go feet first. Your feet can absorb blows from rocks and debris. If you lose your craft you need to notify the police as soon as possible, so they are not trying to rescue a ghost.

While there appears to be a safe route to kayak/canoe down the middle of the flood swollen Naugatuck River, this is a very dangerous situation.

The danger lies on the edge of the river where the water has spilled over the banks and swiftly flows past trees, rocks and other debris. Getting tangled in vegetation, or trapped beneath a submerged log, will create a life threatening situation.

  If you see a straight line across the river it could be a low head dam. Always get out of your craft to scout areas you are uncertain of. Practice entering and exiting your kayak along the shore using your paddle as a brace.

   There is serious disrespect for the power of our rivers. There was a scary picture published in a local paper of three young people floating in pool toys “without” PFD’s on an Irene filled river with the following caption: “Youngsters hitch a ride down the rapidly moving Pomperaug River in Southbury in the wake of Hurricane Irene.” That was a disaster waiting to happen.

   The Naugatuck River poses its own unique circumstances. It is like a bath tub. It can fill and empty quickly. The river differs from the Housatonic and Farmington in that it is steep and rocky. I refer to the Naugatuck as schizophrenic. There are three gages that monitor the flow of the river. Data in cubic feet per second (cfs) and water height in feet can be accessed online at the USGS Real-Time Water Data web site: http://waterdata.usgs.gov/nwis/rt. One gage is in Thomaston and the other is in Beacon Falls. (Note: The gage that reports the height of the Naugatuck River in Waterbury is not on that web site.) Remember that there are 6 large tributaries that enter the Naugatuck River in Waterbury alone. That affects the flow significantly.

   Another issue in the Naugatuck River is old industrial debris, rusted and otherwise. An old industrial belt can be wrapped around a rock where at the right moment and angle can catch the front of a dipping kayak and end a life.

 Many years ago in Torrington two young boys went missing for several hours and were discovered tubing down the Naugatuck River, barefoot and with no life jackets. The officer issued them a warning and a stern lecture to respect the river.

   I believe every beginning kayaker should get a DVD on kayak safety and practice in a safe beach area, like Hop Brook Lake. When I bought my two kayaks I read books on river safety and rescue, and bought a VHS tape on how to use my kayak. My son Tyler and I practiced in a pool in New Hampshire and brought people to shallow beach areas to teach them before I let them use my kayaks.

  I wish someone could have met the 46-year-old father of three that canoed on the Pequabuck River in Bristol during the height of tropical storm Irene. I wish he had scouted the river before plunging in. I wish he knew to pull out before crashing into a bridge. I wish he were wearing a life vest and a helmet. I wish someone had told him he he didn’t have the skills to challenge a storm swollen river. He should not be judged for his mistake. This tragedy can save lives if we hear his story, and the story of the four young adults in the Naugatuck River, but only if we listen.

(Kevin Zak is the founder of the Naugatuck River Revival Group)