Safety Considerations

General River Safety

Whether you are a boater, fisher, swimmer, or you are just enjoying hanging out by the water, the Nisqually River is an awesome place for recreation, reflection, inspiration and education. However, this environment can also pose unique risks and hazards to your safety. Each individual on the river has the responsibility to manage these risks and hazards wisely, both for yourself and for children, whenever you are around moving bodies of water. Assistance from rescue personnel or others may be hours away, and a water accident can turn deadly within seconds. Most water-related accidents are preventable. Here are some simple things YOU can do to stay safe and help prevent accidents when recreating around any body of water (courtesy American Whitewater).

  1. Wear your Life Jacket regardless of boat type or difficulty of water. A third of all whitewater accidents could have been prevented if the victim was wearing a life vest; many deaths occur in very easy rapids! It’s a good idea to put children in life jackets even when on shore near water. Nearly every year along Washington rivers, some children tragically drown when unattended or not watched by adults for even short time periods along lakes and rivers.
  2. Avoid alcohol and illegal drugs. Alcohol dulls reflexes and survival responses and is often linked to fatalities. Celebrate at your campsite or home.
  3. Know the river to prevent unpleasant surprises. Find out what lies downstream. Check the American site, guidebooks, Google earth, and get advice from paddlers who have been there!
  4. Avoid extremes of weather and water: Very high flows and cold temperatures pose special challenges to paddlers. If you don’t have the specialized gear and skills needed, wait until conditions improve.
  5. Avoid dams: Small low-head dams are responsible for over 8% of river fatalities. Most are much worse than they look! Know the location of dams before launching on a river, and avoid getting too close to the upstream or downstream sides of them.

Safety Considerations along the Nisqually

The Nisqually River’s location within the Puget Sound basin affords it as being a premier natural recreation resource for the more than 4 million residents of this region and beyond. The proximity of the river, and its numerous but relatively remote access points, pose a significant risk for accidents, injuries, and fatalities for those who are ill prepared or not knowledgeable of the inherent risks of being on the river. Water-based recreation can be dangerous and deadly, even to those who are experienced, properly trained, and well equipped. Ultimately, the responsibility for safe recreational activities on the river lies with you, the user, and, in the case of kids, with their parents or guardians. Three main elements to consider when discussing safe recreational use on the river include hazard awareness, prevention of accidents, and emergency response in the event an accident occurs.

Natural Hazards

The Nisqually River is heavily affected by the region’s meteorological and geographic characteristics. The natural impacts of weather, flooding, erosion, and other substantial events changes the river’s characteristics even on a daily basis. The following are natural and man-caused hazards that all river users should be aware of.

  • Cold Water: The river is cold! Water flowing from glaciers and melting snow high up in the Cascades is the source of the river water, and average temperatures my drop at times below 42.8 deg. F. Hypothermia can set in quickly, affecting the body’s ability to coordinate its functions in the case of self-rescue, and cause death.
  • Swift Currents: Mountain runoff, in addition to multiple tributaries draining a large watershed can dump a tremendous amount of water flow into the Nisqually. Especially during and following heavy rainfall, the river can flow very high and fast. People, especially young children, have been accidentally swept into the main flow of the river when wading or trying to cross sections of the river.
  • Poor Water Visibility: Sediment and glacial till brought down from the mountains and area runoff prevent the river from running clear during most seasons. Submerged hazards in the river, such as logs, branches, rocks, and other debris are difficult to see under these conditions. These hazards can entrap or trip up individuals who may be wading or trying to walk in the river.
  • Trees, stumps, boulders: The river bank is a dynamic, always changing environment, that is constantly eroding, building up, and whose channel continually moves locations with the changing weather conditions. A great deal of woody debris, rocks, and soil gets transported down the river as a result. Because of the relatively shallow river bottom, turns in the river, and continually eroding banks, natural debris in the water creates numerous sweepers and strainers which can cause drowning for river users who have not taken precautions to avoid them. Because of the dynamic nature of the Nisqually, one must always be on the lookout for these hazards.
  • Tides and currents: As the Nisqually empties out into South Puget Sound, the influence of tides and currents overcomes the flow of the river. An outgoing tide can leave one stranded in un-walkable, boot-sucking mudflats miles from shore. Marine currents, combined with winds, can blow a kayak or raft further away from one’s destination and out into the sound. Check tides and currents and plan accordingly prior to entering the tidal influenced waters of the lower Nisqually.

Man-Made Hazards

People have lived alongside the Nisqually River for thousands of years, and the river and lands which comprise the Nisqually River Basin have been greatly affected by human decisions and activities. Safety hazards resulting from these human activities do exist on the river and their nature and location should be made known to all who use the river.

  • A 4 ft. high diversion dam, part of the City of Centralia’s Yelm Hydroproject, runs completely across the river approximately 9 miles upstream from the city of Yelm. Here, a portion of the Nisqually River is diverted by way of a small canal to a hydroelectric plant located in Yelm, then directed back into the river. Boaters must portage around the dam and put in below it. Signs upriver warn of the dam, and during the summer months, a floating barrier is placed above the dam. Missing the barrier and/or signs and going over the dam either by raft or kayak, or swimming, would likely prove fatal.
  • Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Screw Trap: A fish counting float with a continually rotating wheel mechanism is moored in the river approximately a ¼ mile upriver from the Centralia Powerhouse outflow facility. A sign strung on a cable over the river just upriver of this equipment warns boaters of the hazard. This is easily avoidable provided the boat operator knows it is coming and can maneuver his/her craft to the opposite side of the river (river left). Flows here are relatively slow and ample time is allowed for this maneuver.
  • Bridge Piers and Abutments: The Nisqually River sections included in this document have five bridges, some for vehicles and some for trains, crossing them throughout the water trail. Each of these active crossings includes bridge piers and/or abutments in the river that can pose a significant hazard to boaters. Depending on river flow and past flooding, many also have collected logs, uprooted trees, branches, and other debris at their base, often directly in the main current of the river. Boaters should be vigilant of these hazards and avoid them at all costs.
  • Man-made debris in the river: Flooding, high water, and in some cases, past illegal dumping has left man-made debris in the river. This includes canoes or kayaks swept from properties along the river, plastic debris, rope, metal from vehicles, old concrete and rebar bridge abutments, and other large items that were either dumped or abandoned in the river. Although there is not a great abundance of these items littering the river, all recreational users must be vigilant that it does exist. Some of the items have become wedged and are visible in amongst the many logjams and woody debris in the river. Some are partially buried in the river bottom and show only during certain river flows. One particularly dangerous piece of metal, likely the remnants of an old vehicle that had been dumped years ago, is located directly at the end of the Class III Rapid known as “Little Kahuna”. At certain flows, the sharp metal can lurk just beneath the surface of the water in the direct path of boaters in the rapid.
  • Remoteness and Communications: While the river is located in close proximity to major population centers, large tracts of land owned and managed by a variety of entities have created a sparsely populated and relatively non-accessible buffer on both sides of the river. These entities include the Nisqually Indian Tribe, Manke Timber, City of Tacoma Public Utilities, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wilcox Farms and the Nisqually Land Trust. If an accident were to occur on the river, one may have to travel a surprisingly large distance over these tracts of land before getting to a road or other development, much less making contact with a person. While cell service is available in most area along the middle and lower river corridor, it may not be 100% covered, and getting help to someone on the river can be problematic given the lack of road access.
  • Public Health and Sanitation: Human waste disposal could become a public health problem should increased recreational access bring many more users to the river without facilities and education measures to address this use. The only public toilets that exist along the river are at the two designated put-in and takeout locations: McKenna Park, Centralia Hydro Powerhouse park in Yelm. Human waste must otherwise be packed out or should be deposited in accordance with Leave No Trace guidelines ( . All trash should be taken off the river and disposed of in trash receptacles.

How to get help:

  • Immediately Call 9-1-1 or otherwise contact the local public safety authority
    • Thurston County Sheriffs Office
    • Pierce County Sheriffs Office
  • Provide the following information to rescuers:
    • Location (yours and the victim’s)
    • Number and description of victims (how many, who, ages, clothing)
    • What happened (boating, tubing, swimming, wading?)
    • How long ago did it happen
  • Only attempt self-rescue if trained and equipped to do so
  • Get help coming right away

So, by all means come out and enjoy all that the Nisqually River has to offer! But do it safely, by coming knowledgeable, prepared, and tuned in to preventing accidents and avoiding hazards on the river.