Paddles, No Shock
UW Sea Grant urges kayak safety near the electrical barrier in Romeoville, Illinois.

Large warning signs adorn the shore of the canal in both directions, but they aren't easy for kayakers to see.

Credit: UW Sea Grant

July 26, 2012

by Aaron R. Conklin

Kayakers who enjoy paddling the Chicago River, your friends at University of Wisconsin Sea Grant and the U.S. Coast Guard have a friendly safety message for you: Steer clear of the electrical barrier in the Sanitary and Ship Canal near Romeoville.

The Corps established the barrier in 2002 as a means of preventing invasive Asian carp from entering Lake Michigan. The electrical field’s strength of 2.5 volts per inch at the water surface doesn’t sound particularly dangerous, but its frequency (15 pulses per second)  makes it powerful enough to stun the fish –and, more pointedly, disrupt a human’s basic motor control, making it difficult for a flipped kayaker to recover and exit the water.  A kayaker who spends more than seven minutes in the charged water could risk suffering atrial fibrillation, a fatal disruption of the heart’s natural rhythm. 

“Let’s put it this way: If you tip over, you’re not getting out on your own,” said Phil Moy, UW Sea Grant’s fisheries specialist and assistant director for research.

As recently as September of last year, a kayaker was spotted heading to the barrier area. Large warning signs adorn the shores in both directions, but because the canal is bounded by eight-foot walls, the signs aren’t easy for kayakers to see from the water surface. Paddlers should plan to avoid the half-mile section of the San-Ship Canal near the Romeo Road Bridge, plan a way to portage around the barrier or consider the Des Plaines River as an alternative route.