Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Todd Harrison works a rapid on the Middle Ocoee River on Saturday, April 25, 2020, in Polk County, Tenn.

Paddling deaths in Tennessee in 2020 represent a disproportionate share of paddling deaths across the U.S., with nearly 5% of the nation's paddling fatalities and nearly 4% of its boating fatalities, according to an American Canoe Association study of U.S. Coast Guard statistics.

Tennessee is tied with Arkansas for the most river-related paddling fatalities in 2020, according to the association's analysis of reports by nonprofit American Whitewater and Coast Guard data.

The growing number of paddling fatalities nationwide is attributed to the increase in activity among paddlers with little to no training and their having accidents on easier waterways, association officials said.

According to data from American Whitewater, in 2020 there were more incidents for paddlers on flat and Class I rivers than there were on Classes III, IV and V rivers combined. Southeast Tennessee's Ocoee River is mostly Class III with some Class IV sections.

"Tennessee is blessed to have amazing waterways and we are honored to serve as a destination for paddlers from many surrounding states, but that has led to a frightening increase in the fatality rate, as well," said Andrea White, Tennessee state director for the American Canoe Association. "We think of the whitewater destinations as being the most dangerous rivers — and on the face of it, they are. But, statistically speaking, people are getting themselves into more trouble on easier waterways. Water is a force of nature and it will always win. We can't take our waterways for granted."

Tennessee had nine paddling deaths in 2020, and officials note the 2021 tally is already up to five fatalities in paddling-related accidents, with three of those occurring on lakes.

Mime Barnes, spokesperson for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, recently said state officials have been seeing an increase in accidents, too. The TWRA reported a noticeable increase in traffic on the state's lakes and rivers in 2020 — including a boom in the use of paddlecraft such as kayaks and paddleboards. After a record-low year of eight boating fatalities in the state in 2019, 2020 had the most boating-related fatalities in 37 years, with 32.

Nationally, boating activity increased significantly in 2020, resulting in increased accidents and fatalities, according to the Coast Guard. Across all types of boating, fatalities increased 25.1% and accidents increased 26.3% compared to 2019.

Paddlecraft consistently comprise about a fourth of boating fatalities. In both 2019 and 2020 the data held steady at 24% of all fatalities represented by canoes, kayaks, stand-up paddleboards and inflatable craft. According to the Coast Guard, paddlecraft fatalities nationwide jumped from 149 in 2019 to 182 in 2020, a 22.1% increase.

White cautioned folks to have fun with an eye out for safety this summer.

"The most important thing you can do is always wear your life jacket when you are on the water, even lakes and easy rivers," she said.

White said a life jacket saves people in unforeseen situations 85% of the time.

Contact Ben Benton at or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at