River running is totally different from canoeing a chain of lakes. The river takes you on a journey, gently floating you on its back one minute and then thrashing like an unbridled horse the next.
Like many before me, my first battle with rapids was the biggest blooper of my time spent in a canoe. A friend had asked me to stand in for his regular bow partner for an annual canoe race on the local river. Neither of us knew enough about running wild rapids but we pushed off from the starting point just the same.
Throughout the race we managed to grind over several gravel bars, thrust our way through meter high haystacks, and bounced our way down boulder gardens and miniature chutes without flipping over once. We even traveled down the river backwards after our canoe hit a rock and spun us completely around. Thinking back, it was pure luck that we survived the whole ordeal, not to mention receive second prize.
Thankfully, I’ve learned from my past misadventures. Those days are gone when I blindly rounded each bend in the river and just hoped to keep the canoe straight and upright. It’s now a ritual for me to scout every rapid before even thinking of attempting it. I constantly back paddle going towards any rapid, slowing my approach, watching for upstream Vs’ which indicate submerged rocks and head for downward Vs’ which indicate a clear path. I also keep in control by practicing effective strokes (draws, cross draws, prys, and ferry techniques) and by taking advantage of eddies so I can nestle in the calm of the storm before planning my next move. And when in doubt, I portage. And when I think I know what I’m doing, it’s usually a sign that I don’t, and immediately sign up for a refresher course.
Trust me, to get a full perspective on river running, to receive a three-dimensional view of any rapid, don’t just believe in lady luck and sign up for some crazed canoe race. Head out with professionals who are humble about their skill. Only then will you truly understand the addictiveness each canoeist gets the moment your boat is at the brink of some run or being tossed around a thick wall of water, and suddenly realize there’s no turning back – you are now at the mercy of the river of the river gods.
- Take out well before the drop (using a back ferry to land is best) and pull the canoe well up on shore. Even tie the canoe off securely. You don’t want to witness your boat floating by while scouting the rapids.
- Walk along the rapids with your partner, locating potential routes which both of you agree upon.
- Try to stay at river level when scouting. Rapids have a tendency to look easier from high above.
- Walk all the way to the base of the run, not only to note all possible routes, but also to see what’s waiting for you at the bottom. If there’s another set of rapids, and you end of dumping on the first set, chances are there will be no time to collect yourself you probably won’t have time to collect yourself before the second set.
- Make note of identifiable markers that can help point the way through (i.e., large boulders, overhanging trees, obvious Vs’). Make sure these points of reference can be seen once you’re at river level. Everything looks completely different once you’re in the canoe and heading for all the foam and froth.
- Remember, even if one of the two canoe partners has doubts about an obvious route choice, use the portage. It’s the safer and relieves the pressure on group dynamics.