Guide to Summer: Flatwater Is for Sissies

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, June 1995

Guide to Summer: Flatwater Is for Sissies

Fear not the aerated froth--canoes can handle whitewater, too
By Marni Jackson

If you've never canoed whitewater before, by all means cut this out, tape it to your paddle, and have it facing you as you approach your first boiling eddy or hydraulic jump. Just make sure you also bring along someone who knows what he's doing or take an intensive weekend course. Watching The River Wild twice doesn't count--rafts can take on really hairy stuff, but it doesn't take much to capsize an open canoe.

Whitewater is just wet, wild air--the aerated froth that kicks up when the river current meets an obstacle like a bunch of rocks. The classification of rapids measures degree of navigability, from the easy riffles of Class I to the scary-even-through-binoculars torrents of Class VI. While this familiar system is reassuring on the page, rivers are never predictable. Dams rise, trees fall, beavers do their thing--never trust maps, much less last year's memories.

You can't judge the size or difficulty of a set of rapids while sitting in a canoe peering down the river. For anything over Class II, it's best to paddle to shore, scout the rapids on foot, and mentally map out your route from a downstream vantage point. That way hidden boulders and rooster tails that end in nasty troughs are more visible. Besides, standing around swatting mosquitoes while discussing degrees of aeration and heights of haystacks is all part of the whitewater deal. It gives you time to get good and scared before you lift a paddle.

Rapids are all about decisions, and the most important one is whether the rapids are safe to run in the first place. If you have to argue about this, chances are they're not. But if you decide to go for it, the bow and stern paddlers should then agree on the route that will deliver the most thrills with the least chance of dumping, especially in dangerously cold, high water. On a hot day, with an unloaded canoe, dumping's no big thing--just assume go-cart position (feet up and pointed downstream so they won't snag on the bottom) and hope your life jacket is buckled tight.

Contrary to those heroic paintings of voyageur paddlers heading hell-bent over waterfalls, paddling whitewater often involves slow, controlled diagonal moves called ferries and lots of furious back-paddling. You'll be looking for those luscious, swollen V's of water where the current creates a cushion that you can ride, as well as calm eddies where you can pull in, catch your breath, and reconnoiter the rest of the run. A bowman needs to learn the cross-draw (a fast switcheroo from one side to the other without rearranging your grip) to change direction quickly or to fend off pointy rocks, while the sternman tends to rely on the high and low braces, strokes that provide balance and allow you to make subtle recoveries in the rapids.

Canoeing whitewater is mostly a matter of learning to read the water, make sound judgments, and use strategy--it's kind of like wet chess. (If it seems more like pinball, you're in trouble.) Should you graduate to serious whitewater, the analogy changes. It becomes more like being a bull-rider in a rodeo. Doing it gracefully isn't nearly as important as just staying upright till the bell rings. The bull's in charge, and he'll buck and turn the way he wants. You're just along for the ride.

Marni Jackson, a native of canoe-crazy Canada, is a longtime contributor to Outside.

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