Into the Flow Zone

Go overboard this summer on 32 of North America's wildest waterways

Dropping in: Burnt Ranch Gorge, on California's Trinity River    

ONE MUGGY JULY evening in Vermont, I met my friend Billy Nutt on a leafy bend of the Connecticut River. Billy had spent five years on the U.S. Kayak Team, and now he paddles for sheer fun. The current swept into a rapid called Sumner Falls, in the middle of which was a honking, glassy wave with a curling top.
We surfed. We took turns windmilling up out of the eddy and onto the wave's smooth face, getting kicked to the top, spinning and skipping down fast into the trough, the whole motion arcing and quick like the dive of a swallow. We played for hours—blowing enders, rolling, yelling. I didn't realize it had gotten dark until a south wind blew a warm rain over the river and the sky rumbled. A thread of lightning cracked the night and in the instant's glare I saw leaves blowing over the water and the far hills, and felt the whole river slipping with tremendous speed under the shivering kayak, and I thought, There is no more than this.

And there isn't. Rivers and boats are God's compensation to man for all the really dry stuff—like taxes and work and August. Americans are discovering this in astounding numbers. Between 1995 and 1999, the number of us whitewater kayakers increased by nearly 40 percent, to five million paddlers. Seventeen million people canoe; nine million like to raft. And what a place to live and boat: From the glacier-fed, grizzly-haunted rivers of the Yukon to the icy, bell-clear streams of California's Trinity Alps, from the desert canyons of Utah to the steep, lush ravines of West Virginia, North America is particularly blessed with rivers of great beauty and wildness—and kick-ass whitewater.
This summer, as the mercury rises and the days parch and curl, don't get mad. Get in a boat. Cool off and splash around. Get a bunch of snow-melt up your nose. Here are Outside's favorite runs in every part of the continent and for every taste—wilderness expeditions, raucous Class Vs, perfect day runs, gentle family canoe trips. But be forewarned: River running is a terminal condition. It gets in the blood and makes you do dumb things, like take annual canyon trips in blizzards. Like quit your job, and neglect your pets and your piano lessons. So paddle at your own risk.

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