There are almost as many water conditions (frothy, glassy, curling) as there are places to paddle. Almost. Here are five of the best spots (rivers, surf breaks, island channels) and ways (sea kayaking, whitewater kayaking, heli-rafting) to get wet this year.
The Salmon River
Bounce down all three branches of the Salmon—Middle, Main, and Lower—the longest stretch of undammed river in the Lower 48, by paddle raft. The Salmon drops more than 5,000 feet in 256 miles through the Frank Church–River of No Return Wilderness Area, and is as diverse as it is epic: cold and creeklike in the ponderosa pines at Boundary Creek, the alpine put-in; warm and wide among the more arid, beachy lower section. The thumping Class II-V rapids (there are over 100 rapids on the 100-mile stretch of the Middle alone), hot-spring interludes, side-hikes to old mining settlements and Shoshone Indian sites, and excellent fly-fishing for smallmouth bass, sturgeon, and cutthroat trout, will keep you more than busy for 17 days.
Outfitter: O.A.R.S., 800-346-6277, www.oars.com
When to Go: June–August
Ecuador: Surf Kayaking the Pacific
Surf-bum for a week on the coast of Ecuador, north of the town of Montanito. Sessions of riding the five- to nine-foot green faces of a secret point break in a surf kayak—a tricky task—are punctuated by naps and meals of fresh corvina (a local fish). Accommodations at the hotel (the nicest in town)are only slightly more upscale than a surf camp, says Small World Adventures owner Larry Vermeeren: "The windows are cracked and the water's not hot." A surf bum wouldn't have it any other way.
Outfitter: Small World Adventures, 800-585-2925, www.smallworldadventures.com
When to Go: November–March
Canada: Heli-Rafting British Columbia's Klinaklini River
For the eighth time, Butterfield and Robinson, the only outfitter with a Klinaklini River license, will fly clients into the Coast Mountains of northwestern British Columbia for a seven-day, 90-mile descent of the icy river, from heavily forested lake country to Knight Inlet, off the northern tip of Vancouver Island. You'll splash down long wave trains, around logjams, and through glacier-fed Class II–V rapids. "If the water weren't moving," says expedition planner Andrew Murray, "it'd be frozen."
Outfitter: Butterfield and Robinson, 800-678-1147, www.butterfield.com
When to Go: July–August
Mexico: Whitewater Kayaking the Zimatan and Copalita Rivers
Navigating the tight lines within the steep white granite gorges on the upper and lower branches of the Zimatan and Copalita Rivers, you'll encounter play spots, holes, and waves for flatspinning, low-angle cartwheeling, and plenty of must-make moves(as in "Ya gotta stay right, or...well...just stay right!"). After six days paddling the clear, 70-degree Class III-IV waters, tumbling through the lush, high-canopied thorn forests of the southern state of Oaxaca, you'll be dumped into the Pacific near the town of La Cruzecita.
Outfitter: Agua Azul, 208-863-1100, www.aguaazul.com
When to Go: October–November
Tonga: Sea Kayaking the Vava'u Islands
Paddle for 12 days through the Vava'us, a labyrinth of 55 South Pacific islands located about 140 miles north of the main island of Tonga. Mornings are spent kayaking (you'll log two hours a day of mellow paddling in marine caves and alongside limestone cliffs that resemble tilted wedding cakes), afternoons are for snorkeling the hard coral reefs and taking the occasional nip of kava (muddy-dishwater-tasting, mellow-buzz-providing local brew) with island villagers, and nights are all about beach-camping.
Outfitter: Mountain Travel–Sobek, 800-282-8747, www.mtsobek.com
When to Go: September–October
Difficulty level: Easy