Bottom’s Up: A Piecemeal Approach to River Running

As paddlers, we are constantly facing the challenge of time versus information. How quickly can we process our surroundings? Our ability to make decisions- good ones- in a small window of opportunity is largely what determines our success on the water, whether that be perceived or actual.

Have you ever gotten to the put-in for a new run and been already thinking about rapids downstream? So quickly, we can feel the weight of the entire river stack up against us before we ever even put on the water. For that reason, breaking rivers into smaller, more digestible sections can have great merit when we look to take the next step in our boating or even just work ourselves really hard without worrying about conserving energy for the whole river ahead.

We use this ‘bottom-to-top’ approach often when teaching, though sometimes river sections are broken down in other ways that are just as advantageous. Below are some of my favorite ways to break down rivers that may feel dense to unfamiliar paddlers… check out how you can take a smaller but just as satisfying bite out of your next run.

  1. Green River Narrows: Blackwater Falls to Fishtop or just below Sunshine to Fishtop
    This useful breakdown of the fabled Green River Narrows comes only to those willing to put in a little work by hiking with a kayak. Put in at Fishtop and paddle across the pool to access Pulliam Creek Trail on river left. A short but demanding hike upstream will have you to Blackwater Falls in less than half an hour, allowing for a great warm up and boofing practice before heading downstream to tackle Baby Sunshine, Toilet Bowl, and Hammer Factor. If you want more, keep hiking upstream and you’ll spill out just a bit below Sunshine to include more of the Green River classics like Colonel Dicks and All American Boof.
  1. Ocoee: Slice ‘n’ Dice to Go Forth
    Not exactly a bottom-to-top approach, but a friendly introduction to the Ocoee nonetheless. Pull off and park alongside the river at Slice ‘n’ Dice and run down to Go Forth Creek as your take-out. This is a fantastic section for building confidence and introducing the character of the Ocoee. Paddlers will enjoy great surfing, eddy maneuvers, and comfort building at Slice ‘n’ Dice, some excitement at Double Trouble and Flipper, and a fantastic opportunity for challenge by choice at Double Suck. Ocoee boaters will know that this is only one way to break this roadside run apart; get creative!
  2. Cheoah: Tapoco Lodge to Lake
    Most Cheoah paddlers are familiar with segmenting this run by using the Forest Service bridge as either a take-out or a put-in, but consider that many boaters won’t have much trouble with this run until hitting the bridge just past Tapoco Lodge. It’s a very short section, sure, but many newer paddlers will hit this final crux section having spent most of their energy upstream; we’ve all seen the end-of-day beat-downs here. Put in at the bridge below Tapoco Lodge and really work the section down to the lake, taking particular advantage of fresh eyes and lots of energy to study the areas that give paddlers the most trouble.
  1. Upper Nantahala: Troll Hole to Take Out
    The speed and continuity of the Upper Nantahala is what gives a lot of boaters trouble on this section. Throw in scheduled weekend releases and throngs of other kayakers experiencing varying levels of success on the way down, and you’ve got the perfect storm for an overwhelming experience. Troll Hole is one of the more defined rapids on this run that may warrant pause; put in here, above or below, and paddle the run out until comfortable and strong. The fact that this river is roadside makes for great opportunity to gradually work upstream, even in to some of the latter rapids of the Cascades, when appropriate.


The possibilities for this approach to river running are endless! Consider your favorite run and how breaking it down to a shorter section might be possible. Can you start from the take out and hike up? Is it possible to put in mid-way through the run? Often, it’s not that we don’t have the skills to manage an entire run but that we don’t yet possess the mental fitness to exact those skills for as long as the river demands. Breaking up a river as detailed above and shown in the video below is a great way to get your feet wet- no pun intended!- on a new or more challenging run… it’s also fantastic practice with the oft forgot skill of hiking with a boat. You can save a lot of energy with this method, thereby allowing yourself to lap rapids or smaller sections to truly build prowess and comfort.

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2 thoughts on “Bottom’s Up: A Piecemeal Approach to River Running”

  1. Having watched a lot of folks on the Upper this weekend, and wishing I was out there with them….starting at Troll Hole is definitely a good way to start…and then progress up the river. Thanks for the approach!

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