“When I look at a rapid, I try to assess the state that I will be in when I get to the bottom. If it is not a state that I approve of, then I won’t run it.” – John Wassen, Kayaker’s Little Book of Wisdom, Addison.
We learn many lessons as whitewater kayakers, but probably the most beneficial is the ability to discern whitewater features from different vantage points. I still remember my first instructor, Chris Cindric, teaching us “if in doubt, get out and scout.” To this day, I still think back to that lesson, being one of my very first on the river, and ultimately the one cliche saying that I have held on to. Every part of a river trip involves some fashion of scouting, whether it be from shore, your boat, or beta being relayed back upstream from someone downstream of you. I even consider the endless amount of information readily available on the internet or books a means of scouting rivers we want to paddle as well. It is one of the most critical skills we learn as kayakers and yet probably one of the most overlooked skills. Also commonly overlooked are the psychological advantages and disadvantages to scouting, begging the question: how much is enough?It is important to realize that once in a rapid, you are very alone and that your success of running it and making it through unscathed is solely your liability.
This topic has resurfaced time and again through my teaching career as it is a never ending quest to wean the student off of you and ultimately make them self sufficient. This is an extremely hard task, but the only way to do so is to make them lead, scout and read water on their own without beta provided by you, and later process the good, the bad and the ugly. This is a delicate balancing act as the student is relying on you as support and safety throughout this process and this indeed puts them on their own, in a way, for the first time.
It is important to realize that once in a rapid, you are very alone and that your success of running it and making it through unscathed is solely your liability.
Typically this is a good time to give folks a good dose of reality; though we participate in a group (team) activity, ultimately, we are on our own every time we peel out of that eddy and into the current and the sooner they develop scouting and water reading skills, the less distracted they will paddle in the long run. It is important to realize that once in a rapid, you are very alone and that your success of running it and making it through unscathed is solely your liability. Rapids should not be decided to be run otherwise. Rescue is, most often, extremely difficult to near impossible. This is what we call “judgement” and it deserves an entire article of its own.
Now back to the skinny of our topic at hand.
When looking at a rapid, everything has to be considered back to a boaters point of view. Scouting a rapid from 20 feet overhead is going to give you totally different information than being down at boat level. A consideration to getting a good overhead vantage point is that most light refraction is limited and you can actually see down into the water to spot rocks and trees that are just sitting underneath the surface; when at an on-water level, the refraction of light limits your ability to see subsurface features like that tree that is just underneath the surface but in play. Though getting a good overhead view is a phenomenal way to get the big picture and find landmarks that can help guide you, it is important to know that you should not micro manage from this vantage point as nothing will look the same from the boat. Look for where the water goes, eddies then hazards that must be avoided; aside from that, get back in the boat and start taking it in from water level. I once had a friend who said if you hop out and cannot find the line in a matter of a minute, you likely never will.
Boat scouting is undeniably the most important skill to learn in a river running situation. We call it “water reading” most often. There is no difference; water reading and scouting are synonymous. The easiest way to break down rapids by boat scouting is to use eddies. Do you see a rock? Then there is a good chance there is an eddy behind that rock. No eddies? Find the slowest current and back ferry or ease into the rapid as opposed to charging in. Once you spot your line, charge! When you find yourself at the bottom of the rapid, take a look back upstream and analyze what just happened, or what didn’t happen. To try and list every consideration of how to scout a rapid from your boat is an impossibility for the scope of this article. It is important to know that you have to put a bit of that fear to the side and a bit of your trust in a rivers forgiveness and in your fundamental skill set and roll. If you have that going for you, you are moving in the right direction of self-reliance. If you want a pretty thorough guide on river anatomy and a most excellent time, I always suggest reading William Nealy’s, Kayak: An animated guide to intermediate and advanced whitewater kayaking. You’ll laugh your ass off and learn quite a bit. Also, paddle with experienced folks whom know how to read water and lead, all while giving you the chance to lead as well… and that leads us to our next topic.
Receiving Beta – Know your group
A seldom talked about scouting method is receiving beta either from someone on shore or someone who has run the river before. Firstly, this is stillrunning a rapid blind if you decide to do so. However, there are many folks equipped with ample experience of how to read and run rapids, and with additional beta one can run a rapid successfully by this method. This method of having someone guide another boater down the river is quite common, sometimes to a fault. It has to be decided by the person being led if this is a suitable way to go downstream.
The use of river signals can be used to communicate back upstream, but once again, it is important to establish these signals prior to the offset of the trip and maybe practice them prior to using them on that sieved out class V rapid.
In general, the simpler we keep this communication, the simpler the paddler’s perception of what lies downstream. It is very easy to innundate a paddler with too much information which can lead to uncertainty and quite possibly fear. If you introduce fear into the scouting or beta, the paddler now has a whole other demon to face in addition to the innate challenges of a new river or rapid.
When feeding someone beta, I like to keep the description simple and concise, citing hazards only when they are absolutely life threatening and must be avoided. If you give simple instructions, the paddler you are leading down should be fine dealing with some of the smaller details. If they are not, this method may not be the best. The act of giving someone beta is quite possibly one of the finest art forms that I have seen some folks master and others fail miserably. Remember: if in doubt, hop out and scout. If anyone is critical of you for doing so, you might want to reconsider your paddling group.
So, we have discussed several methods of scouting and their benefits; however, there is a very slippery slope on the other side of this hill. Have you ever talked yourself out of running a rapid? You look at the rapid 100 times and you have run the line over in your head time and again. Yet, you get to the river and you jump out to take another look only to psych yourself up and out once again. There is undeniably a usefulness to scouting, but sometimes it can be better to just stay in the boat.
Though getting a good overhead view is a phenomenal way to get the big picture and find landmarks that can help guide you, it is important to know that you should not micro manage from this vantage point as nothing will look the same from the boat.
This is where I have found a huge benefit in paddling with folks who have pushed me and will encourage me to run something that I have been aching to run anyhow. They are certain of my skills and my ability to run the rapid and know it may take some mild coercion to get me to buck up and run it. I have found this to be acceptable in my personal paddling experience. This is not an encouragement to bully folks into running a rapid with which they are not comfortable. This is reinforcement for a decision they had made a long time ago and simply have not acted upon… which leads me to the next point.
When you know it’s just a matter of letting go
There are two kinds of letting go: relinquishing the fear and stigma and finally bucking up and giving it a go, or letting go of the thought of ever running a rapid. When you decide to run a rapid there are several considerations to weigh: your skill level, the skill level required by the rapid, the consequences of not hitting your desired line and your willingness to accept those consequences. I wrote an article once on the idea of trying to achieve perfection which touches base on this, and there is also an excellent article written by Sir Christopher Gragtmans on this topic as well (yes, he is a knight). I have often looked back to a friend’s sound advice, “It is only a matter of time when you walk a rapid, you will just continue to walk it.” This is alright and is never looked down upon in my paddling circle, but we also encourage one another to up the ante and push ourselves on rapids that we know we can run. I have several rapids I know I will never run, some that I may not ever run, and those that I have run and may not ever run again. One such rapid for me is Sunshine on the Green River Narrows. The line is narrow, the rapid is not forgiving and the line does not cater to my particular strengths. Until I feel differently about it, I will continue to walk it. I remain open to the idea of running rapids but I will not lose sleep about it. Once a rapid becomes stigmatic it creates demons that will haunt you and your boating until you overcome the stigma. Remember: we kayak to challenge ourselves and push our personal skill sets, but we also do it because we enjoy it. Living in a state of fear or limbo is not usually desirable.
To sum, the ability to “see” a line is personal, and your decision to run a rapid solely relies on your ability to see the line. As your ability to do this becomes better, and when combined with strong fundamental skills, your ability to run the harder rapids becomes better as well.
Many thanks to the folks who contributed photos, Lydia Cardinal, Sam Fulbright of Pilot Collective Media, Joe Ravenna and Stephen Forster