Whitewater rafting, the nuts and bolts of it


whitewater rafting
I have been whitewater rafting on the Kern River, near the giant sequoias in California and on the South Fork of the American River near Coloma, CA. I can say unequivocally, it is an awesome experience. I can also say that it can be super dangerous if you don’t go with experienced and well trained guides. I made this mistake on the South Fork and I will tell you that unpleasant does not begin to describe the experience. Enough of that for the moment (I’ll recount the experience a little later)… This piece is geared towards the novice who is just considering getting on the river.

The term “whitewater” refers very simply to water that flows rapidly over irregular surfaces creating surface disturbances and flow alterations. “Surface irregularities” is kind of a catch all term that covers, boulders, sharp drop offs (think underwater cliffs, some small, some disturbingly large), downed trees (more on this later as well) and a variety of other fun underwater hazards that create the whitewater you see when you look at a river.

Whitewater rivers are defined by the level of “roughness” in classes that range from the smoothest at class I to the roughest (and potentially deadly) class VI which should only be attempted by experts. Whitewater rafting is a challenging sports that requires a stout physical effort. Make no mistake, this is NOT a leisurely pleasure cruise… Think more along the lines sliding on your a#! down a sheet of ice on the side of a mountain, there are no breaks… All you will be doing is steering and trying your best to stay in your chosen watercraft. Trust me, I saw the videos before hand just like many of you have or will, I saw the smiles and it looked hella fun! This is hard work and staying in the boat is not as easy as it looks or as they tell you it will be. Staying in the boat will rely on the experience of your guide, the cooperation of the other folks in your raft and frankly a little bit of luck.

As far as your choice of craft to tackle this activity there are a few options, but for our purposes I’m only going to mention two of them, a raft or a kayak. There are benefits and drawbacks to both of these watercraft so it’s really a matter of preference. Kind of like choosing between firing squad or hanging. Just Kidding! It’s really not that bad. If you take nothing else from this post, remember this… RESPECT THE RIVER!!! If you don’t I can guarantee you it will come down on you from great height and very hard. You will not be happy I can promise you. So listen to your guide, wear your safety gear at all times, work with your raft mates (or kayaking partner as the case may be) and above all enjoy it. This is really fun sh#t!!!

Some key points:

  • Crafts used to navigate white water can range in size and shape. The most common crafts utilized are multi-person rafts and kayaks(both 1 and 2 person).
  • As noted previously, rivers can range in difficulty from class I – class VI. It is important to note that river conditions can change rapidly and that one river may have classes that span a wide range of conditions. This is important to recognize and highlights why novices should always use reputable guides.
  • Because rafts, kayaks and canoes carry a great deal of momentum and are frequently moving at high speed it is critical that participants receive proper safety training and wear appropriate protective gear. Mandatory gear should include flotation vests and helmets.
  • Be it a raft or kayak, there crafts can and will capsize from time to time! You are careening down a body of water that is full of above and below water objects, namely large rocks. It should be very obvious to even the greenest rookie the hazard these obstructions present.  While these occurrences are a distinct possibility with proper training and techniques taught by rafting outfitters the risk can be minimized.
  • Not to over dramatize the potential hazards inherent in this activity, but, fatalities can and do occur. It is important to recognize your own limitations. If you are not comfortable in the water or can’t swim this might not be the activity for you.

NOTE: This is by no means the be all and end all of information regarding the sport of whitewater rafting. If you want to learn more you should visit http://www.americanwhitewater.org/ or http://www.americancanoe.org/ both are outstanding sources where you can learn more.

I said earlier I would share a little bit about my own experience. Let me start with this…  I had an amazing time when I went out with an experienced outfitter. On two trips down the same river I only ended up in the water once and it was only for a short time. When I chose to go down the South Fork of the American without a guide (we rented from an outfitter and were given video briefing on the hazards we would encounter) I ended up in the water for a much longer period of time. Rather than bore you with the entire tale I will highlight:

  • Fact, there is no way that you can possibly remember all the potential hazards in a river you have never been on before no matter how thorough the briefing may seem.
  • Conditions on a given river may vary widely and change during the course of a trip. My journey began on a relatively tame class III river and ended on something approaching class V (the South Fork has dam controlled releases, one of which occurred while I was on river… I did not know this would occur before hand).
  • A 2 person kayak requires both people working in complete harmony and responding to obstacles quickly without hesitation. Most people do not spend enough time together in kayak’s to accomplish this. If you and your boat mate are not in complete sync bad things are apt to happen.
  • Falling out of your water craft in the rapids in class IV – V rapids flat out sucks. Think being tossed into a gigantic washing machine full of rocks. I have taught scuba diving and was a competitive swimmer… All of this means exactly zero when you are pitched into churning rapids. All you can do is try to avoid the largest obstacles, keep your feet out in front of you and try to guide yourself towards the shore as quickly as possible. I should note, this will likely not be possible until you have come out of the rapids. I can’t highlight this enough, BEING IN THE RAPIDS OUTSIDE OF THE SAFETY OF YOUR CRAFT ABSOLUTELY SUCKS!
  • The end result of my experience… My boat mate and I both made it safely (albeit very tired, bruised an extremely sore) to shore. Of course we were on separate sides of a river, in a canyon on a remote stretch of wilderness river. This is also not good. We had no boat, no oars and were very unhappy to say the least. Fortunately another outfitter came thru and gave us a lift down the remainder of the river where our kayak and equipment was waiting for us.

Moral of the story… If you are not an experienced paddler, GO OUT WITH A GUIDE!

Before signing up for any trip it is important that you do your homework. Research the operators in the area you are traveling to. Use the internet, look at Yelp reviews, search Google for company information and news regarding prospective tour operators… Bottom line you do not want to trust your safety to an operator that has a history of accidents. Look for companies that use newer equipment and maintain it properly. Ask about the qualifications of the guides and their experience level. All of these simple steps can make the difference between an amazing outing on the river or a spin cycle under the waters surface ending with a head injury. An good example of an outfitter with a proven track record is http://www.arta.org/

All that being said, the sport is relatively safe and fatalities relatively rare when compared to other “extreme” sports. If water based activities and being in the wilderness appeal to you, do your home work and make your reservations, you won’t regret it. Happy Paddling!