Reading Water: Scan the road ahead

I remember my first day behind the wheel in drivers ed. Heading out of the driveway of school, I had my eyes riveted on the hood of the car. As the car ran up on the curb, the instructor grabbed the wheel, screaming for me to look down the road. A lengthy lecture on scanning the road followed my mistake.

Learning to paddle whitewater can be a similar experience. Reading the road, and reading the river actually have a lot in common. The key to reading water is to lift your vision! Don't just look at your bow. Look where you want to go, and at what lies in between. What should you be looking for? Simply: easily visible rocks, water features formed by rocks under the surface, and hazards.

You can spot rocks above the surface pretty easily, and turn to paddle around them. If you don't quite make the move, and you find yourself floating sideways towards one, it is important to react properly. Lean your body and boat aggressively towards the rock, even putting your hand or paddle on it. The water buffeting off the rock forms a pillow which helps keep your boat off the rock. You should learn to distinguish between a round friendly rock and a more hazardous one with a sharp upstream edge.

As you scan the rapid, look far downstream to figure out where the current ends. Does the main flow enter on one side, but finish in a wave train on the other side? You might see some rocks above the water deflecting the current. Figuring out why the current was deflected is the key to reading the rapid.

Rocks just under the surface have the same effect of deflecting the current. Most of the water flow moves to avoid the barely submerged rock, leaving some water to pour over the rock. The resulting water feature is either a hole or a wave, depending on how much water is pouring over. Little water flowing over leaves a strong eddy below, and a very flat hole, often called a hydraulic. More water generates a hole, a wavelike formation with a white frothy backwash. Study rapids from different points ashore to help you figure out what each feature looks like from varied points of view.

Occasionally, you will not be able to see the water disappear over the edge of a drop. This horizon line indicates a bigger drop, one that you will probably want to scout from shore. Look for the biggest waves in the main flow of current. Generally those will help direct you to a clear channel and the most fun.

An instructor can help you learn to identify river hazards, like undercut rocks, or man made things like bridge pilings. Tree branches forming strainers are one of the most dangerous hazards in the sport. Scan for bouncing twigs and unexplained currents that might indicate a strainer. Learn to identify potential danger spots then concentrate your vision on where you want to go, rather than at what you want to avoid.

Learning to read water takes time and practice, so paddle within your ability and experience and don't just follow other boaters. Instead, explore easy and safer rapids by picking your own line.