Reading Water Concepts

At first glance it looks like the thrill of whitewater is the pure adreniline of crashing down through waves, and big drops. But that is only part of the thrill. Reading the river, figuring out how your boat will react, then picking your line become a rewarding challenge. This skill takes considerable experience, but in most ideal learning situations all that happens from a mis read is you flip, or simply bang up on a rock.

Water Reading

Identifying basic river features is an important part of whitewater paddling. This knowledge helps keep you safe and allows you to understand the basic whitewater maneuvers. Learning to read a river's features will help you know their friendliness.

\B\Sidebar\Reading Water: Scan the road ahead

I remember my first day behind the wheel in drivers' ed. Heading out of the school driveway, 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.

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 waves bouncing 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.

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 safe rapids by picking your own line.

Visible Rocks

Beginner paddlers are usually terrified of the rocks in the river. Rocks won't bite, in fact they rarely pose a significant danger. When you paddle you can spot them easily and turn to avoid them. You usually won't plan to hit rocks, but when you do, its important to react properly.

If you find yourself floating sideways towards a rock, 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. A round rock tends to be friendlier than one with a sharp, upstream edge. Learn to distinguish between them.

\photo\ leaning towards a rock "love the rock"


Just downstream of the rock is a quiet spot, called an eddy. The eddy is a paddler's refuge from the current, and is the most important water feature to know and understand. Paddlers use eddies to stop and rest, to scout an upcoming rapid, and for access to fun play spots.

\photo\paddlers use the eddies as their refuge


A hole or hyraulic is formed by water flowing over a submerged rock. The resulting water feature is either a hole or a wave, depending on how much water is pouring over.

A little water flowing over the rock leaves a strong, very calm eddy below, and a very shallow hole, often called a hydraulic. More water flowing over the rock generates a hole, a wavelike formation with a white, frothy backwash. Variations are referred to as holes, stoppers, reversals, keepers, pourovers and ledge holes.

To evaluate holes, look downstream and beyond to see clues in the current. Is it wavelike, with water splashing up, implying a sloping entry to a fun play hole? Or is it flat, with a horizon line, suggesting that it rushes to a steep drop and pours over into ledge hole? Watch for water pouring steeply over a rock into a hydraulic and flowing out with the calm look of an eddy. This hole will be less friendly. The amount of water rushing back upstream is a measure of the hole's power.

If you see current downstream, the hole will look more like a wave, indicating deep water. The more a hole resembles a wave, the more friendly it will be. Whitewater dancing up and current or waves just downstream from the hole are friendly characteristics to watch for. If your path takes you into a hole, plan to hit it straight on, perpendicular to the ledge. Reach your strokes over the backwash and dig into the downstream current. Paddle through it!

Horizon Lines

Occasionally, the water will seem to disappear over the edge of a drop. This horizon line indicates a big drop, one that you will probably want to scout from shore. From a safe place, look for the biggest waves in the main flow of current. Generally, those will direct you to a clear channel and the most fun.