By Nick Carlson
We call upon the waters that rim the earth, horizon to horizon, that flow in our rivers and streams, that fall upon our gardens and fields, and we ask that they teach us and show us the way. —Chinook Blessing
In 1869, 10 men and four boats embarked on a journey through almost 1,000 miles of uncharted canyons trying to map one of the west’s last great wildernesses and forever changing our view of it.
“We have an unknown distance yet to run, an unknown river to explore,” said one-armed Civil War hero leader John Wesley Powell. “What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not; what walls ride over the river, we know not. Ah, well! we may conjecture many things.”
The party experienced calamity after calamity. One of the boats sank in a rapid, taking with it all their scientific instruments and a quarter of the party’s provisions. Another near-sinking of a second boat took the remaining food through spoilage. Morale disintegrated as party members gave up and abandoned the expedition. After three months, only five of the original company emerged from the depths of the Grand Canyon. Although hailed as a hero, Powell’s first trip into the unknown was a disaster.
“The relief from danger, and the joy of success, are great.” wrote Powell in Down the Colorado: Diary of the First Trip Through the Grand Canyon, describing the perils of the trip, “The first hour of convalescent freedom seems rich recompense for all—pain, gloom, terror.”
There is an old whitewater kayaking adage that says, “When in doubt, scout.” If Powell’s trip down the Colorado River teaches us anything, it’s that the party didn’t know anything about what they were likely to face. Today’s whitewater paddling experts give us several reasons why you might want to scout a rapid first before running it.
“The first is just to make sure it has an exit. If I’m paddling on an unfamiliar stretch of river and no one in the crew knows it then it’s crucial that there is a way out of a rapid before you commit to dropping in.” said Current Adventures Kayak School & Trips instructor Pete Delosa, “In California it’s not uncommon for the river to run into and under a pile of boulders. In the Northwest, it might end in a pile of trees. If you can’t see the exit from the top, you don’t really know.”
Based in California, Delosa is sponsored by Immersion Research and member of Team Pyranha. He recommends that, if you know it’s going to be a hard rapid to paddle, to study the flow and get an understanding of what the water is doing. Look for hazards you want to avoid and the line you want to make. See how much of the water is going into the hazards versus where you want to go.
“Are there certain features that are going to flip me?” said Delosa, “Maybe there is a feature like a small eddy that I can use to get to where I want to go, or maybe there’s a really big hole that I need to avoid because it feeds into a sieve.”
Red Bull athlete Rafa Ortiz never runs anything too stout or dangerous without a proper scout. Ortiz is one of whitewater kayaking’s super stars and the focus of “Chasing Niagara,” a film produced by Red Bull chronicling his pursuit of being the first person ever to go over Niagara Falls in a kayak. When Ortiz is guiding someone down a river they’ve never paddled, he finds it tricky to determine when to encourage his buddy to get out and scout.
“I often find that too much information doesn’t necessarily result in them having a good line,” Ortiz wrote on Facebook Messenger, “When you scout a rapid, for example, with a bad hole on the left, as you get in your boat and paddle into it, all that is in your mind is the dimension and apparent stickiness of the monster on river left. Your mind is often blurred by fear.”
On the other hand, he warns, not to make someone drop into a rapid their first time without enough information. He says, it would be neglectful on his part if they ended up in the gnarly hole on the left, swim and get body recirculated just because he didn’t emphasize its dimension.
“What I do nowadays is an in between,” wrote Ortiz, “I suggest people scout a rapid that in my opinion does have a life-threat in it, and even something that could result in a negative enough experience for them to want to quit kayaking. Otherwise, let them enjoy the pleasure of the one chance they have to run it blind.”
After you’ve made the decision to run the rapid, start at the bottom and work your way back up to your boat, suggested DeLosa. He says to find landmarks that you will be able to spot from the water.
“Landmarks are really helpful for knowing where you are in a rapid when you can’t see the entire thing from the entrance,” said Delosa. “A good example is Skyscraper [rapid] on South Silver Creek in California. There are two really tiny standing waves right at the lip of the drop. From the pool above you can’t see anything past the horizon line, but if you go off between those two little waves with a slight left angle you’re in good shape to start.”
Sacramento paddler Gavin Rieser agrees and thinks the biggest reason, is being able to see a pool at the bottom of the drop. “If I can’t see what looks like a pool below,” said Rieser. “I have no idea if what I’m about to run is a huge monster drop or not.” Rieser also does his homework by reading up on the rivers he will be running, and checking in with area boaters about what to expect before going. “Another big factor is how much I’ve heard about the run or not.” said Rieser. “If I know it’s supposed to be a Class III to IV run, then I’m not likely to scout it much. If it’s a Class V run, I will be scouting a lot more”
If you’re on a longer mission day to save time, a good habit to develop is to always take your rope with you whenever you get out to scout. Delosa says by doing this you won’t have to go back to your boat and then back down stream if someone in your crew asks you to set as the safety. “Also, while you’re scouting,” said Delosa. “Another crew might come along and paddle into the rapid without scouting and you’ll be well positioned to help them should someone get in trouble.”
In 1871–1872, Powell again retraced part of his ill-fated expedition down the Colorado River. This time, he would be fortified by knowledge instead of folklore. His scientific expedition filled in the blanks left behind on the previous trip and produced the first reliable maps of the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon. Wanting to be more comfortable, Powell acquired a sturdy armchair, and tied it to the middle bulkhead of the pilot-boat. From there, he could view the river ahead him, but this time, he had seen it before.