Getting the Hole Story


Very early in your kayaking career, you’ll hear these comments:

“Holes are fun!”

“Holes should be avoided!”

Which is true? Well, they are both true. This article will give you the knowledge to discriminate. By looking at certain characteristics and noticing the way the current behaves, you’ll be able to tell which holes to avoid. You can tell not just from a side view of the hole but from upstream as well. With this info you can decide if you want to steer clear, bomb on through, or perhaps be coerced into going back in!

First let’s look at the angle of greenwater and for the presence of a trough. From a side view, look at the way the current enters the hole. As it drops in, this greenwater can be sloping or vertical. The greenwater in more friendly holes is angled. This results in a wavelike trough that can be sidesurfed. If the current drops in vertically, there is no trough between the greenwater and the backwash–they come together at a right angle. No trough equals no fun–unless you have a lot of experience and skill.

Now let’s look at characteristics of the backwash. A flat backwash is when the current of the hole travels horizontally back toward the greenwater. Most often, the color of this backwash is white and aerated, and goes hand in hand with vertical greenwater and no trough. This kind of backwash can have the appearance of a recirculating eddy and doesn’t look terribly ominous. What you can’t see is that the current deep beneath the surface also travels back upstream. The deeper and faster it recirculates, the stickier the hole is. The backwash of a friendly hole looks like a crashing ocean wave, all white and frothy, and often can be seen from upstream. While it can look intimidating, it’s actually what you want! This foam pile supports your paddle in a sidesurf and gives you a little something to lean into. If you flip here, the current under the foam pile is traveling downstream and has the ability to flush you out.

Size. Everything’s relative. You could paddle right through a three-foot-wide, four-inch-tall sticky hole. But as it gets bigger, so does its power. Size is important in deciding which friendly holes you want to play with, too. From upstream, you might see a fluffy foam pile big enough to crash onto your front deck as you blaze through it. WA-HOO! That can be fun! If you flip coming through, the current flushes you out. Now add size–if that friendly hole is big enough to crash over your head, then you might get bounced around a while before flushing through.

If you’re considering playing in a hole, always check to see that the run-out is clear and deep. Then look to see if the hole has natural exits. If the hole is diagonal to the main flow, the backwash has a kick to the downstream end. Some holes may be curved so that there is an exit on either edge. Some holes may be perpendicular to the main flow, so there’s not as much flow kicking out. And the least friendly holes, even if they have other friendly characteristics, occur when the edges curve back upstream or are blocked by a rock or the shore.

Have fun learning to read the river in more detail. When you see a wave train from upstream, check to see if the flow continues evenly across the current all the way to the bottom. If there’s a patch of current that slows down, there’s something slowing it, and it could be a hole. If the slower current is flat, then it’s likely to be a sticky hole. If, from upstream, you see a crashing foam pile, decide if you’re big enough to take it on! With aggressive posture, put the pedal to the metal and lean forward to keep stroking as the hole crashes onto your deck! Oh yeah, don’t forget your nose plugs just in case!

Mary DeRiemer is an ACA-certified ITE. Check her Web site for trips and lessons:

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