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River Running and Creeking Strategy

By: Nick Wigston

I have paddled with many different people over the years, and the one thing I have found inconsistent among them, is the strategies they use for navigating rivers. It doesn’t matter if you are running class II or class V+ multi-day expeditions, it is important to have a strategy for safely negotiating the river.

The first step in developing a good strategy is to talk to your group. Make sure everyone understands how the river is to be run. This can be very casual, but it is the most important part of your plan. I am going to explain in this article the strategy that my crew and I use. It works for us, but it might not necessarily work for you. The most important thing is for everyone in your group to be on the same page.

Communication is a very important part of river running strategy. All paddlers know how difficult it is to hear their buddies over the roar of the river, so it is important to have a good, clear set of hand signals to use for on-river communication. The ACA has a universal set of hand signals that are useful for whitewater up to class III. Once you are running class IV and up, you will need signals that allow you to describe rapids in more detail. Whatever signals you choose to use, everyone in your group must be familiar with them.

Other forms of communication are important for when you are out of sight of your buddies. Whistles and/or whoops are a good way of communicating during these times. One whoop means “all clear, come on down”, two whoops means to sit tight until further notice, three whoops means “emergency!” get out of the river and come help. This is useful if you are waiting to run a rapid that someone else has already run and you can’t see them. They can signal you from below to let you know what to do. This is also effective for people on shore to communicate with you.

Once everyone understands the communication system and you have decided that the river is safe to run (good water and difficulty level), you are ready to launch. Once you are on the river, think about running it as if you were in the army. One person goes down and catches an eddy to boat scout the next section, then he/she signals to the others what to do. Another paddler passes the lead boater and stops at the next eddy to boat scout the next section and then signals to the others where to go. Continue paddling in this format until you reach a drop that cannot be boat scouted. This of course depends on the skill level of the group and the familiarity with the section of river. In a nutshell, if you can’t see the next eddy or the entire rapid from your boat, it cannot be boat scouted, period. At this point, the lead boater signals to the group to eddy out and wait, and he/she gets out to scout the rapid from shore.

When scouting a rapid from shore, you are looking for many things. Analyze the rapid from the bottom to the top. First, observe any hazards in the rapid. Hazards include but are not limited to, holes, rocks, logs, sieves, shopping carts and more. Next, spot the eddy that you will end up in after running the rapid. Work your way up the rapid and look to where you will need to be at each point in the rapid in order to avoid the obstacles. Next, locate the entrance point and ask yourself, “do I have the skills to negotiate the rapid from top to bottom.” Finally, you need to decide if the rapid is safe enough to signal the rest of the group through without scouting it for themselves. If the answer is no, you need to signal to the group that they need to get out and scout it for themselves. If the answer is yes, set up safety and relay hand signals to the group so they can run the rapid. When using hand signals to explain a rapid to someone, describe the rapid first. Tell them where the hazards are, how many drops there are, waves, holes, playspots, etc. Once you have described the rapid, then describe the correct route for them to take. Remember, safety always comes first, so if anyone is uncomfortable running a rapid without scouting, they should ALWAYS scout for themselves. If you have a small group, it is not too time consuming for everyone to scout. When you are boating in large groups, scouting can take a lot of time, which is why it is more effective for one person to scout each rapid.

Setting up safety is an important part of river running as well. EVERYONE in the group must carry a throw rope while on the river, ANY river. To learn how to use a throw rope and other safety gear, take a Swiftwater rescue class for kayakers/canoers. Most paddle shops offer these classes or can tell you where to find one in your area. Also, check the ACA website for a list of classes.

There is a strategy involved in setting up safety. The first thing you want to do is analyze the hazards in the rapid. Choose the hazards that could cause problems for a boater. These hazards include holes, pin rocks, strainers, etc. Position a person with a throw rope in a good spot to rescue a boater that has been hindered by the hazards. Generally speaking, one person with a rope set up below the rapid is enough, but sometimes you will need more people set up in strategic spots.

HINT: if you are setting up safety due to a large hole, stand downstream of the hole so that you can use the current to help you pull the swimmer in. Many people make the mistake of standing right next to the hole, they are then pulled into the river, making two swimmers instead of one. For more information about on shore throwbagging, check out Todd’s article On-shore Safety and Throwbagging.