Need Help Learning Swift Water...

This is my second season canoeing. Got in about 6 months last year, going on 4 months this year. I get on the water about once a week. Usually I’m with my wife and kids, sometimes just my wife. It’s rare that I am ever solo. All of our canoeing has been near the shoreline of a 13,000 acre lake, occasionally we venture further out if the water is calm. We also spend time on a slow moving river nearby. It’s meandering, somewhat braided and usually quite shallow (1.5 feet). We avoid the river during any high water episodes. USGS has a guage upstream from me, and I signed up for email alerts. They let me know when the water is rising and the discharge is up.

I think my wife and I have learned quite a bit and are getting to be pretty capable in our canoe. We decided yesterday to try some swift water for the first time. Well that was a humbling experience, we got totally schooled.

We went on a narrow, twisty, shallow river flowing at 400 cfs. The water was churning, riffles, small rapids, etc. I immediately noticed lots of sweeper trees hanging over the sides. We put in from a slow moving side channel. The side channel made a gradual curve and met the main channel at a nearly perpendicular 90 degree angle. As we picked up speed heading toward the main channel my wife in the stern said “I’m just gonna say right now I think this is a bad idea.” We quickly debated and decided to give it a go. Soon as we got into the main channel I assumed the current (which looked really fast) would help us make the turn. Where the side channel joined the main channel, the main was very narrow. Directly across from the side channel (if you continued straight across the main instead of turning) were several large overhanging trees. You would need to make a pretty fast 90 degree turn to avoid these. I’m not sure what happened, but once we committed we shot straight out into the main channel and were unable to turn. We went right into the tangle of trees. It’s kind of a blur and I’m not sure how we got out, but suddenly we were in the main channel and headed for the opposite bank. My wife had several scratches from the branches. So it went for the next few hundred feet, we absolutely could not stay straight, we just kept ping ponging from one side to the next. The river got a bit wider upstream and looked like it slowed down, and my wife wanted to go on. I was done though, it was very frustrating, and I was scared we were going to get hurt.

The local guy I talked to told me 300 cfs was the minimum needed to canoe this stretch, and 500 cfs was ideal. So this was not any kind of extreme water event. It’s just that my wife and I obviously have no idea what we are doing on fast moving water. How do you learn, if not by doing? Does anyone have any good books, or other resources, to recommend? Thanks!


– Last Updated: Jun-26-13 10:52 AM EST –

Being humbled but safe is a great way to start out.

In terms of reading, there is some very good material here on this site. The "In the Same Boat" series has several pieces on reading water.
Scroll down to the articles under "Looking Beneath the Surface—Reading Water."

Check out this one too

If you can hook up with more experience paddlers definitely do that too.

On the side channel meeting the main channel, those place are often tricky with weird currents and oddly shaped bottoms and banks. They are often difficult to predict or analyze without actually seeing them.

Again, congratulations on making a great start. Sounds like you've got a good partner to learn and have fun with.

Were you on the Dismal River?
It might help to practice on a more open river like the Niobrara.

But big, braided, shallow rivers like the Republican may not teach you much at all.

Thing about 300-500 cfs rivers with enough gradient to have small rapids, is that they are going to put a lot of maneuvering load on you, and won’t give you enough time to process what you just did and what you have to do next. This doesn’t always occur to instructor types, many of whom are so experiences that they run small rivers on “automatic” and can’t look at them the way inexperienced paddlers do.

Thanks for the links, looks like good reading. I’ll get right on it!

Not the Dismal.
We were actually on the lower Republican, below Harlan Dam. This is usually a trickle of a river, but during irrigation season the Corp Of Engineers releases water from the dam to send to farmers downstream. This is when the 49 mile stretch from the dam at Republican City to Red Cloud becomes an official water trail. The guy at the Corp office is the one I spoke with about canoeing and the discharge rates at the dam. All my previous experience on this river has been above the lake. The stretches above the lake are nothing like what is below the dam.

Speaking of clarion, the Clarion River
was the site of our first encounter with rock-strewn shoals, 40 years ago. We were in our 18.5’ Moore supercanoe, and we had already learned the necessary strokes for whitewater.

We came up on a shoal that was kind of a maze. I went into ww textbook mode, selected a channel, and then we proceeded with the current, backstroked to slow, set a backferry to go sideways to a clear channel, slid down cautiously past another batch of rocks, slowed, back-ferried, etc. etc. until we exited the maze. We were relieved and kind of proud of ourselves for having done the “right thing.” We pulled over to the left bank to relax.

Next thing you know, along comes a canoe with two adults and two little kids, obviously untrained and inexperienced. Without showing any awareness of the possibility of wrapping their canoe on a rock, they cruised right into the maze and just paddled forward, sweeping a bit when it occurred to them to steer.

So, I thought, all that stuff I learned about backing, drawing, prying, back-ferrying, just turned the run into an academic exercise.

And forty years later, we seldom do any of that stuff. We know how to recognize how the water is moving, and we paddle forward softly, steering a bit.

If there’s a point to this, it’s to say that the “right” techniques may be a good learning step, only to be discarded when reading water and motor responses mostly leave consciousness and go semi-automatic.

It takes practice

– Last Updated: Jun-26-13 1:02 PM EST –

Read what you can, practice when you can. Try to progress gradually, rather than find yourselves over your head. Looks to me like you've got all this covered.

Like Clarion said, with none of us actually seeing that water it's impossible to do more than guess about what went wrong or what "could" or maybe even "should" have been done. The best thing to help you with your skills is to focus less on the obstacles (don't worry, you won't ignore them) and more on which way the water that supports you is moving. Also, notice which way is the water moving in the area ahead of you, where your boat will be a few seconds from now. You see, you are in a river channel that's like a road, and there are objects to avoid, but it's not at all like driving a car around obstacles on a road, because on a road, the pavement doesn't move around beneath you! Therefore, you need to plan your direction of travel by thinking about which way your boat is moving through the water (not which way it moves relative to stationary objects) AND which way the water will take you, causing your actual direction of travel to be a combination of those two things. That's ultimately the key to understanding exactly HOW your control methods will get the job done.

I just put a lot of emphasis on thinking about direction of travel of the water that carries your boat, but that's because I see a lot of people who have a really hard time of "letting go" of the notion that the boat goes the direction it's pointed. It doesn't. You'll be going diagonally and sideways just as much as directly forward. Throw in the effect of currents going at different speeds and/or directions under one end of the boat versus the other, and that's when things get interesting and fun. But right now it's just too confusing to comprehend. It won't always be that way. Practice.

I like Bill Mason's book "Path of the Paddle" as a good introduction to the basics of making your way through complex currents while under good control. It's a good book for making you aware of ways to compensate for what the current is trying to do.

Here's something else. When your boat first enters a "new" current, the boat isn't moving along with that flow so the current's effect on the boat is completely different from what it will be once you've been in that current stream for a few seconds. These sudden "blasts" of current, first encountered when nudging the boat into a new spot can present a problem or be used to advantage. It can even go both ways. Here's an example of it going both ways. I once tried to enter a little flood channel that cut through the woods, parallel to the main channel. As I made the turn to enter that channel the swirling turbulence turned my boat sideways relative to the direction I wanted to aim the boat. That was a problem, but rather than fight it I used that tricky current to my advantage in fixing the situation, and simply turned that initial motion into a 360-degree spin so I ended up pointed in the right direction. I'd have broadsided a tree had I tried to fight it, but "going with the flow" was easy and graceful. You'll do things like that without even thinking once you are comfortable with moving water.

If you can paddle with people that have a lot more experience, that's best, but of course, in your area, canoes and canoers are mighty scarce.

Here's one more thing. It's harder to learn this stuff as a tandem team than as a solo paddler. Not only do both of you need to recognize the problem at hand, you both need to initiate the same solution to that problem! There might be two solutions, but only by communicating will the two of you be sure to execute the same plan. I really admire tandem paddlers who do that sort of stuff well.

Here's another thought regarding your experience hitting the main channel. Recall what I said about that first "blast" when encountering a new current but not yet being "along for the ride". I think you accidentally executed what's called a "jet ferry". Even when doing that intentionally, the boat can get "locked up" in regard to trying to alter your boat's angle in one of the two possible directions, and trying to turn in the "hard direction" only accentuates the ferrying action so you end up getting slingshot across the current stream. Great fun if you kinda know what you are doing, and very scary if you don't.

I second the idea
Try to find a group in your area to go out with. They often know the rivers very well and can help you avoid the dangers and show you how to move around in moving waters. They will also tell you if you have a boat that is appropriate for the currents you will be in – not all boats are made for swift water.

Books are good too, but you likely need experience more than head-knowledge at this point.

Path of the Paddle.
Thanks everyone for the suggestions. I’m going to order Path of the Paddle today.

Two suggestions for a beginner
1. Learn to rudder. Especially the stern paddler.

Use your paddle like a rudder on a sail boat to steer you in the direction you want to go.

Hold it behind you with the blade sides perpindicular to the waters surface but under water.

If you want to turn right, have it on the right side.

If you want to turn left have it on the left side.

If you want sharper turns, keeping it behind you just move it farther from the canoe.

2. When you are rounding a bend, try to keep your canoe in the very center of the current, and paddle harder if necessary to do it. If you get off to the side away from the bend, you will get caught in the eddy, and if the current is flowing fast enough, it will turn you right around.

lots more to learn, but if you master these two it will be a good start.

Jack L

A fine techniqued, but best …

– Last Updated: Jun-26-13 3:46 PM EST –

... not used by itself unless there's lots of time to accomplish the maneuver. Also, a stern rudder can be done equally well in both directions without switching paddle sides (for straight-shaft users), so there's never a reason to switch paddle sides to apply a stern rudder in some particular direction. Anyway, it's a great quiet-water technique, but it requires that the boat be moving forward through the water (often the boat won't be doing that when things get dicey) and in swift water it's nearly always better to use techniques that involve full-boat control, rather than simply swinging the stern one way or the other, since applying the stern rudder alone requires far more distance to be traveled when getting the boat off its collision course with an object. The simplest example is how obstacles can be immediately dodged if the bow paddler applies a pry or draw to get his end of the boat off to one side, and THEN the stern paddler does the same at his end. Thus, the bow paddler gets the canoe a little broadside to the obstacle in initiating the avoidance, but then the stern paddler corrects that by swinging his end toward the same side and re-aligning the boat with the direction of current flow. Both paddlers could do this at the same time (executing a side-slip), but it takes less effort to make it a two-step process if there's enough time. In swift water, this two-step (or simultaneous-step) course correction applied at opposite ends of the boat will be used far more often than a stern rudder alone. The situation described by the O.P., though the details aren't fully known, clearly was beyond what could be solved by use of a stern rudder.

A lot has been said already

– Last Updated: Jun-30-13 5:26 PM EST –

but it might be worth noting that moving water requires solid coordination between the stern and bow paddler which flat water does not. In the latter case the stern paddler does all the steering while in moving water steering is a coordinated effort.

In my family we klutzed around mightly with the coordination thing and frequently found ourselves with faces in the bushes until we took a two day tandem white water course that taught us enough strokes and manuevers that we were able to control the boat and then build on what we had learned. I recommend that you do that, it will quick-start you for greater paddling enjoyment.


Because those larger rivers vary
so much in flow during the year, they get all spread out and braided.

The Dismal and the Niobrara have somewhat steadier flows, coming as they do out of the Sand Hills and the Ogalalla Aquifer.

I can give you a link to a trip report “blog” thing on the Niobrara. I ran the upper part through the wildernessy area. No real rapids but pristine scenery.

Do you remember which section?
Sounds like you were on the final section before it empties into the Allegheny, below Piney hydro dam. But you also said you ran into another canoe, and that doesn’t sound like the section below the Piney dam at all.

My two suggestions were the basics.
for a beginner,

But I completely disagree with you on ruddering in swift water. I and anyone else with a little experience can pretty much put the boat exactly where I (we) want it by ruddering.

Naturally with an experienced bow paddler it is much quicker and easier, but if the OP takes heed he can learn and do it himself if need be.

Jack L

Path O’ De Paddle movin’ pictures
Yer kin also stream all Bill Mason’s Path Of The Paddle film series fer free fro’ de National Film Board Of Canada…

Solo Basic

Double Basic

Solo Whitewater

Doubles Whitewater


Fat Elmo’s links…
Thanks for those links! I studied the basics vids when I bought my canoe last year. I didn’t watch the whitewater ones, and had kinda forgotten about them. At that time, paddling on moving water was well beyond what I imagined myself doing for quite some time. I’m going to watch them now.

Whitewater Doubles…
Just watched this Bill Mason video. Pretty impressive paddling! I was able to pick up quite a bit that I think I can apply on the water.

similar thread

read this if you haven’t already

Thank you Matt for the link and the good info.