Paddling Upstream#2

It’s supposed to be nearly 80 degrees tomorrow on the Lower Colorado River north of Yuma, AZ, so I am heading out for my first experience on moving water in my Manitou 14. The guidebook says to expect a current from 2-5mph so I have a couple of questions. If I want to go upstream do I want to turn directly into the current or switchback my way upstream? I have not used the skeg for the flat water paddling that I have done. Do I want to use it on the river?

I’ll certainly be able to answer these questions for myself once I get there, but would like to have some idea of what to try first ahead of time.


Woyk de eddy’s, pilgrim…
Go fro’ eddy ta eddy (attainment me’ reckon’s it be called) usin’ ferries.


few eddies…
The guidebook says “no rapids and only a few small eddylines”, which I would interpret to mean few eddies. The river width in this section is probably several hundred yards wide–probably could be described as a moving lake! Is it likely that you could spot an eddy to shoot for across that kind of width?


No eddy-hopping here
From your description, it sounds like you will be faced with a lot of plain old power-paddling. One thing you can do is stay close to shore, especially along the inside edges of turns. Staying close to shore on the outside of sharper bends probably won’t help as the current is likely to be running full-tilt right along the bank, but don’t be afraid to go look and see, just to get a feel for the river. Pay close attention to the texture of the water’s surface all the time, and you should soon be able to tell at a substantial distance where the stronger and weaker currents lie, as well as shallow and deep sections, if that’s a feature of the river in that area. You won’t be able to dawdle with that kind of current and still make decent progress. Look at this trip as a learning experience rather than hoping to go really far. Your upstream travel distances will improve as your paddling technique improves (you can look for videos, books, advice, or especially lessons if that’s possible) and as your river-reading skills improve.

If it is reasonably wide river you can expect current close to the shore be much weaker.

Do try to go up the stream to start things off. When you feel tired, relax, the river will take you back to the put-in.

And, do you have plan B - the one what to do if you fall in?

strong current
I’ve paddled upstream on the White river in Arkansas when the dam generators were running full tilt. This creates a current of 4 to 5 mph. I could only go a couple of miles upstrem before pretty much pooping out. I used back eddies and stayed close to shore to maximise progress so I wouldn’t expect to make it very far upriver. Of course you may be tougher than myself as I’m an old f–t.

Sustaining 5 mph requires vigorous paddling. If the current is 5 mph, you need to paddle 6mph to make any progress, i.e., to cover a mile in an hour. And if there are no eddies, then anytime you go less than 5mph, like if you want to take a drink, you will be going backwards. That’s some tough paddling.

The skeg, in theory, slows you down. It is there to help control the boat in cross winds. Don’t use it if you don’t need it.

I can hold 6mph for short periods. I’d guess that fit racers can go substantially faster, but I’m not one, and I wouldn’t paddle upstream in a river with a 5mph current. You did say 2-5, and it may be there are wider or deeper sections where the current is 2 and then some constricted or shallow spots where the current is 5. I might try that if the 2 mph sections were far more numerous than the 5.

just $.02 worth


We run into some current here on the Columbia, especially in the springtime.

Point straight upstream, that exposes your smallest profile to the force of the current. Stay close enough to shore that your paddle is almost hitting land or you are almost ground, whichever comes first.

Going against 2 knots is pretty doable, you can have fun, if you are a tolerably strong paddler. Versus 5 knots for more than just a few minutes, forget about it, do a car shuttle downstream, even if you are competition-fit.

Local library
Go there and get your hands on a WW kayaking book. There is one, which name evades me at the moment, that is all illustrated with cartoon-like hand drawings instead of photos. But this is a very good book if you can find it. Talks all you need to know about reading the river and then some. And also what can happen to you in some less than pleasant situations and how to avoid it -:wink:

Eddy Hopping

– Last Updated: Feb-03-09 7:49 PM EST –

I do most of my upstream with a canoe and a pole put have many times used the paddle. Stick close to shore, look at the river and look for eddies and then try to ferry or make your way from one to another. Where the river has nothing to offer stick to shore as much as possible.

Here in NE we have a lot of winding rivers with the river bottoms fluctuating from deep to shallow so the current is all over the place, the shallows having the fastest current and hardest to paddle through. It makes for very interesting and changing upstream travel. One has to constantly make their way from one side to the other finding the least amount of current and rocks to use to hide behind. Also, keep in mind any kind of headwind. Even in a kayak a strong headwind can heed progress.

This is really an exercise in reading the river and using what it's offering to make your way up. I learn every time I go out and I've been doing this upstream battle for 12 years now. Regardless it's gonna be a workout. Let us know how ya did.


Kayak by William Nealy
The Animated Manual of Intermediate and Advanced Whitewater Technique copyright 1986 published by Menasha Ridge Press Thirteenth printing 2004

Really good stuff, explains hydralics in a informative and entertaining way. Hilarous drawings. Good info for anyone planning on paddling any moving water.


Given a familiar stretch of river …

– Last Updated: Feb-03-09 9:29 PM EST –

..... knowing it at different gauges from real low to moderately high ... why is it that it almost always seems to be much more difficult when it's low ??

Not talking so low that your paddle is hitting bottom causing paddling difficulty , but the current gets so fast at low level ... I always heard the deeper water moves faster , but I most positively absolutely "disagree" with that !!

In the same sections , I have had to upstream ferry just to make "ANY" forward progress when low ... but roll right on through straight ahead with out sweat when these sections are up a couple more feet .

Of course I'm talkin paddling upstream ... mountain type river .

Rowing racers (flatwater) call shallows “suckwater” because of the drag it produces on the hull. Rule of thumb is that you start to feel this affect when the water is less deep than half your boat length. How this translates to paddling upstream, I’m not exactly sure, but I definately feel the same thing. Gravel bars where a few inches of water are quickly moving downstream remind me of riding a bicycle with the a flat and the wheel rubbing on the frame.

I’ve grown fond of the worst boat in my little fleet, the Chipewan. The bottom is flat as an ironing board, making it the the shallowest draft boat I have. I float over obstructions 2” below the surface, which is perfect for the little streams I run in this time of year. But on a gravel bar with 4" of running water, the stern sucks down and feels like it is dragging, it does drag, the moving water just sucks it down.

It is either the result of the downward bow wave reflecting upward and raising the front of the boat, or the affect named after those European physists (Bernoulli? Venturi?) that causes the surface level to dip as water velocity increases, and it must increase to get under your boat. Maybe both. I once found an article where scientists observed freightors in NY harbor and they actually draw more water as the channels get shallower, or speed increases over an even but shallow channel. The scientists were able to see the difference just by observing the draught markings on the sides of the hull vs the speed of the ships.

Dan, that is one lame explanation I gave there. All I want to say is that I agree. It is much tougher to progress against current in shallower water.


current power will surprise you…

Ditto much of what said…don’t underestimate 2-3mph when it’s over 100yds wide! As said…stick close to shore…and if possible…find the inner eddies where the river bends BEFORE launching… They’re great places to both enter and exit the water if you can’t find a smooth beach to launch from/beach up on…

Stay loose…


Right - that was it!
Thanks! Indeed a very good book. I recently saw a second edition in a bookstore. I’ve only limited experience on rivers but his hints about reading the water were very helpful in predicting where rocks might be as well as catching eddies, ferrying, picking the best spot to go thru merging currents, etc.

Tips on balance are also good for novice paddlers.

And the safety tips are really important to read even if not planning to go into “flooded rivers” or go down chutes and the like -;).

Plus, as you said, it is plain fun to read that particular book.

Wrote this a while back, it is kind of rough, but mirrors what other people have mentioned. That was a nice description of bow wave formation, but probably don’t need to worry about “suck water” for this, i.e. as for fast-current shallow conditions, it typically comes into play if you paddle downstream and not so much upstream.

I do this alot and love it. Have fun and be safe. Here it is.


Paddle up river? You bet !! If you give it a try, keep in mind that your level of skill is paramount in determining where you go. Without skills and experience, it can be very risky on a twisty stream or those with trees in the water, or big water with big current, as sooner or later you will find yourself sideways in the river and heading right for a sweeper or rock and must negotiate your way out of it. Staying out of trouble is the goal, but getting out of trouble is even more important. So start slow, by that I mean pick a friendly and safe river with current, but… slower current. You will need a fast boat preferrably, usually that means relatively skinny and long. A WW kayak or WW canoe will make it a little ways, but the goal is miles, not yards.

Work into it. Pick a river with mild current, lack of rapids and sharp corners, adequate depth, fairly straight course, and few shore obstructions (overhanging or downed trees). Begin your adventure by staying close to shore to take advantage of the eddies and the slower water, and WATCH YOUR ANGLE !! especially when you leave an eddie and enter current. You will not want to vary far from facing directly upstream most of the time, or at least a few degrees on either side of that (you will however, need that few degrees to negotiate, but only a few). Entering strong current from an eddie line a few degrees too strong will put you sideways NOW, add some speed/momentum to your entry and you are on a crash course for the other side of the river, perhaps not where you want to be. Boat control is huge here. Again start slow…

Learn how to both avoid and correct a “situation” by using sweep strokes, draw strokes, ruddering, edging the boat (to assist in turns), and learning the concept of how opposing currents lines affect a boat, which can be a nemisis but also can assist in “eddie turns”… what can get you into trouble can also get you out of trouble.

A little White Water experience helps here. Learn how to ferry facing upstream and also facing downstream (backpaddling) as it will help you to get out of some trouble and you will also want/need to change sides of the river often (depending on the width of the river). Also learn how to lean downstream and “high skull brace” when you find yourself sideways in the river, especially in strong current and standing waves where a skinny boat can become very unstable. Then learn how to correct a sideway position and return to facing upstream. All this should be practiced and proficient in slower rivers before you get adventurous.

Oh yes, wear a life jacket!, take a complete extra change of clothes, and something to eat/drink in a dry bag which is strapped in. In cold water wear adequate dry/wet suit. Anything loose should be secured. All of these warnings are relative to the complexity and velocity of the river you are going to paddle. The risk is less in slower moving rivers, more in rivers with faster current with riffles and even rapids. High water in more technical rivers doubles the risk. Did I mention to start slow.

That said, paddling upstream and becoming good at it is one of the most useful tools in skills development I can think of. You will use techniques that will transpose to every type of paddling you will ever encounter. Kayaks work well, but some rivers with stronger current can limit you on how close you can paddle next to shore using a double blade (one-two feet at times is ideal, which requires paddling on one side for a number of strokes, hard to do with a double blade). A kayak paddle is more prone to hitting things overhead also. Staying close to shore allows you to take advantage of the slightly-to-significantly slower water especially when eddies are not available. Paddling out in the middle is much harder and will become boring compared to working the shoreline. Therefore, although not exclusive by any means, fast canoes are better suited for this type of travel… again not exclusive. I use an old Sawyer Shockwave solo canoe (which I am very fond of), the sit and switch paddle technique (i.e. C1 marathon race) and a carbon bent shaft paddle. Sawyer is now defunct but several other manufacturers make fast solo canoes. Years ago I used to use a cruiser C1 marathon boat (J201) which is not recommended unless you spend a lot of time in one first. But realistically, these days most people own a kayak, not a canoe, so if that is the case, use a kayak! Bottom line is having a faster boat will help your upstream progress considerably which is why canoes-kayaks of at least 14’ (ideally 16’ and longer) work best and will at least give you a feeling of progress.

This type of paddling can be hard on the equipment so keep that in mind in rocky or shallow conditions. I have a beater paddle that I switch to when the shore is really rocky or in a particularly rocky riffle or rapid. Tandem canoe is also a blast and excellent for skills, but the divorce rate is even higher than paddling in still water (did I say that?).

What else can be said? What you learn will be very useful if you ever paddle the tidal constrictions on the ocean, or upstream on bigger rivers. But in general, you will become stronger, faster, more confident, and learn advanced boat control skills. Not bad.

Suckwater Still Rules

– Last Updated: Feb-04-09 7:53 PM EST –

You say suckwater doesn't come into play when going upstream the way it does when going downstream, but that isn't true. It would be pretty typical for a person's "practical" maximum paddling speed to be 5 mph in deep water and 3 mph or less in shallow water (just generalizing for the sake of example - the numbers aren't THAT far off of average). If you can reach a speed of 5 mph but the current is going 5 mph the opposite way, you can paddle all day and never move an inch relative to the river bottom. If the current is 5 mph but shallow enough that your bottom-reflected bow wave starts to screw-up your boat's hydrodynamics, your paddling speed will no longer be 5 mph, but something less than that, and NOW you can't even paddle fast enough to hold position against the current, so shallow depth CAN prevent you from having enough speed to go upstream, or at least slow you down significantly.

The hydrodynamics of the water flowing past your boat are the SAME no matter what direction you go relative to the current. The only thing that changes with your orientation to the current is your speed and direction relative to fixed objects, and your speed through the water itself is the same (this does not include things like "jet ferrying" which only work for as long as it takes to lose your "stationary momentum", but it works for any *sustained* encounter with steady current). A bottom-reflected bow wave may not behave exactly the same when the river bottom is "moving" relative to the water along with your boat or in the opposite direction as your boat (these frame-of-reference issues are something you either "get" or you "dont", since I'm not giving any lessons this time around), but the reflected wave will still be there in some form or another. I can't tell you how many times I've been rowing upstream and run across shallows where breaking waves formed on each side of the stern and it felt like someone "applied the brakes", and excessive squatting of the stern caused me to drag bottom when there was plenty of depth if I reduced speed. The severity of this problem is directly related to how shallow it gets and to the boat's speed *through the water*, regardless of whether I'm going upstream or downstream. I get to do this for a couple hundred miles every summer on a river full of sandbars, and I've got the principle pretty well "figured out" by now.

GB guy said it.
When I go up over those bars with fast flowing water, I’m not going that fast. 2mph at most. The water is coming down river at a couple miles and hour and accelerates over the bars, probably 4 to 6 mph, so relative to the hull, there’s a lot of speed for a paddle craft. As soon as I hit that shallow stuff, its like bam, the stern is dragging. When I stop (I’m polling, so I can hold position) the stern gets loose. Push forward (upriver), bam, dragging. Its exactly like GBguy says. Fun with hydrodynamics. Makes me wish I studied physics with a bit more enthusiasm.

here’s my physics lesson …
… damn this is hard !!! … what happened , did the current just get twice as fast or what !!!

laugh my butt off , paddle like superman and look to see the bottom has hardly moved but a few inches , then tack sideways and get a tiny winny little headway , very little at a time … at least it feels better to watch the bottom start moving again , even if it is only across the river perpendicular , lol .

Look Ma , I’m moving again …

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