Paddling Upstream

Commencing our second year of kayaking, we will be paddling in relatively higher, faster rivers in the early spring.

We do not car pool with anybody so our put-in and take-out points are the same.

This is generally not a problem in the summer.

How do you evaluate whether you will be able to paddle upstream in a reasonable manner or if you will struggle (or not be able to make any headway)?

good question

That’s a good question and one that is hard to answer in specifics. All rivers streams are diferent and those conditions will vary from day to day.

I can say you need to look for the eddies. It is amazing that even in the swiftest of currents, you can usually find a reverse current that can actually propel you upstream. Eddie hopping will require you to cross the current as he river bends, in order to find the upstream current.

I am not sure but I think there was a pnet article on this very topic. About the same time, I read an article in a paddling magazine about the same topic. You might try the archives, and If I find it I will let you know.

go upstream first. That way, if there are any problems, you can turn around. Usually, we try it out, and if it doesn’t work, we go somewhere else (or stop for the day cuz we’re tired from trying to paddle against the current). From my experience, sea kayaks can go upstream against more current than I thought possible. The main thing you have to do, is keep the bow into the current. Get a little off and you can end up sideways as the current grabs the side of the kayak and pushes it around. The other problem we’ve run into going upstream was currents that are different from the main current. You’re going upstream just fine, keeping the bow straight, and suddenly a current hits you from the side.

After you’ve been doing this for a while, you can look at a put-in and pretty well gauge what your chances are.

Paddling upstream
Much of my solo paddling is round trip, upstream, then back.

How much current you can paddle against is a function of your boat(s), your skill, your strength, and your determination.

The best I can tell you is to throw the boat in the river and give it a go. Soon enough you will be able to tell by looking what you can handle and what is too much.

If you head upstream first you should have no trouble getting back.

Have fun!

Don’t go
Don’t go after it rains. After some really nice snow fall and rain here in NW Ohio I thought I would take advantage of a nice 55 degree day. Once I put in I paddled upstream for 1 hour. My arms burning, and out of breath, I decided to turn around. 6 minutes later I was back at my starting point. Needless to say it was a good work out.

Jason S.

how long
is a piece of string??

you ask:How do you evaluate whether you will be able to paddle upstream in a reasonable manner or if you will struggle (or not be able to make any headway)?

how are we suppose to know?

go figure the math out yourself. if you paddle 3 knots and the current is 3 knots, you don’t have to go far for a workout.


Experience is the best teacher
But please use your head. Don’t put in at dangerous levels even if you think you can handle the current. You might be able to handle the current (and maybe not) but you won’t be able to handle the big, freaking tree washing down at you.

That said, and assuming that you are smart enough to have known that anyway, give it a go. You’ve already done it in the summer, so you know how to do it. Remember that current pressure increases geometrically, not arithmetically. Two times the height is actually two cubed or eight times the pressure. Using CFS rather than river height is often a more meaningful means of measuring current for a given river. Eventually, you’ll get to know what you can handle at different heights (or CFS).

The river I paddle the most is the Potomac River near Harper’s Ferry, WV. I happen to know that if the water level is above 4’ at the Point of Rocks gauge, it’s not worth me going. I’ll be able to handle the current, but I won’t catch many fish (I’m a poor high water fisherman) and I’ll have to be more attentive to the river and my paddling than to fishing and relaxing.

I know others who don’t bother going to that stretch UNTIL it hits 4’ because they’re looking for what I’m trying to avoid.

I guess it’s one of those ‘one man’s ceiling is another man’s floor’ things.

  • Big D

paddling/polling upstream/downstream …
… is my usual paddling mode on my local rivers, South Platte and Poudre, in northern Colorado.

It’s quite amazing what kind of rivers is possible to climb upstream with some training and determination. Basically, only shallow water can stop you. Sometimes, it’s necessary to walk upstream through some shallow spots.

On shallow rivers like S. Platte I was quite succesful with polling: using a ski pol from a seating position in my Sea Wind. I think it should also work in a more stable kayak. See my video: South Platte River Winter:

How long is a piece of string? Twice as long as from one end to the middle!!! 8>)

Choose sections carefully
Ironically, when the water is faster on the Schuykill river (Philadelphia), I will put in just above a dam. Typically, rivers slow as they near dams (note!, NOT RIGHT AT THE DAM). Rivers tend to be wider and more pool like right before a dam. But use common sense, going over dams in high waters should be considered lethal for most if not all of us.

Then again
Regarding last post, I put in about an 1/8th of a mile up stream from the dam. Please don’t think I encourage getting anywhere near dams.

Beautiful video!
I’ll have to try the poling thing now. I’ve nosed up the Platte and Bear Creek a little ways from their respective resevoirs (Chatfield and Bear Creek res.)and the pole could have been useful. Gotta try the flatter sections of the Platte up by Ft. Lupton one of these days. I suppose my Loon 138 should handle it alright. What do you think from your experience?


“A form of Yuppy excercise” ???
The energy it takes to travel at 3 knots is about what the average paddler can comfortably generate for a couple of non stop hours. With not finding eddies, just straight against it, expending 3 knots worth of energy will keep you in the same place with no forward progress!

Thus, to go forward you must exert above and beyond, so here is where one realizes what a difficult task this is. You be the judge whether the other factors mentioned make it worth it. Hey it is a good form of yuppy excercise, i.e., working hard trying to be upwardly mobile and going no where fast!

Going no where fast
The whitwater guys call it “surfing”.

A real Yuppie…
… would be jonesin’ for one of those “endless pools”. No critters, salt, mud, weather, or bothersome racks marking up the beemer…

BTW - Why settle for average L? Personally I like a 4 to 4.5 knot pace for a few hours - and I’m not that fast (ask JackL, Hex, Ice, etc.). Maybe time for a faster boat? A bowl of Wheaties?

Paddling Upstream
Excellent question !!!

I paddle rivers, upstream, all the time for exercise. 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, 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, 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 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” 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 and 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 need to change sides of the river often. Also learn how to lean downstream and “skull brace” WHEN (not if) 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 and return to facing upstream. All this should be practiced and proficient in slower rivers before you get adventurous.

On yes, wear a life jacket! and take a complete extra change of clothes, and something to eat/drink in a dry bag which is strapped in. Anything loose should be secured. All of these warnings are relative to the complexity 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 technique that will transpose to every type of paddling you will ever encounter. Kayaks work well enough, but some rivers with stronger current can limit you on how close you can paddle next to shore with a kayak (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 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 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 go do it anyway! 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 felling 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 is a little slower and 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. But in general, you will become stronger, faster, more confident, and learn advanced boat control skills. Not bad. I am convinced it has also made me better looking, my dandruff is gone, and my kitchen floor is shinier to boot. All this simply from learning how to paddle upstream, amazing.


I Often Paddle Upstream
Here are some tips and observations.

Make a mental inventory of local rivers, including which sections are typically slow and which are faster. Then, plan your trip accordingly.

A heavy rain will turn last week’s slow river into a fast exhausting river.

Stop every hour or so for a breather. Even a 10 minute rest will work wonders for your stamina.

Practice and improve your forward stroke. There is a great video for sale on this site. It made a big difference for me.

Go upstream first. Once, I went downstream first and underestimated the effort required to get back. I’ll know better next time. Besides, it’s much more fun expeding the energy at the beginning, and relaxing on the way back.

Make mental note of interesting sites upstream, and explore them at your lesiure downsteam. Or, make it a brief rest stop upstream.

Since you’re going much slower upstream, this gives you a good opportunity to carefully examine the strainers that you’ll pass more quickly downstream.

Have fun!

Definately take a poll
Take a poll that will be able to reach the bottom. Usually, a river speeds up in the shallow portions, a poll can be very useful in these areas if the current is moving too fast to paddle against, and the more shallow water will make it easier to stick the bottom (with better leverage). It’s a bit tricky to steer a long boat going upstream in fast current while polling. You will need good contact with footbraces and you’ll need strong torso muscles!

Test the Water
Throw a walnut-sized piece of gravel or rock into the river. If it floats downstream, the current is way, way, way too swift to enter. ;-]

Thanks to all of you
who have responded and to those who potentially may respond. The comments above were very insightful and detailed and I will heed many of the recommendations during the coming spring paddling season.