Picking a line when the river narrows (canoe or kayak)

I’ve observed a paddling buddy take a different line than I do in a common situation: the river narrows substantially, and at the place where it narrows, the water on the “merging lane” pushes sideways and has created an eroded bank with strainers. Here’s a diagram:

The big arrows indicate the direction of the current. There’s a gravel beach on river right where the river narrows and the current pushes to the left, right into a strainer on the left bank.

The dashed line indicates my course. I stay as far as I can on the shallow right. Then, as I enter the side current, turn the boat sharp toward the right bank and power forward across/against the side current to just barely miss the strainer.

My buddy takes the solid line. She goes to river left well before the strainer, then turns her boat towards the right bank just before the strainer and powers forward, enough to clear it.

Which is generally the better approach?

Well, you’re both alive so neither could be that bad…

But I’m curious to see what others have to say as well. :slight_smile:

I don’t think one way is always better than the other. If I could see the current moving with my own eyes, I’d likely have a suggestion, but for now, like Sparky, I’m thinking it’s probably not that bad of a situation so why not experiment with both?

Your method is likely to be the better choice if you opt for a back ferry, and in a swift-water situation where it’s genuinely difficult to keep out of trouble along the left bank, that’s probably what I’d do. Following your course, it only takes a very tiny change of heading to put the boat in proper position for a back ferry that not only propels you in the right direction but keeps you in the weaker current where less speed in the up-current direction is needed to stay out of trouble.

If choosing to forward paddle diagonally across the current and thus hold your desired position away from the left bank, I suspect that your partner’s course will be slightly easier because again, less of a change in which way the boat is “aimed” is needed to put yourself on the proper heading to make this work. But again, as you describe the situation, I’m not seeing a reason to favor one over the other.

It’s the details that will make the difference, and in reasonably benign conditions the difference probably won’t be enough to fret over. Also, if using boats that turn or pivot with little effort, again it won’t matter as much.

If I was racing, always wanting to be in the fastest current, I generally avoid the shallow side of a river. Most times, if there is a shallow side and a steep bank side, the current will flow fastest in the usually deeper water along the steeper bank side especially if I see a hill or cut-bank sloping down on that side, If I knew there was a gravel bed on river right, I would tend to stay left, following the main current. Any shallowness will only slow me down. But I would have to consider - what kind of structure is holding the strainer in place? The strainer might take some minimal maneuvering to get around, but if it is prior known to me or if I can see it far enough in advance then it should not pose any major problem.

If not racing, I would take whichever track line is the most interesting.

In your example either works fine, but to me that is kind of an odd place for a strainer. The most dangerous strainers are located on the outside edge of the curve. The current that eroded its roots and dropped it into the water is also the current that is going to push you into the strainer. More like this.

Unlike your example, there is no straight route to the left, so you have to hug the right shore or you will get pushed into the strainer

It looks to me like you’re choosing the safer line and your friend is choosing the faster line. Either would be fine, of course, providing there are no sneaky branches (or a rock) hiding under the surface just off the tip of that strainer. That’s the risk that’s inherent in following the fast, easy water. Attention needs to be paid. Your friend’s is perhaps the line I’d take if I were in a longer, straight keeled cruising boat. That’s where being ready to throw a draw stroke or two is advisable. If I were heavily loaded I’d be a little wary of bottoming out on the shallows on the right.

The more worrisome situation to me, though still not dangerous to even a moderately skilled paddler, would be if you and the current were going from the top to the bottom of the drawing. In that case the fastest, strongest current would be trying to carry you directly into the strainer on the outside of the bend. There is also the chance that you wouldn’t even see the strainer until you were fairly close upon it. In that case there’d be some wisdom in staying toward the inside of the bend and being prepared to eddy out into the inside shallows if a rock or branch were to show itself off the tip of the strainer.

If you’re going to back ferry through a bend like this, its worth while to consider whether someone else is following close behind you. If there is, they’re probably also looking over the situation, picking a line, and not necessarily paying attention to you and whether you’re backing against the current or not. Most folks power through places like this. That’s an awkward kind of place to get tangled up with another boat.

GBG: Reading your comments, I realized one of the differences between the two lines is how much the boat needs to be turned for a proper heading towards the right bank, and how much momentum is carried into the new direction.

My line requires 90 degrees to go from a heading of 10 o’clock to 2 o’clock just as I enter the sideways current. My friend only needs to turn from 12 o’clock to 2 o’clock, and thus seems to be carrying more momentum into the new direction, allowing her to pierce through the strong sideways current faster.

Regarding the back ferry: Where would my bow be pointed, in terms of the clock? 8 or 9?

eckilson: I don’t think the location of the strainer is unusual. The sideways current hits the bank hard on the left side, eroding it and creating the strainer.

Generally speaking, the varied options have been noted.

One thing I would add to the conversation…“paddlers shouldn’t bunch up” when they’re going into an area where they’ll will be trying to navigate past a strainer. Simply put; maintain good distance between boats. Don’t know how many times I’ve seen a boat & paddler get swept into a strainer, and another boater, following too closel,y “plows into” the strainers first victim or their boat? Never a good scenario.

It is a good idea for paddlers who successfully negotiate past the strainer to eddy out, and be available to assist anyone who needs assistance. Handy spot to have a throw bag with you.


There is a boat “under the strainer” pictured. Pnet paddlers assisted the girls in freeing the canoe. Note lack of pfds…

From what I’ve seen; the Amish are NOT noted for their “river reading” or canoeing skills.
Seemingly, they lack common sense when it comes to river canoeing.

I’ve seen the same, or a similar group of Amish girls on the same river, when weather conditions were quite poor. The river is cold to being with; as it is a spring fed river, and there was light rain falling.
None of them wore rain gear; none of them wore pfds , and several were in varied stages of hypothermia.


I guess PFD’s aren’t “plain” enough.

I often spotted Amish buggies with canoes on top (always painted black or grey) during the years I spent driving to visit my boyfriend in north Central PA farming country.

They need to have their elders officially rule on paddling safety equipment, as they ruled 3 decades ago to approve roller blades as suitably functional for their strict values. In the summer of 1985 I was staying for several months at a motel near Lititz, PA, while on a work assignment there and was charmed to see the teenaged Amish boys zooming up and down the hills, often with a hoe or shovel over their shoulder. Their elders ruled that as long as they painted the usually gaudy rollerblades black, they were a perfectly acceptable form of transportation. The girls were allowed to ride bicycles. There was a phone booth (remember those?) at the gas station adjoining my motel and I used to see a gaggle of Amish girls with their bikes gathered around it in the evenings, giggling and apparently illicitly talking to somebody – one or more girls was always posted as a “lookout” close to the road, scanning for the approach of any elders.

Maybe somebody should reach out to their community and offer safe canoeing training with adaptions to their traditions.

I would have to see the feature with my own eyes before deciding the approach, but in general I would probably most often use the approach your friend uses. A key point is whether there is enough room between the strainer and the gravel bar to allow clear passage of your angled canoe, and whether the water is deep enough just upstream and toward the right of the strainer to let you take effective paddle strokes.

If there is, then I would approach the strainer with my bow angled toward the right bank. Although I would not necessarily hug the left bank, I would allow enough space between the bow of my boat and the gravel bar to allow me to take at least several strong forward strokes to develop some momentum toward the right side of the channel so as to allow my stern to clear the strainer as I passed it. Just like catching an eddy in whitewater, this involves an aspect of placement and timing as to when to take those strong strokes, and that will depend on the force of the water flowing into the strainer.

Of course, a back ferry will work also, but if there is enough room and depth of water to execute a back ferry, then the approach described above will also work. A back ferry does allow for a slower “closing speed” with the obstacle however, so if you find you have badly misjudged the situation you do have a bit more time to try an alternative approach (such as prayer).

It looks like your friend is in deeper water on the outside of the turn…where most of the water flows. I think the deeper water gives some insurance that you can steer the boat and drive it to the right when you need to (like around a strainer) and it looks like one would be fighting the current the least on your friend’s line.

Just in the interest of avoiding stereotypes, does anyone really know that those young women are Amish? I know that time and again for many years, a few different p-netters have described that incident while saying that’s what they were. Still, all of the large groups of touristy-vacationer types that I have ever seen who are dressed along those lines are Mennonites, not Amish. Mennonites on vacation usually travel in big family groups in a large vans, while Amish don’t drive cars at all, and technically they aren’t even allowed to ride in them, though that’s a rule that they break a lot around here to get to construction sites where they work as carpenters. I’ve actually never seen a group of Amish out and about doing the vacation thing, though that doesn’t mean they don’t do it. I’ve seen Mennonites vacationing in large groups countless times, though, so my first guess is that those women were Mennonites.

I can’t resist one stereotype though. I once saw a large group of Mennonites picnicking at a campground on the Buffalo River, and after I’d spent three days camping and driving around/stopping to buy gas/groceries in that part of Arkansas I was almost beginning to wonder if anyone who lives there has all their natural teeth, but those Mennonites did!

@melenas said:

Regarding the back ferry: Where would my bow be pointed, in terms of the clock? 8 or 9?

When back ferrying, at least when getting the hang of it for the first time, it would be far more helpful to think in terms of where the stern is pointed, since your boat is moving backwards relative to the water. The stern would be pointed just a little ways “off” from straight against the current, angled a little toward the inside shore. I won’t use a clock designation to decribe that heading since as the direction of the current changes with location, so too will your “true” heading, but your angle relative to the current will stay roughly the same (of course you can and will fine tune that angle, though). The slower the current, the wider you can make your ferry angle (point the stern more toward the inside shore). The faster the current, the tighter the angle will have to be (stern pointed almost directly against the current) if you need working room and don’t want to drift downstream too fast. If you have plenty of room, you can use a wider ferry angle even in fast current, but most people won’t back ferry unless they are short of space. It’s probably best to practice it in places where you do have plenty of maneuvering room, just to get the hang of how it works.

No stereotyping was intended…

I don’t give a hoot if their Amish, Mennonites, Church of Christ, Baptist, Methodist, Catholic, Quakers, Muslims, or
The Church of What’s Happening Now.

The point is; they don’t have much common sense, river reading skills, or paddling skills, and they don’t wear pfds, or raingear, even when it rains.
I guess they “trust in a higher power” to resurrect them if they get caught under a strainer, can’t get loose, and nobody in the group has a clue on what to do? Beware the helplessness of the chronic victim; no matter what their religion.

I would NOT approach a strainer where a canoe was pinned, from upstream of the strainer…Lose your footing & you may join the canoe.


I understand your point Bob, and wasn’t questioning that part at all, but no one would refer to a more typical church-group outing by the name of some arbitrary religion of the teller’s choosing, and in all the years of this story being told (previously by at least two others, and never before by you, that I recall), calling them Amish seemed to be done without any actual reason.

There are a lot of Mennonites in the area where I live. Less Amish, but enough that I immediately identified the women in the photo as the former, rather than the latter.

No one can say for sure though, even if they were there. For any old(er) order “Mennonite” I’ve spoken with does not self-identity as such.

As one who has raced in a lot of rivers, I would have to agree one hundred percent with YKNPDLR’s post.
The right side which you said is shallow will be the slowest.
If I wanted to get through it fast, I would take your friends route.
If I was nature watching, which I do a lot of I would take the route that looked to be the most interesting.


@melenas said:

My line requires 90 degrees to go from a heading of 10 o’clock to 2 o’clock just as I enter the sideways current.
Please forgive me for entering this thread with very limited river paddling knowledge. However, the comment above had me mystified.

I have not paddled much on rivers, but one thing I had to learn the hard way: When you are going around a bend in a long sea kayak, the differences in current speed between the front and rear of the kayak will turn the kayak for you. Get it wrong, and the current will work against the turn you want to make. Get it right, and the current will make most of the work for you.

So if I understand your sketch and the descriptions of the current correctly, when following your path, I would try to “pin” the bow in the slow water at the right bank by turning the kayak slightly to the right, say to 11 o’clock’ish and paddling forward, a little time before I reach the corner on the right bank where the flow direction changes. Then the faster current in the deeper water at the stern would turn my kayak from 11 o’clock to 2 o’clock without me having to do any work to turn the kayak. I would just have to paddle forward just enough to make sure that I keep the bow pinned in the slow water all around the corner.

This is kind of like the way a rally car takes a turn.

Wouldn’t that work here, or am I missing something obvious?

@melenas said:
eckilson: I don’t think the location of the strainer is unusual. The sideways current hits the bank hard on the left side, eroding it and creating the strainer.

Maybe, but water tends to take the easiest route, which would be straight along the left bank. With that long straight run on the left, I wouldn’t expect a lot of water to come in from the right to erode the left bank. You would need to see what is happening above to know for sure.

I would probably go left too.