River Flow

How do you know when the river flow is too high or too low? I can access the USGS real time tables but I’m not sure how to interpret the flow rates.

We were scheduled for a trip this weekend on Big Darby Creek but the flow is 1600 cfs and the trip leader won’t go unless the flow is below 800 cfs.

Do these numbers apply to all rivers or does it depend on the individual stream. If the latter, how do you find out the minimum and maximum rates? I suppose it may also depend on skill level.

Please forgive me if this is too elementary a question.



It’s way too complicated!

– Last Updated: Jun-09-06 9:25 AM EST –

You really have to rely on local knowledge combined with your own comfort levels.
Typicaly when something is over flood stage you will have water running through trees and such that you might not want to mess with (strainer city!). But even then I can think of one local river with very little pitch where flood stage just means you can paddle through the fields. There the water doesn't move any faster, there is just lots more of it.
There are plenty of others that will move beyond my comfort level long before they reach flood stage.
Many river guides including the online info at American Whitewater will include recomended levels but even those assume the type of paddling desired and skill level of their audience and may or may not apply to you.

That’s what I thought.
The locals have paddled that river so often, I guess they know the limits from personal experience. Nevertheless, I guess you couldn’t go too far wrong if the flow is close to the average for a particular river. (Assuming one’s skills are up to it of course.)


Then you gotta gage the locals
Once you get to know them and what thier interests and abilities are sometimes you can gage a run by thier descriptions.

If TommyC1 says it’s a nice run you might expect easy to moderate class III with plenty of playspots. If Bruce Lessels, local outfitter and onetime olympic C boater, says its a nice run well, there’s a fair chance TommyC1 wouldn’t survive!

this won’t help you directly, a decent place to go for subjective whitewater ratings with runnable levels/real time stream gauge data is www.americanwhitewater.org. Navigate to “River Tools” then select the state and river you plan on running.

You also might try posting on www.ohiowhitewater.com for questions/information regarding runnable levels on the Darby Creeks.


It takes time and a keen interest
Understanding the flows for your local creek takes time. If you really want to start to “get it” scout it out at different flows and take notes. It requires some leg work but it is worth it.

Don’t investigate and experiment paddling alone. Join up with others.

Also, studying the weather and the charts and the real-world conditions will start to give you the ability to anticipate what conditions will be in the future. Things get a lot more comfortable when you’re no longer a guage slave.

Also, you’ve probably heard “don’t trust the guages.” But, it only really strikes home when you experience a guage error for yourself. Been there. Thought something didn’t seem right at the put in. Knew something wasn’t right within 500 yards. Got home, USGS glich sure as heck.

Be careful.

We keep notes and scout so that we
develop a trend for a particular river. Then we have something to relate to. Barring first hand experience with a river, we try to get info from someone we know and trust who knows our skills as well. If that’s not possible we try to talk to locals and get a feel for what to expect. Local clubs are usually better than floater outfitters. We combine the gage info with maps and our general experience in sorting it all out. A lot of variables.

If you haven’t already developed basic river paddling skills, please take the time to do so. I’m not comfortable paddling rivers unless I can perform a competent back ferry and save-my-butt eddy turn. That’s my comfort level. Above a certain flow rate, I’m not able.

If your trip leader says ‘no go’, he probably is right. Obviously the charts proved that out. Many people get into trouble or die because they didn’t know what they were getting into.

I know I’m echoing the chorus, but river safety is so important.

No disagreement
I’m trying to develop sufficient skills so that I feel safe and not a burden to those I’m paddling with. I do OK when the river is reasonably slow, but in faster water, I don’t feel very confident.

Thanks for everyone’s advice.


couldn’t go to wrong
"I guess you couldn’t go too far wrong if the flow is close to the average for a particular river"

Nope, sorry.

Some rivers are not runnable at “average” levels, perhaps too low, or too rocky or too whatever. For these you need more water than average, and perhaps less than some max flow or level.

Every river is unique, and responds to changes in flow or level in its own unique way.

A river that is nice and placid at one level could become very difficult at a higher level. Or a river that is very challenging at a lower level could become simply a fast flush at a high level.

Historical experience, or “local knowledge” is the best way to figure what’s what, although if you are skilled you can get a decent idea from the geology of the river bed.

Big Darby
Hey, Doc, we did a quick paddle on the Big Darby this evening, from Georgesville to Darbyville through the metro park. Nice flow, current right around 3mph. I believe it was running at around 1100 cfs. FYI, we’ve paddled that section as high as 2000 and won’t paddle below 200 cfs.

We heard on the news (as we were setting up our shuttle) that a family of 4 capsized somewhere on the Darby this afternoon. All 4 wearing PFDs and all are well. I don’t know any of the details, but they managed to call 911 with their handy-dandy cell phone and were subsequently rescued. Guess they should have signed up with your trip leader…:o)


From my experience, which is just on
a local level, you have got to know the particular river and then you can tell by the flow weather it is going to be good bad or too lw.

We keep tabs on our favorite half dozen rivers, and just by looking up the flow and for us even more so the level, we know wether it is doable.



1600 cfs
is a lot of water in my tiny “Little Arkansas River”, but would be only puddles in a bigger one like the Yellowstone. Your trip leader is probably making a good call, based on experience. USGS Waterwatch is not only great for highs & lows, but to know if I’m going to have to walk through mud at my put in & etc. At the moment, I’m watching two rivers in Nebraska to decide if I will have enough water to race next weekend.

Thanks Kate
I’m relieved to hear the family is well. The flow was down this morning - I had already thought the trip was off so I didn’t go. I’m not sure if the group went or not.


good question
I think this is something that too many newish river paddlers ignore.

Keeping notes on the flows to establish a range within which you can run the river, and determining what levels you think are the most fun, is what gives you independence from a trip leader, or enables you to become a trip leader.

I think this should be taught more explicitly, and I think paddling clubs should make their data available. Way too many people learn this the hard way, after getting away with showing up at a the put-in uninformed and paddling a river at stupid level (that’s how I learned to start tracking river levels).


Great stream.
You’ll have to join us for one of our trips down the Big Darby. We try to get there at least once a week. The stretch we paddled yesterday is my favorite - we’ve probably paddled it 100 times but it is still a gem to me.

I’ll repeat my suggestion to you, Doc, that you should head for the Mad River in Urbana if you want to gain experience on moving water.

Thanks Kate
I’d love to join you. I have been going with the Columbus Outdoor Pursuits groups, and from time to time with my friend Mike McCrea and the Duckheads. I’d love to try the Mad River, but I don’t care to go alone, so I’ll keep my eyes open for a group trip.