river ratings

My boys and I have been looking at various river runs in the area. We have a guidebook and from what I can tell there are only class I and class II rapids on some of them that are 200-300’ long. The rapids, unfortunately, are in remote areas so basically you can only scout them right before you get to them :slight_smile:

We are relatively new to this so I’m wondering what a Class I looks/feels like and the same for Class II. With good life vests and relatively warm water (summer), what are the hidden dangers? Is this not a good idea?

Thanks for any input.

What rivers are you looking at and where
Someone here will likely be familiar with them.

How old are you and your boys? What canoe(s)? How much experience do you have?

Ideally, it’s best to get some experience yourself before taking the kids out. I pretty much had a rule when I started out that I wouldn’t take the kids on anything I hadn’t first done myself, unless it was class I.

Well, it is sort of like this:
if you have to ask, maybe you should think twice about doing it.

Seriously, I don’t really want to discourage you from trying whitewater but there are a number of factors that come into play and make this question tough to answer.

This link gives a pretty standard description of the Class I-VI whitewater scale: http://www.performancevideo.com/whitewater_rating_system

Western rivers are often rated on a 1-10 scale. It is difficult to try to reconcile the two rating systems. The lethal dangers of most big rivers in the West is flush drowning and hypothermia due to paddling in snow melt. In most rivers in the Midwest and East hypothermia is also a factor, particularly in the spring, but entrapment poses the more commonly encountered potentially lethal hazard.

Here is another link that shows some photos of different classes: http://www.c-w-r.com/information/classification.html

Unfortunately, the photos are small and not terribly representative especially of Class I and Class II. Note that Class I is more than just moving flat water. Typically Class I involves at least some riffles and perhaps tongues of unobstructed current with significant eddy lines. Class II covers a whole lot of ground from hypertechnical stuff requiring precise maneuvering to relatively unobstructed rapids with wave trains large enough to swamp an open boat.

Even though Class II is referred to as “novice” be aware that some Class II rapids can be distinctly unfriendly to novices. Most open boaters with reasonable flat water skills can handle Class I OK, but be aware that even moving flat water without any rapids can be dangerous when strainers are involved, and they are always a possibility.

Be aware of the following factors.

First, guide books written back in the 1960s to 1990 or so often rate rapids at least a Class higher in difficulty than more modern guide books would. Many rapids have been significantly downgraded as skills and equipment have progressed.

Second, guide book ratings generally apply to a “standard” or typical water level. At higher levels most rivers become significantly more difficult but some rapids may be completely “washed out” at higher levels, and some rapids and drops become more technical and difficult at lower levels, so always take into account the flow level.

Third, a river in a remote location, one that is difficult to walk out from, or a run in a gorge that might make portaging around a rapid difficult or impossible should probably be considered a class more difficult than one that has a road running along side it.

Fourth, the nature of the gradient plays a big role. Many rapids are drop-pool in nature. These rivers have intermittent rapids which might be relatively short with interspersed pools of moving flat water. Other rivers with a fairly uniform gradient might have relatively continuous rapids. A Class short Class III rapid with a nice, big recovery pool at the bottom of it might be a lot safer for a novice to run than a half mile of continuous Class II water.

If you get off on the wrong foot at the top of a Class II rapid that is several hundred feet long you could easily lose your boat if you were not with a group that had at least one experienced boater downstream.

“Class II” is perhaps the most messed
up rating because the whitewater crowd has re-assigned a lot of rapids from class 3 to class 2, and the written class 2 definition no longer makes any sense as applied to existing rapids.

Supposedly there is only one class 3 rapid on the Nantahala (Lesser Wesser, or Nantahala Falls), but I would not give you and your kids much chance of getting through Pattons Run, just around a blind bend near the top of the run. It would be class 3 if the written definition applied, but familiarity brings contempt.

Tell us where you are, and perhaps we can give suggestions about easy, class 1 rivers where you can gain experience a skills. Some formal training is very important too.

Special Warnings …
Wing dams, weirs, ledge drops into pools, and bridge pilings. Often with good flows the features mentioned above create deadly traps for those who are not familiar with how boats handle in flow water and how flowing recirculating water can create drowning machines. They are often features on stretches of water listed as Class II and many people have died in Class II water because they were unaware of the risks. Best to get some lessons for both you and your sons before you attempt whitewater.

My feeling
is that the best and safest way to do this is to paddle with someone who has experience, get some experience under your own belt before you go alone. I think when you are brand new you might not perceive the dangers and you might find your self in trouble. If you do take it on - be sure to stop well before any rapids start and scout carefully. If you have any doubt about your ability to paddle through safely don’t hesitate to carry around it. There is no shame in walking around. The best of us do it all the time.

Sections described as class 2 vary tremendously depending on a whole host of factor not the least of which is water level.

Class I is nothing more than some
small waves, and can be done by any one.

Unfortunately Class II can be simple and fun and a little more than Class I, or it can be a bear.

We do a river near us that is Class I-II and I love it, but I have been in a large raft in the New river in West Virginia, and gone through a rapid Called “Surprise”, that is supposed to be a II and I watched two paddlers in the rear get thrown overboard.

I would want to know more about that class II section before doing it.

jack L

Portage them
Even class I is fast enough for you to lose physical contact with your sons in a capsize, easily. And there’s not a chance in class II.

Given that it appears you are all new to this, I’d put that consideration well ahead of any other.

what g2d said

– Last Updated: Apr-10-12 8:48 PM EST –

cl. 2 has become a catch-all. There's also 2+, which is actually the rating the slalom folks assigned to my local paddling/poling area.Level makes a difference. I've seen that 2+ be anything from (my opinion) a 2- to a 3+ when it's howling. I've paddled it from 370 cfs (cubic feet/second) to 5800 cfs, and there's a huge difference in skills required, speed, danger etc.. Familiarity breeds comfort on a rapid. First time is potentially scary (though in an invigorating way, especially for the kids who don't have a mortgage, job, kids etc...),3 runs in you're having fun, and 50 runs later you're playing every feature. It'd be good if you could find someone familiar with the run and go with them, or at least get a detailed description. Generally from what I've seen, AW (and possibly your guidebook, but note disclaimer "possibly" lol) rate things higher than those that paddle those runs a lot do. Often a low level is slower, but creates issues with hitting rocks and capsizing, especially when you're new to this run.
We've got a local run that had 3 cl. 4 features until the "streamkeeper" decided to downgrade it to a 3+. Reason being, during flood conditions the local authorities would block parking on cl. 4 runs....but not 3+'s lol...
Anyways, don't get scared off. Scouting is half the game, kids absolutely love this stuff, and it was for 10 years my favorite activity due to the skills that needed to be learned. Now that I'm where I'm gonna' be, not slow, not fast...kind of half-fast ;-), I found something else to suck at and hopefully improve at before I'm too old. I ask these types of questions on the bicycling forums...

Generally a guidebook rated 2 should be fun, as long as your kids can actually help, and are adventurous. Main things, if you do lose your sheeeit, try to stay to the side or upriver from the boat. You don't want a waterlogged canoe pinning you into a rock. Stay the hell away from any wood (trees/branches) in the water (these are called strainers.), if floating downriver, try to float on your back, and keep your sneaker wearing feet aimed downstream, they're your bumpers. Try to hang onto paddles, etc. SCOUT SCOUT SCOUT first. If you have an issue, it's good to have a plan, large eddy to try to get to, hopefully a pool, at least a common river bank, so you're not on one side, your kid on the other. Dry-bag, towels, small first aid kit, etc... Have fun. What has you nervous today will have you laughing down the road. Trust me on this one.

Two sections of the Deerfield
Lower section (below Zoar Gap) – this is class I


Fife Brook section (above and including Zoar Gap) – this is easy class II, except for Zoar Gap at the end which is class III


(TommyC1 makes a cameo appearance at 1:08)

Only the experienced decked boaters
could call Surprise a class 2.

And there’s rapids being called class 1 that often trip up newbies and the feckless.

Many years ago, there was extensive discussion after a USCA race (on the Allegheny I think) where about a third of the field swamped out in a class 1 wavy rapid. Most of the discussion was directed at the intelligence of the paddlers rather than the correctness of the rapid classification.


– Last Updated: Apr-11-12 2:17 AM EST –

I'm a total newb at this and don't know a thing about rivers. I never would have guessed that 1st video is Class 1. Just looking at it I would have figured it surely is Class 2.

That’s the problem with river ratings…
They are really in the eye of the beholder.

The first video is generally considered a class I run since it has small waves with few obstructions.

The class II section of the second video has slightly larger waves, and adds obstructions like rocks to maneuver around.

The class III section (Zoar Gap) has bigger waves and obstructions and requires more precise maneuvering.

Class II video

– Last Updated: Apr-11-12 8:30 AM EST –

These are just short rapids, not 200-300'ers

As you can see we're pretty well outfitted even for it. Where kids are involved you need to build in extra safety margin.

And if you want a real eye opener on how fast things can go wrong on class II (this is class II also) check this one out. This was at a training clinic, lots of people went through here and no one saw the submerged log that the swimmer found. Without the support you see in the video, this could have been very bad.

At the 1:20 mark http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qZHVYjaluJQ

I should also point out that the swimmers clothes were snagged on the log and got torn during the rope pull.

Good Videos
Those videos are probably as good a visual demonstration of Class I, II, and III water as you will find.

Erik’s first video shows typical Class I water. There is swift current and some waves, but none of the waves are close to being large enough to swamp an open boat and the flow is completely unobstructed. The boaters can pretty much follow whatever path they wish and as long as they keep the boat aligned with the flow and don’t accidentally cross an eddy line with the nose of their boat, they really don’t have to do much of anything.

Erik’s second video shows a Class III rapid (Zoar Gap). The boaters are doing a good job following a nice clean line through this rapid but you can see some sizable holes that could quickly separate a paddler from their boat if they can’t spot the line and control their boat in heavy current.

Brian’s video of the Slip Clinic shows some typical modestly technical Class II water. The current is not terribly pushy and there are no big drops but there are plenty of obstacles to be avoided and some degree of boat control is required to maneuver through them.

Benchmark rapids

– Last Updated: Apr-11-12 9:19 AM EST –

Here's a list of rapids that American Whitewater has identified as "benchmark" examples of each classification from 1 to 3+. Won't do you much good if you don't live near any of these, but you could at least Google some pictures or video...


You'll have to copy and paste the entire link - the paddling.net forum software seems unable to handle punctuation inside a URL. Or try this shortened version: http://ow.ly/acVAS

read a book - join a club ?
one thing you should do before starting out is to look for books and videos on whitewater paddling (you may be able to find some decent books at your local library) you should get some basic concepts down before ever trying a CI or CII - such as how to enter and exit an eddy (useful for entering and exiting the river which you may have to do in a strong current, or for a “pause” so you can maybe take some time to view the downstream conditions, how to do a ferry manouver (upsteream ferry in particular is very useful to cross oover to the other side of the river if needed), some basic strokes like draw and sweep, how to read the river, and most importantly, how to assume the swim position for swimming in rapids and shallow rivers to avoid foot entrapment (you can drown in two feet of water in CI), and how to rig floatation bags in a boat - without additional floatation to displace water, a swamped boat is much more likely to broach and pin on rocks or bridge abutments or trees - goodbye boat and maybe a very long walk out; and you should install some kind of kneeling pads - you really want to be kneeling going thru CII as a beginner - it lowers your center of gravity making the boat more stable

reading books will give you a feeling for the “jargon” of whitewater boating - so if someone tells you you have to eddy out river right and scout xyz rapid, you at least have an idea of whta they are talking about.

one of the best things you might do is to join a local club - they often have training availbale, and will designate some trips as “beginner” so you could start out easy. It also solves the shuttle problem you would have unless you have two vehicles and your sons are old enough to drive, and you will see how other people are doing things.

having said all that, and agreeing with what all the other posters have said, I’ll admit to “just do it” as being my start in ww - me and dad just put the boat in on slow rivers and learned by doing, never having taken a class or read the books - and gradually working up to harder sections of river - generally those we could scout before hand, but not always. but we were very good paddlers - a lot depends on the skill and power of those boys as to what you can and can’t do

I might have given the first video a
class 1+, because of the length and wave size, and the risk of being knocked over by an inner-tuber.

I found the rapids above Zoar Gap to be very class 2-, very easy. I took the very technical but dry right side sneak route through Zoar Gap. It was like being a pinball and required some quick reactions. I’d like to go back and try the left side route sometime.

I didn’t know Railroad on the Esopus
… was rated a class III. I guess that puts my 2004 tandem swim out of Wenonah Sprit II into a little better perspective. I just figured it was because we didn’t bother scouting the whole thing. We made it 2/3 of the way through and then got surrounded by kaykers for the swim. They thought they were being helpful but all they did was block our vision while yelling, “You need to get off the river!!!” Finally we had no choice but yell back, “You need to get out of our way!!”


since you are wondering …

– Last Updated: Apr-11-12 11:57 AM EST –

...... what cl II looks like , then it's not a good idea to just end up being in it , especially with your kids .

You work your way up to running fast river currents , troughs , rapid water ... really bad idea in my mind to just jump right into it without experience and practice at handling your canoe . You work your way up in mastering the paddling (handling-steering) control as the water gets faster and faster , bumpier and bumpier . The faster the flow speed and the bumpier the rapids get , the more precision your control needs to be . When it goes wrong , it happens fast and then you are at the mercy of whatever is in the water like those rocks , strainers , sweepers and tons of other junk like metal , etc. .

Shallow rapid water makes the bottom closer to you , also those other things on the bottom are closer .

I think most of the special concerns one should be aware of have already been mentioned . I'll just tell you that those rocks in the river can be more than hard "like a rock" ... they can also be sharp "like a razor" .

It's more than possible to get a foot caught in a rock crag under water should you try to stand in shallow water when taking a swim . The foot gets caught , the current knocks you over , the waters weight and current hold you under and you may not be able to get your head above water again , maybe even a broken bone ... don't try to stand up during a swim in river currents until safe bottom to do so .

Should you flip and swim , don't let go of your paddle , you'll be needing it later .

And that reminds me , probably everything in the canoe that's not latched to it , and some stuff that is ... will take a swim to , and if it don't float - it sinks (goodbye) .