1. It’s all in the set up
Probably the biggest maxim in rafting, this applies not only when navigating down the river but to the trip overall. There are no services on the river, so if you find that you need something you haven’t brought, you’re pretty much out of luck. Thus, everything you need for the trip has to be planned, prepared, and packed beforehand. This is the most difficult part of the entire trip. If you’ve prepared and set up well, then once you get on the river, you’re free to sit back, relax, and enjoy.
When it comes to navigating around obstacles in the river, it’s all in the set up as well. Setting up well often means the difference between floating through peacefully with a few strokes of the oar and struggling with all your might to not end up beached on a rock, flipped over, or otherwise dumped in the river. If you’ve set up well but messed up everything after that, you’ll still make it through just fine in most cases.
2. Read the river
To set up well, you have to be able to read the river. From a glance downstream, good rafters can tell where the obstacles are, where the current is flowing, and where the river will want to take them. Even from far away, there are small hints of what’s coming: a river bend means that the water will probably try to push you into the wall of the bend, small tumultuous ripples indicate that there’s probably shallow water to avoid. Knowing these things in advance means that you can make small adjustments early on.
What happens if you don’t read the river? My dad is fond of telling a story from his second rafting trip on the Grand Canyon with my mom, when a big, brawny man on the trip came up to him and asked him to “slow down, you’re killing me.” My dad replied that my mother had done all the rafting that day. The difference was that the big, brawny man couldn’t tell where the fast moving water was and frequently rowed into eddies (pools where the water circulates upstream), which he had to muscle his way out of. And my mother? Well, she read the river.
3. Watch the downstream boats
An invaluable supplement to reading the river is watching the boats downstream to see where the river takes them and what they do. Downstream boats help to validate your assumptions (“Yep, there’s an eddy over there”) and reveal unexpected obstacles (“Wow, didn’t see that wave from the side!”). Learn from the moves and the mistakes of those before you, so you can be better prepared when it’s your turn.
4. Different boats have different strategies
However, don’t blindly follow the downstream boat, because it may have a different strategy. Big boats are harder to get moving and to redirect, but they also barrel through waves and are harder to flip. Conversely, small boats are easy to maneuver and can fit through tighter routes, but they are toast in big waves. For the same rapid, they might prefer to take two drastically different routes.
My mother rode her own light 12-foot boat for a portion of the Grand Canyon, and she nailed all the rapids until she followed a 18-foot boat through a moderate class 5 rapid. The rapid was much smaller and easier than ones that she had previously conquered, but the big boat went through the waves and so did she, and the big boat went through just fine, but she flipped.
Later on in the trip, she figured out that her best strategy in a small boat was to skirt along the side of a rapid and avoid the big waves altogether. She could do it in her small boat with her easy maneuverability, going places and performing moves that would be impossible for the bigger boats. Once she figured out the correct strategy for her boat, she was golden!
5. Scout big rapids
When there’s not enough time or information to formulate a plan of where to go and what to do, pull over to the side and scout. We scouted every rapid that was a class 7 or above, and went through all of them without a hitch. But if we had rushed into them without scouting first, there would have been some flips, a lot more swimming, and most likely some injuries as well.
So hike up to the obstacle to get a closer look, figure out your plan of attack along with some backup plans to keep just in case, and take the time you need to gather your bearings and strap everything down tight on the raft.
6. Don’t let your guard down
It’s not just the big rapids that you need to worry about, though. Small obstacles can cause havoc too if you let your guard down. Ironically, we made it through the big rapids just fine but had the most trouble when a boat high-sided (got pushed against a wall, so one side started to flip upward) and dumped two people in the water…at a small class 3 rapid. Thus, even if something is seemingly inconsequential or routine, don’t let your guard down and be prepared to react in event of an emergency.
7. Have back up back up plans and adjust quickly
No plan is complete without a back up plan… or five. Though you may have a preferred way of going through a rapid, you might get knocked in a different direction by a wave, come across an obstacle that you did not see, or encounter a number of other eventualities.
To protect against this, have back up plans handy. When my dad rowed into Upset Rapid (class 8), he had a plan of attack but lost his oar midway and wasn’t able to complete it. However, he knew from scouting the rapid that he could make it through the big hole (where the wave curls back in on itself and where you generally don’t want to go) if he powered through it. So he instantly shifted from plan A to plan G and got us through safely, though with a hell of a ride.
My dad knew what he absolutely had to avoid and what he might be able to tackle with necessary, as well as what he would have to do in order to accomplish it. But most of all, he adjusted quickly, which is ultimately what saved us from going for a swim!
8. Take momentum into account
When executing a plan, it’s important to take momentum into account. As per an analogy that my dad likes to use, bigger rafts are like cars on ice. If you row in a certain direction and then simply turn the raft, it doesn’t do anything until you start rowing in the new direction – the car will continue in the original direction because of its momentum. And to get to a particular location, you don’t want to row all the way there; instead, row part of the and let the momentum carry you for the rest.
If you take advantage of momentum, you can perform more complex maneuvers and expend less energy. But if you don’t take momentum into account, you could find yourself going further than you intended, and then having to spend extra energy to overcome the momentum and move in a new direction.
9. Row into the waves
Momentum is most definitely needed in the waves. If you don’t have enough momentum going into a wave, the raft will stall, the wave will push the raft sideways, and then the next wave will potentially flip the raft. It is difficult to row in the waves because you have to time the oar strokes with the wave crests or you’ll come up empty, but rowing is necessary to keep your momentum going. Deep in the middle of battle, keep fighting until you make your way out.
10. Use your power stroke
You can row the oars on a raft in two ways: (1) pushing, in which you push the oars away from you, moving the boat in the direction that you’re facing or (2) pulling, in which you pull the oars toward you, moving the boat in the opposite direction. The latter is considered to be the power stroke because you can generate a lot more power by engaging your legs, stomach, and back muscles when pulling, as opposed to only using your chest and arms when pushing.
In the middle of a struggle, we may be so busy fighting that we forget to use all of the tools at our disposal – in this case, the power stroke. There were a few times where my mother struggled to push her way out of an obstacle, and my dad yelled to remind her to turn around and pull instead. When you’re in the middle of something and it’s not working, remember to work smarter – with the power stroke – and not harder.
11. Indecision kills
One of the main reasons why people get in trouble on the river is indecision. “Do I go to the left of the rock through the rapids, or do I go to the right of the rock through potential shallows? Left…no right! No left. Wait actually righ—” and BAM you’re on the rock. In reality, you would have been fine either way, but instead indecision took you to the one place you couldn’t go.
Regardless of whether your plan is the best or not, commit to it. If you decide you need to make an adjustment midway, make that quickly, and commit to that. Just decide quickly, and commit!
12. Black side down, stay in the boat!
One of the members of our group chanted this mantra every time we got ready to tackle a big rapid. “Stay in the boat, black side (bottom of the raft) down! Stay in the boat, black side down!”
It doesn’t matter if you had to abandon plans A-D and completely blew everything that you tried to do, only getting through the rapid through sheer luck. If you made it through black side down, with everyone in the boat, it’s a success (although I guess you might also want to avoid punching a hole in the raft too). That’s not to say that there aren’t lessons to be learned and you shouldn’t try to do better next time, but celebrate your victory!