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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Anatomy of a River

BIG Water

By Tamia Nelson

June 3, 2003

It's been more than two months since we began exploring "my" river. When we first visited the headwaters in late March, snow still blanketed the ground. A month later, when we returned to scout the whitewater stretch, the snow was gone, but the river was running nearly bankfull, swollen with spring rains and meltwater from the mountains.

Now it's June. The hardwoods are clothed in the sap green of new leaves. And the weather's drier. Every week or so, a brief afternoon thunderstorm rumbles down the valley, but the rains come less often than they did in April and May. The river's changed, too. The headwater stream is just a trickle, and rock gardens have bloomed where towering standing waves and swirling eddies once reigned. The roar of the whitewater has hushed to a whisper. What a difference a month makes! The water still beckons, though. It's time to head downriver, time to get acquainted with the big water near the river's broad mouth. (See C in the sketch map below.)

A River Runs Through It

Wow! BIG water is right. Scouting from shore isn't easy here, is it? Even binoculars can't show us what lies behind the islands. We need to get higher than this riverside trail. But how? Not everyone has an ultralight or a hot-air balloon in her pack, after all. Are we licked before we've begun?

No. An eagle's-eye view of the river is as close as the nearest map or chart. We've talked about the value of maps before. Now, as we move from whitewater to big water, it's time we took another look. Maps — that's topographic maps, of course — give you the big picture. They won't show you each hole or ledge in a rapids (they can't even be depended on to show every waterfall!), but they'll almost always help you find your way through a maze of islands near a river's mouth. Nautical charts will tell you even more, pinpointing the locations of dredged channels, sunken wrecks, and aids to navigation like daymarks, buoys, and lights. Not all inland waters are charted, but you should be able to buy charts for any waterway that carries much commercial traffic.

If both maps and charts are available for your big river, which should you get? That's easy: one of each. It's not either-or. Canoeists, kayakers, and small-boat sailors will find both topographic maps and charts useful. Maps give you a feel for the lay of the land, help you stay found, and make identifying possible campsites easier. Charts (mostly) tell you what to steer clear of. Shipping lanes, for instance, are not healthy places for paddlers to linger and take in the sights. When you have to cross one, do so quickly, and only after making sure there's no large vessel in sight. (At 12 knots, an ore carrier takes less than five minutes to travel a mile. How far can you paddle in five minutes? Remember this whenever you're tempted to say, "Hell, that ship's waaay too far away to worry about!" It isn't.)

Here's the deal. Scouting big water isn't like scouting rapids. It involves a lot of map and chart work. Of course it's always good to eyeball any part of a river you're thinking about paddling. Many trips have gotten started when somebody got stuck in traffic on a bridge and looked down for the first time. This can be a real "Eureka!" moment. Still, it's best not to head off for new horizons right after work. Get out the maps and charts first.

Let's see what this sort of armchair scouting involves. Even my small-scale sketch map should set off a couple of warning bells in your head. Check out the places where two rivers join to become one. Two rivers mean roughly twice as much water — discharge in geology-speak. Twice the discharge means a wider, deeper, and (often) faster river. Faster? Yes. Most rivers are steeper at their headwaters than at their mouths, but that doesn't mean the average speed is greater in the steeper sections. In fact, many rivers speed up as they go along. That big and apparently slow-moving river you saw from your car this morning will look a lot faster from the seat of your kayak. Don't miss your take-out!

More water also means that more stuff goes along for the ride. Big water carries a bigger sediment load. And why does this matter? Easy. Each time the river slows down and takes a breather — on the inside of every bend, for example — it gets lazy and drops some of its burden. The result? Gravel bars, islands, and beaches. River mouths are often pretty congested places, particularly when you leave the dredged channels. And that's not all. Rivers don't just carry sand and gravel. They pick up anything that comes their way. Trees that floodwaters toppled far upstream are swept downriver, only to ground later on a sandbar or shallow. Most of the time these snags align themselves with the current, but sometimes they don't. Then they create dangerous mid-river strainers. I've had near misses with junked cars, too. Imagine drifting into somebody's derelict Corvair. It doesn't bear thinking about.

Let's go back to natural features for a minute. Take a look at those islands in mid-river. Islands mean channels, but not all channels are equal. One channel may offer an easy ride. Another may end in a ten-foot ledge. Check the map before making your choice. Even then, proceed with care. A lot of unpleasant surprises can hide in the interval between contour lines. Don't hesitate to get out on an island — assuming it's not posted, of course — and eyeball both alternatives before you reach the point of no return. Better yet, ask somebody who's been down the river before. Maps and charts are wonderful, necessary things, but they simply can't compare to local knowledge.

Now let's take a closer look at our big river.

Big Water!

As you can see, we're getting near to a small city. Call it Dodgeville, if you like. It's adjacent to Section #3 on the map. Warning! Rivers are magnets for people, even in cities. We're likely to meet anglers waiting patiently along the bank for the lunker of a lifetime. (Watch out for their lines.) Out on the river, however, we'll find that folks are less patient. Water-ski towboats, jet-skis, and runabouts will be roaring along, and their drivers won't always be watching for canoeists and kayakers. This is a good place to observe the most important Rule of the Road: the Gross Tonnage Rule. You won't find it in any law book, but it's often the unwritten rules that are the most essential. Commercial watercraft bear watching, too. They're not likely to shoot touch-and-goes in the hopes of wetting you down, but they've got schedules to keep, and a kayak looks mighty small from the bridge of a container ship. The Gross Tonnage Rule still applies. When you're the smallest (and slowest) thing on the water, your best course is to stay out of everyone's way.

OK. Put the map away for now. (You did note the locations of the bridge and the two public boat-launches, didn't you?) Let's continue on down the riverside trail, beginning just opposite the first tributary (Section #1). Before we start walking, though, look across the water to the place where the two rivers meet. Mighty lively, isn't it? Use the binoculars to get up close. What do you see? A line of large waves, gradually trailing off downstream. There are a few ominous-looking slicks, too, some which seem to be revolving. Whirlpools, almost certainly. They don't look very big from here, of course, even through the binoculars, but they'll look a lot bigger from the seat of your canoe. Boils (areas where water wells up in a sort of vertical eddy) and whirlpools are best avoided.

What's going on? In a word: turbulence. You'll see the results whenever two currents meet, or the slope of a riverbed changes abruptly from steep to gentle. On small streams, the entrance of a tributary is marked only by a short stretch of "fuzzy" water — a line of ripples, tiny boils, and miniature whirlpools. When two BIG rivers meet, however, the scale of the disturbance reflects the energies involved. Any meeting of two waters warrants caution.

And speaking of caution: On big water, wind makes waves. It's almost dead calm today, but if a steady breeze were blowing down the valley, wind-driven rollers would add to the confusion below the confluence of the two rivers. Rollers are usually well-behaved, but whenever two systems of waves meet, interesting things happen. (That's "interesting" as in "May you live in interesting times," a venerable Chinese curse.) Sometimes, when the peak of one wave coincides with the trough of another, the waves cancel each other out. At other times, though, peak matches peak and trough matches trough. Then the waves feed each other. Small waves grow larger, big waves grow huge, and wave troughs deepen into canyons. The moral of the story? Everyone who paddles big water needs to keep a weather eye on the wind at all times.

Boaters on big rivers also need to rethink the way they maneuver their craft. The snappy eddy turns and tight pivots that are the hallmark of the whitewater ace have only limited applicability in the wide open spaces. This is where the ferry really comes into its own. If you don't often use it, it's worth practicing. Big water is also no place for solo boaters. The middle of a wide river can be a very lonely place when trouble strikes. Always paddle in company.

Let's move on. And as we walk, take a look up in the trees from time to time. You never know what you'll see. I've found coils of barbed wire, the bloated carcasses of dead deer, and even whole car bodies perched high in the branches of trees along this river, legacies of the most recent flood. I can't think of a better illustration of the power of water, can you?

We're approaching the second confluence (see Section #2 in the map). The river's even wider here. Time to bring the binoculars into play again. See the gravel bars poking up about the water? Right. Now look around for places where the water dances — where small waves are breaking over a large area for no apparent reason. This probably marks the location of a submerged bar. Maybe you'd float over it. Maybe not. Approach it with care. If you ground, it's usually possible to walk your boat over a bar, but if you're caught broadside and then lean upstream, it's swim time for sure.

The bridge is coming into view ahead. And there's the first outboard runabout, with commercial traffic — I can see an ore carrier and a container ship — visible downriver, near the Dodgeville docks. I usually take out at the first of the public ramps, the one upstream of the bridge. If you decide to continue on to the second ramp (Section #3 in our map), however, be very careful. The eddies below the bridge abutments are powerful, and the eddy-lines are broad and turbulent. These are not play spots. And watch out for winds, too. The bridge abutments funnel the air as well as the water. If the wind is gusting up the valley, you'll have trouble holding on to your hat (and your paddle!) when you pass under the bridge. You may also be surprised by large waves breaking upstream. That's what happens when wind-driven rollers meet an opposing current. Good thing there's no tidal influence here. Tidal currents would add yet another set of problems.

Let's cross the road and take a closer look at the river downstream of the bridge. See the whirlpools spinning off from the margins of the eddies below each abutment? Like I said, these eddies aren't play spots. The commercial docks are mighty busy, too. It's no place for a small boat. Wow! That tug certainly throws a wake, doesn't it? Whoops! I didn't realize the spray would fly this high! Look how the tug's wake bounces off the seawall and then meets itself. There's a hell of a smash when the wake collides with its reflection, isn't there? It's like two trains hitting head-on — what wave gurus call clapotis. Sounds just like a giant hand-clap, too, doesn't it? I wouldn't want to be out there in the middle of it, that's for sure. Let's step back before we're soaked.

It's time to call it a day, anyway. We've come a long way from the beaver pond where we started in March. It's been fun, hasn't it? And I'm really looking forward to paddling the big water above the bridge again. Now, though, what do you say to a coffee at that waterfront café over there? My treat. I wonder if they've got any Apfelstrudel…?

Copyright 2003 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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