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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Early and Provident Fear

The Case for Scouting

By Tamia Nelson

November 6, 2007

If you want to paddle rivers without mishap, you'll have to be a good scout. I'm not thinking of Baden-Powell here. I'm taking my cues from Edmund Burke, the 18th-century statesman who uttered a memorable one-liner that bears directly on the subject — "Early and provident fear is the mother of safety." Think about it. You've got to get your boat down (or up) the river without swamping, capsizing, or broaching, right? That means piloting a safe path among the rocks and waves, while being pushed in many directions by contrary currents. It's not an easy job. And your work begins when you're still safely on shore.

Why is this? Well, there's more to boat control than developing a bomb-proof brace, perfecting your ferry, and mastering the eddy turn. To get through any rapids safely and efficiently — safety and efficiency are inextricably linked, on the water and off — you need to make the current work for you. No paddler, however fit, can fight a river for very long and win. The river, any river, is always stronger than you are. But getting the current on your side starts with reading the river. And reading the river involves scouting. Much of what needs doing here can be done from the seat in your boat. Much, but not all. When a river drops abruptly in a series of cascades, or when you find your view of the water ahead blocked by the crest of the next wave while you're still in the trough of the last, it's already too late to scout. You need to know the Big Picture before you wet your blade.

Often, however, you can only get that Big Picture when you're standing on shore. The view from your seat is too circumscribed. Nor can you assume that things haven't changed since your last trip. (You've probably heard this one before: "Assume makes an Ass of u and me." It's never truer than when you're on moving water.) Rivers are always in flux. Water levels change with every rain. Spring floods pluck refrigerator-sized boulders from the bed and roll them downstream, while also toppling shoreline trees (and sometimes whole sections of riverbank) into the water at the outsides of bends. Gravel bars come and go. And human activity takes its toll, too. Bridges occasionally collapse, logging slash blocks channels, and bulldozers remodel whole rapids. Even our trash creates hazards. Once, many years ago, when paddling a creek that was just coming down from floodwater highs, I was more than a little surprised to find a wrecked Volkswagen upside down in mid-channel. My ferry got a workout that day!

The moral of the story? Whenever you're on moving water …

Expect the Unexpected

After all, the only way to know for sure what lies around the next bend is to see it for yourself. And as I've already noted, the seat of your boat is not always the best vantage point. Want an example? Check out this photo:

Clear Sailing?

It shows the view downriver from my pack canoe. With my butt planted on the seat, about all I can see of the river ahead is a straight line cutting across my field of vision — a sure sign of trouble to come. At best, a steep drop. At worst, a waterfall. There are other clues, of course. I can only see the tops of the smaller trees in the near distance, for example. This alone should give any thoughtful paddler pause.

But what, exactly, lies ahead? Is it a steep drop or is it a waterfall — a lively if challenging run or a suicide chute? One thing is clear, at least. It's time to head for shore ….

Looks Lively!

OK. I'm there. What do I see? Even my first glance downstream is revealing: in the distance the river bends left, while "white horses" hint at rapids just below the drop.

I need to know more. So after hauling my boat up on shore — the left-hand photo in the pair below shows my take-out; the right-hand photo, the rocky spine just downriver, from which I got my first view of the water ahead — I scramble downstream for a better look.

Stepping Ashore

And I don't have to go far to get what I want. Here's the Big Picture:

Stepping Down

Now all (or almost all) is revealed. There is no waterfall, but the river drops abruptly in three steps, none of which could be seen from my first landfall (yellow arrow). The initial step (green arrow) is relatively low, but very bony — too bony for even a lightly loaded pack canoe. The second step (blue arrow) is higher. Four feet high, to be precise. Moreover, there's a strong reversal at its foot, and the third step (pink arrow) follows immediately afterward, with an even more pronounced reversal below. It's not a good bet for a solo paddler in a tiny open canoe. So I decide to portage around all three steps in one go. As luck would have it, there's a shallow bay just downstream. It will make a good put-in. Happy ending!


Of course, the river doesn't often give you such a strong hint of (possibly unpleasant) things to come as it did in this instance, and many scouting trips involve far more arduous work than a little casual rock-hopping. Still, no matter how sweaty the scout, it's always worth the trouble. Even the best topographic maps can only hint at all the surprises in store for a river traveler. In fact, scouting could be defined as discovering …

What You Won't Find on the Map

Or in the guidebook. Or on the tiny screen of your GPS. To put it another way, scouting is an exercise in reading between the lines. The contour lines, to be exact. Let's go back to the my three-step drop for a minute. Here's how Three-Step looks on the USGS 1:24,000 quad:

Mapping the Course

The contour interval is 20 feet, and the river flows from right to left. (How can you tell? Contour lines always point upriver.) The ruler shows the scale. And Three-Step is located in the middle of the green circle.

First impressions? To begin with, there's no sign of Three-Step on the map. Secondly, there's a very steep cascade just upstream, where the river falls some 60+ feet in less than a fifth of a mile. If you don't think that sounds like much, think again. It is. Even on a bike, a six-percent grade means a mighty fast downhill run. On a river, in a boat, it means one hell of a ride. In fact, the limit for most open boats, in any but the most skillful hands, is a drop of around 50 feet in a mile, a grade of about one percent — and then only if the drop is more or less uniform.

Let's take another look at the map. Suppose you assume — I warned you! — that it tells you everything you need to know about the river, and that the steep cascade shown on the map is followed by a long, fast-flowing moving pool. An exciting run, certainly, but no problem for an expert like you. Next, suppose you put in at the foot of the cascade, ignore the evidence of your own two eyes, and don't bother to scout when you lose sight of the river ahead. What happens next? Well, you'll miss Three-Step entirely, for one thing. Except, of course, that you won't. The river will carry you swiftly over the first drop and right into trouble. Luckily, it's not a very steep drop. Maybe you'll escape with only a few new gouges on your boat's hull, enduring reminders of the importance of scouting from shore. But what if your luck runs out? The reversals in Three-Step are powerful, and they extend right across the main channel. It's no place for a swim. How long can you hold your breath?

There are many other things that the map doesn't show. The dense thicket of second-growth woodland below Three-Step, for instance. Scouting from shore won't be so easy down around the bend, I'm afraid. But it's still a Very Good Idea. And just how do you know when you ought to scout? That depends. Obviously, you'll want to pull ashore and eyeball the way forward whenever the river drops out of sight, like it did at Three-Step. More generally, if you can't see what lies ahead, whatever the reason, it's time to get off the river and check things out. If you hear the roar of rapids ahead, scout. If a still, small, warning voice is whispering in your ear, scout. In short, if you're in doubt, no matter what the cause, scout. Some days you'll spend more time scouting than paddling, but it's time well spent. After all, it's better to be scratched by brambles and tired out from hiking than to find yourself tumbling in the plunge pool below a falls, or fighting to stay upstream of your swamped boat in a chaos of standing waves.

Scouting isn't just for rivers, either. It's often a good idea to scout an unfamiliar portage, carrying only a light load on your first trip across, particularly if the portage is seldom used or poorly marked. A single windstorm can make even a well-maintained portage impassable, as can an enterprising family of beavers, and it's not easy to bushwhack with a canoe perched on your shoulders.


Let's sum up. If scouting from shore is often the only way to get the Big Picture, then scouting itself is part of an even bigger picture:

Being Prepared

It begins with having the Ten Essentials with you at all times. But there's more to avoiding "Deliverance moments" and worst-case scenarios than this. The most important essential is the toolbox in your head. You need to know how to stay found. And you also have to be prepared to put down your paddle from time to time and walk along the shore, for miles if need be. But this doesn't have to be a hardship. It can be fun. It just might save your boat someday, too. Or your life. This, in a nutshell, is the case for scouting.

Do your homework, of course. Study the maps and guidebooks, and talk to other paddlers who've been where you want to go. But once you're on the river, always expect the unexpected. That goes for local rivers, too. What you don't know can hurt you. So heed the wise words of Edmund Burke: "Early and provident fear is the mother of safety." Whenever you're in doubt as to what lies ahead, don't dither and drift. Scout, instead. Get the Big Picture from shore, before you put your boat and yourself in the frame. Then relax and enjoy the ride. You've earned it!

Copyright 2007 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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