arly in May in my first full season as a whitewater paddler, more years ago than I care to remember, I was one of a group of eight canoeists and two kayakers heading for the upper Hudson and 17 miles of lively Class III rapids. Our destination was a challenging mix of big waves and rock-garden mazes. It couldn’t be described as novice territory, but I wasn’t worried. Though I’d been paddling whitewater for less than a year, I was no longer a novice. I already had hundreds of miles of wilderness river under my keel. Moreover, Charlie, the guy who’d put our little group together, was one of the best paddlers I’d ever known. I trusted his judgment, and I was looking forward to the day’s fun. When we stopped to scout the rapids from a highway bridge just upstream of our planned take-out, I could barely contain my excitement.
The Scouting Imperative
Keeping Things in Perspective
By Tamia Nelson
March 25, 2008
Charlie didn’t disappoint. The stop turned out to be a master class in reading water. From a vantage point 30-odd feet above the river, Charlie showed us how to find the line through the last big drop of the run. It was a virtuoso performance, and I was mesmerized by the chute immediately below the bridge. It flowed swiftly, a long, dark, glassy tongue of water, with no riffle or swirl to suggest the presence of any rocks hidden beneath the surface. Best of all, there was a big eddy on the left, a perfect place to catch your breath, bail, or just watch the next boat slide down the chute. Piece of cake. That’s what I thought, anyway. So my attention drifted away from Charlie’s detailed deconstruction. I looked upstream, instead. But I saw nothing to shake my confidence there, either. Sunlight played on the riffles of what looked like an easy drop. Admittedly, the sun’s glare kept me from seeing very much, but I wasn’t worried. The little that I could see only reinforced my earlier conclusion: this run was going to be a piece of cake.
But the river had the last word, as the river always does, and by the time our party snaked its way through the final rock garden and headed under the bridge, I’d endured a baptism by total immersion, receiving in the process several forceful lessons in the importance of keeping things in perspective. Although “self-similarity over changes in scale” wasn’t yet part of my working vocabulary, I’d already learned a lot about the dynamics of moving water by studying rainwater riffles in my driveway. Now I’d gotten a look through the other end of the telescope, so to speak, and the view was a trifle unsettling. If a trickle of water flowing between my feet could exhibit all the dynamics of a major river, the opposite was true, too. Distance could reduce big waves to mere ripples, at least in the eyes of a careless observer, and I’d played the dunce’s role to perfection. The Hudson didn’t let me forget it. For years afterward, I couldn’t hear anyone say “piece of cake” without wincing.
All of which brings me back to the importance of…
Keeping Things in Perspective
No one else was on the river when our group stopped at the bridge to eyeball the drop. If other paddlers had been playing the rapids, their boats would have helped my still-inexperienced eye appreciate the size of the waves and the power of the water. Moreover, I hadn’t learned how height—even the modest height of a highway bridge—can “flatten out” waves, turning towering haystacks into mere molehills. The upshot? As I discovered on that long-ago day in May, if you want to avoid misadventures in moving water, it’s not enough just to look at the river. You have to learn to see, and this means taking both perspective and scale into account. Distance and elevation distort true proportions. Such perspective-related distortions can often make judging spatial relationships all but impossible, and this makes planning a route through an unfamiliar rapids very difficult indeed. But there’s good news, too. If you’re on your guard, you can make the necessary mental adjustments to correct your eyes’ small deceits before they lead to big problems. And the scale provided by familiar objects, from people and boats to trees to ducks to wading dogs, can be a big help in recalibrating your senses.
Nor is scale the only tool in your toolbox. Height is your friend as well as your enemy. It’s nearly impossible to scout a rapids from the river’s edge. For one thing, unless the river you’re running is a tiny mountain freshet, you can’t see what’s happening in midstream without gaining some altitude first. If you climb on a boulder or scramble a little way up the bank, however, you’ll see the whole picture. (Just don’t climb so high that you’re looking straight down.) And one more thing: when you’re scouting, the view upriver is a lot more helpful than the prospect downstream. Whenever your eyes “go with the flow,” the gradient of the stream works against you, and even modest drops can conceal unpleasant surprises. The moral of the story? To scout a ledge or a maze of half-submerged rocks, walk downriver and then look back upstream. Suddenly, all—or nearly all—the river’s secrets will be an open book. Something important was lost when most river-runners stopped running rivers both ways.
Now let’s revisit a couple of drops in The River, the same river that formed the backdrop for an earlier column. And as you follow along, keep a sharp lookout for the yellow arrow. It plays an important part in the story.
The View Ahead
A Walk on the Wild Side
Upriver or down? Which is it? A hint: look carefully at the middle distance. See the line across the river? It’s a ledge. So we’re looking downstream. And if you think you might want to try running the ledge, you’ll have to know what lies beyond it. So let’s walk downriver and scout.
Not too helpful, eh? We’ll need to do some rock-hopping to get a closer look. Maybe we’ll grab a little altitude in the process, too. It certainly wouldn’t hurt.
Low and Dry
OK. That’s better. And there’s the yellow arrow in the distance! First, though, let’s sum up what we’ve learned so far. The River is low. (As you can tell by the hint of color in the trees, the photos were taken in the autumn.) The nearest drop is too bony for anyone but a determined boat-wrecker to run. It’s no go on the left, in short.
Time to see if our luck is any better over on the right side of the river.
Well, maybe. It’s still pretty bony, but it looks like there’s a bit more water on the right. Furthermore, it’s now obvious that the yellow arrow marks a second, concealed ledge, invisible from upriver. (The green arrow shows where we left our canoes, while the red arrow identifies the location of the first ledge—the one that got us out of our boats to begin with.) We still can’t tell if there’s enough water to float our boats, though. We’ll have to get even closer to answer that question.
Now we’re getting somewhere at last. The second, hidden drop seems to be the critical piece in the puzzle. And it looks like there’s plenty of water. Maybe there’s too much, in fact. The reversal below the drop could be ugly. I’m not sure it’s a good place for our pack canoes, even if they are filled with float bags. That said, it can’t hurt to get real close, can it? Not if we’re careful, at any rate. (Always keep your PFD on when scouting, just in case!)
Oh, well. Are you feeling lucky? I’m not. I’m not really hankering for a swim today, either. There’s a three-foot drop here (the red bar is just about three feet high), and there’s more froth than air at the bottom. The wave guarding the exit from the hole looks pretty gnarly, too. No problem for a creek boat, to be sure, but not much fun in a pack canoe.
I think I’ll carry the whole stretch from top to bottom. What about you?
The rivers will soon be flowing fast and high in Canoe Country, and many whitewater boaters can’t wait to start chasing the runoff. The maps and guidebooks have already been pulled out of the drawer where they’ve spent the winter, and a whole lot of planning’s going on. But while maps and photos are invaluable aids, they can’t tell the full story. Smart paddlers always scout the routes they’ll run, up close and in person. There can still be surprises, of course. That’s why it’s important to keep things in perspective. You’ll be might glad you did.
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