What's the Right Time to Abandon Ship?
The decision isn't as simple as it seems. Every so often a hapless angler, wading a familiar stream, takes a step too far and goes for an unplanned swim. Not all such accidents end happily, either. Which is why boaters who are thinking about taking a walk in the water need to think twice, weighing risks and benefits carefully. That said, here are the times when wading makes sense:
- When you run out of water. You've got enough to float your boat, but not enough to paddle.
- When a beaver dam or other obstruction blocks your way.
- When you get hung up on a rock or ledge.
- When wading will get you around a rapids without portaging.
That's the executive summary. Now let's take a closer look at each of these scenarios.
Where'd the Water Go? As my experience on the fast‑flowing little Adirondack river demonstrated, it's not hard to find yourself in a place where your boat is a plaything for the current but your paddle is powerless to help. Water like this cries out for a pole, of course, but poling is a skill that has to be practiced, and in any case, few paddlers have poles in their boats these days. Kayakers face even more difficulties. Classic poling technique requires that you stand in your boat, and that's not easy to do in a kayak. You can pole a kayak while seated, however, using two short poles like ski poles, but this is a very arcane art indeed. Not many kayakers have mastered it — and no, I'm not one of them. Which leaves wading as the only alternative for most of us.
Dammed If You Don't Beavers are drawn to the same rivers that attract canoeists and kayakers, so it's a rare paddler who hasn't found her way blocked by a beaver dam at some point. But these dams don't often pose a problem, since a combination of wading and lifting will usually get you on your way in a minute or two. (Once again, kayakers will have a somewhat harder time, if only because getting out of a kayak can be a bit of a production.) A couple of caveats: Beaver‑gnawn branches can have sharp points. Beware! And don't try wading around flow‑through obstructions like fish weirs and barbed‑wire fences. These strainers can kill.
Are You Hung Up? Grounding your boat is a common problem, and it's not limited to whitewater. Reservoir stump fields are a frequent flatwater hang‑up. But if rocking or prying won't free you, maybe wading will. Are you paddling tandem? You're in luck. Often it's enough for just one paddler to get out of the boat. (But check the depth before you take that first step!)
River Walk or Portage? Any way you look at it, portaging is hard work, especially when you're paddling a heavily loaded boat down a pool‑and‑drop river, with unrunnable rapids every mile or so. Often there's no choice: Portaging is the only prudent option. But sometimes you can wade a rapids that you can't run, especially if you combine wading and lining (or tracking, if you're headed upriver). It's worth considering.
Want to see some examples of places where wading makes sense? I thought you might. Here are three:
The left‑most photo shows a narrow stream winding through a swale. Beavers are active in the area, and if you want to explore the stream you'll end up wading over or around their dams. Some paddlers like to power over low dams like these. I don't, though. For one thing, it's unnecessarily destructive. And you can damage your boat, too. Like I said earlier, beaver‑gnawn branches are sharp.
At first glance, you might think that the middle photo promised clear sailing, or at least easy paddling. But don't be deceived. It shows the marshy inlet of a lake. Depending on water level, you might be able to paddle through into the open water beyond. But if the water is low and your load is heavy, you'll probably find yourself wading, instead. Don't forget to check the depth before you get out of your boat, though — and probe the bottom, as well. The pictured inlet has a hard sand bottom, but it's not unusual to find oozy mud under your boat. You might as well try to walk on water. (This is a problem in many beaver ponds, as well.) The good news? If the bottom is more liquid than solid, you can probably paddle right through the ooze. Just don't expect to go fast.
The last photo won't hold many surprises for river runners who like to extend their season into summer, or who frequent dam‑controlled waters. It's a prototypical rock garden. If the water were higher, it would be a lively Class II run. But not today. The rock‑to‑water ratio is too high. You might be able to wade it, however, particularly if your boat is lightly loaded. To avoid finding yourself trapped in a bouldery cul‑de‑sac, though, you'll need to scout the route in advance.