How to Run a Rapid

two rafters stuck on a rock on the Salmon RiverThe Middle Fork of the Salmon River has been called the Disneyland of Whitewater. The waters here twist and churn for over a hundred miles in the mountain wilderness of Idaho. The rapids are fairly continuous and can be some of the most challenging of all the western rivers. Permits are applied for through the lottery in January. Private boaters have about a 1 in 30 chance to secure a permit and a whitewater trip of a lifetime.

As with all rivers, the difficulty of the rapids often depends on the water flow. Springtime often brings high and fast water flow that can make rivers much more dangerous than they are at normal flows. Low water can make rapids more difficult to navigate, increasing the danger of pinning a raft or kayak on a rock.

The Middle Fork has a boat load of class II, III, and IV whitewater.

boaters stuck on a rockThe difficulty of rivers in Idaho is rated on a scale of class one to five (I, II, III, IV, V). Class five (V) water is often life threatening, four (IV) is very difficult and often risks injury or loss of equipment, three (III) is moderately challenging to the experienced boater, two (II) usually indicates safe fun waves and easy maneuvering to avoid obstacles, and one (I) is fairly flat moving water.

There are several ways to prepare for running the rapids in a particular river segment. Government agencies and private publishers have created maps, books, and packets of information that locate and describe the major rapids of most whitewater rivers. Much of this information is available from libraries near the whitewater river. Word of mouth information is also valuable and can be the most current source of information. Sources include the river ranger of the administrating government agency, local whitewater retail stores, other river runners, and vehicle shuttle companies. Commercial videos of whitewater rivers and their rapids are also available for purchase or for rent from river-oriented outdoor stores.

a boater stuck on a rockVelvet falls, a class IV rapid on the Middle Fork of the Salmon has capsized many an inattentive boater. It's smooth as velvet at times with a three-foot drop that hides its sound and visual presence. Experienced boaters always know where they are and what rapids are ahead. One way of knowing what's around the bend is by constantly monitoring your progress down the river with the aid of a river map. Staying oriented is the key. Once you lose your position it is much harder to determine where you are.

Identify major drainages coming into the river and easily identifiable landmarks like historic buildings, trails, bridges and general land features. If you are technologically oriented, you could even use a GPS position locator. More practically, use you watch to determine your position. Time your first half hour and hour of travel. Note where you are and how far you have traveled each time. If you went 1.5 miles the first one half hour and another 1.5 the second half hour, you have a good estimate that your progress in similar water flow for the next hour will be 3 miles per hour. At a rate of three miles per hour, you'll be real close to Velvet falls (around mile five) in an hour and forty minutes from the start of your Middle Fork trip.

boaters sitting on a large rock near the river scouting a rapidUnless you are an experienced river guide, all class IV and V rapids should be scouted for the best route and for potential dangerous obstacles. Even class III rapids should be scouted if you are not real familiar with them. Pull out well above the head of the rapid on the side of the river that gives the best view of the rapid. Hillsides are great for seeing the whole rapid, but a walk down along the river gives you a real life view of what to expect at water level.

Plan your route through the rapid. One useful technique is to determine where you want to be at the end of the rapid and then back plan your route to the top and where you want to enter the rapid. Where you enter a rapid and how you position your craft at that point is often the critical moment in a successful run. If you start out poorly, things generally don't get any better for the rest of the run. Have your route through the rapid memorized. Visualize yourself going through the rapid making all the required moves to follow your planned route. Use landmarks that are readily identifiable from water level to note your progress through the rapid, or to identify when you have to make critical moves. If you can't quite figure out a safe route, odds are that if you wait a while someone else will come along and run the rapid before you and show you an acceptable route.

boaters going over rapidsRunning a scouted rapid is 90% preparation and 10% duration. If you've done the scout well and the rapid isn't outrageously difficult, you merely follow your plan to a successful run. River runners often scout for a half hour and then run the rapid in a minute. Of course the boater has to have the skills to make the craft do what is necessary to get through the rapid. Here again preparation is the key. Whenever you can, practice doing difficult maneuvers in easy rapids to build your skills. Know how to avoid obstacles, and what to do if you are about to hit one. Learn how to spin off rocks, high side, punch through holes, ferry, and catch eddies. And if you are a beginner, always follow the route of the boat in front of you if they make a clean run.

May the force be with you and may the river gods bless you with good luck and safe boating.

(Idaho river runner Jim Acee prepared this report on how to scout a rapid.)

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