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Lessons learned from low water paddling

Have you ever been set on running a particular river and you show up to the river only to find that the level is below optimal? Sometimes there are bail-out options to a larger river, or a dam release or another option with more water. But other times you may have driven a good distance and are fired up to paddle a run only to find it didn’t get as much rain as expected, or the snow melt is less than expected because of a cool cloudy day, or the dam only released at half flow, or whatever scenario you can imagine. In these instances you often are faced with the option of not paddling or paddling at a low water level.

Growing up on the east coast as a paddler I ran into this phenomenon at a young age. I have an affinity for moves that require precise boat control. I enjoy technical lines and reading water to find the smoothest flow and avoiding unnecessary bumping of rocks. I can even remember at a young age playing a game in shallow rapids with my friends and siblings to see who was able to bump the least rocks with their boat while running shallow, easy rapids.

I say all of that to say this. I LOVE paddling! And when I am faced with the choice of paddling a run on the low side of the flow range OR not paddling at all – I will almost always choose to go ahead and paddle for the sake of being in my boat and enjoying the water and river. There are times when a river is just too low to be passable or find consistently floatable channels in which case I may have to bail.

I have noticed that for me personally I find many rivers to be passable and even enjoyable at flows that are slightly or even significantly below the suggested minimums.
*Disclaimer: This not to say you should ignore beta from guidebooks, websites, experienced paddlers etc. But that with careful exploration, over time, you may find your own skills and tolerance of river levels may be different than others.

This past spring my lovely fiancé (now wife 😀 ) Annie, and I decided we really wanted to get out on our new local river in Colorado (Clear Creek). We had an amazing winter with a lot of snow and were anxiously awaiting the run-off to get paddling season started. We paddled our local section of river the first day the creek went over 100cfs, which is well below most peoples minimum. We were jonesing to paddle after not having water all winter. We had a great time and with careful line selection did not bump too many rocks. I’m including video below to show some of our fun from this awesome day on the water in our Jackson Antix’s!

If you are like me and choose the “paddle at a low flow” over the “not paddling at all” option I challenge you to try a couple things:

1) Choose your lines carefully and slow down – Most of the time when a river is low the water is moving slower, which gives the paddler more time to make precise adjustments in their line choice.

2) Practice your skills and strokes – Precise line adjustment requires a diverse set of skills and strokes. Try practicing different ways of moving your boat around a rapid by avoiding as many rocks and shallow spots as possible. Try using back ferries, sculling and hanging draws (to slip the boat sideways).

3) Practice reading water – low water typically exposes more rocks and features in the river. Take time to study the water from upstream, parallel, and downstream of rocks, ledges, holes and other features and pay careful attention to how different features look from different angles and how the water interacts with different types of rocks and features in the river. The more time you spend studying white water and noticing what the water does and how it interacts with you and your boat, the better you will become at reading white water.

4) Use the water to your advantage- My goal when I paddle is to be smooth and let the water do as much work as possible for me. Try to use waves, holes, diagonals, eddies, pillows and other water features to your advantage. Let the water help you move your boat where you’d like to go whenever possible. Try doing ferries between closely spaces eddies by using only one stroke into a stern draw to control boat angle. And ensure you are leaving the top of the eddy and letting the boat surf across the wave or diagonal coming off of the rock.

5) Have fun!!! Kayaking is supposed to be fun. If you can spice up one your favorite local runs by practicing some of these skills and challenging yourself then that’s what it’s all about!

Happy Paddling 🙂