Friday, September 9, 2016

Rafting as a Whitewater Learning Tool for Hard Shell Boaters

This is our first full year running dedicated whitewater. We started the year by taking a clinic at Zoar in Charlemont, Massachusetts, on the Deerfield River. All I can say about Zoar is it isn’t particularly cheap -cheaper for kayaking, where they have much more competition-, but the canoe clinic was excellent with a student teacher ratio of 1:2 (boats). Everything from instruction to equipment to food was top notch. And the river, the Deerfield, is absolutely perfect for learning. The Fife Brook section has safe swims, no nasty hydraulics, pools at the end of most rapids and a mix of everything you could want in terms of river features as a beginner or even intermediate paddler. You can step it up by running the class III(IV) Dryway as well. Basically, Zoar has a great location. Being exactly 60 miles away from home and it flowing every weekend and many weekdays, it’s sort of become our training ground. You can say we've adopted it as our home river. In fact, about 8 years ago, it was our first whitewater run, so it's only fitting it's the place we actually learned what we are doing. 

The goal for us is to get to be competent class III paddlers in an open tandem canoe. With the ultimate goal of being able to do big unsupported wilderness trips where we paddle everything from big lakes to class II rivers fully loaded down, portaging our gear around class III sections that we run in an empty boat. The way to do that is run as much river as you possibly can, practicing all your skills until they are second nature. The cool thing about whitewater is you don’t need to run class IV rapids to work on class IV skills. You can do class IV moves in class II whitewater. In fact, I’ll often watch people “playing around” in Zoar Gap doing class IV moves, making the Class III Zoar Gap look like class I. It’s pretty amazing, and much more entertaining than seeing the carnage of people with lesser skills choose a straight line, cross their fingers and bomb down it. On the bright side, swimming Zoar Gap is another safe swim in the Deerfield, which is why there is such a variation of paddling skills seen going down it.

It’s that ability to slow a river down, to break a rapid down into sections, to turn a raging river into a chess game of preplanned moves  that differentiates those with some skill from those who just bomb down river like a gazelle running from a lion. Just because you can push really hard on the gas pedal doesn’t mean you are a good driver.

A lot of getting better is also running new rapids which force you to learn to read the river versus memorize the rapids. I can pretty much tell you the lines to run on the Deerfield Fife Brook section from memory. I also know the Sacandaga pretty well, well enough to know that one rock, the same damn rock that hides just below the surface at the left edge of a hole, has taken us for a swim on two occasions in an 16 foot river tripping OC2. On the flip side (no pun intended), familiarity equals comfort, and comfort equals a chance to practice new moves. Knowing where it’s ok to go for a swim makes practicing easier.

So where do inflatables come in. Well, I joked with my climbing partner that rafting (or inflatables in general) requires no skill, it’s basically a giant inner tube with paddles. And in some ways that might be true on the most basic of levels, however, especially paddling R2 (tandem raft) it does require a bit of skill. Not to mention, a 9.8ft raft that is only 6ft between the kick (rocker) handles more like a canoe than a commercial raft. The other issue is when you think of rafting you think of a guide piloting a 16-20ft boat that tees up big waves and rolls over anything less than a foot above the water. The reality is the raft guide is, in many cases, the only one on the boat that knows what they are doing, knows the lines, and steers the boat. When you run a paddle raft R2, you and your partner make the decisions and work equally as a team. Much like an OC2 (tandem open canoe). 

The pros of a raft (or most any inflatable)  are as follows:

  • It allows you to run harder rapids that might be pushing your OC2 skill level. A good option is to raft a new run before taking the OC2 out and see what it’s like, scouting out rapids, surf holes, and eddies. This is especially good on rivers that are read and run. Read and run class III might be pushing the limits of OC2 for most people, but it’s generally fairly tame in a raft.
  • It allows you to learn river dynamics and choose lines without the consequences of a swim always being there (although, it’s definitely possible to flip a raft in any class river, just a lot less likely. In fact, I’ve had a few people who were accomplished paddlers in hard shell canoes, kayaks and rafts tell me that they rolled a raft in the secondary rapids at the bottom of Zoar Gap, basically the class II+ section).
    A video posted by @mountainvisions on

  • Catching an eddy with a raft and a canoe are different in terms of angles, it still allows you to practice finding eddies for future runs in an OC. On wave train rivers these eddies might be your only chance to bail an OC (unless you have an electric bilge pump). Catching an eddy in a raft requires a steeper angle of entry and more effort, IMO (but that could also just be a lack of skills on our part) but the concept isn’t really any different. Basically if you can catch it in a raft, you can more easily catch it in a hard shell boat.

    • It allows you to practice ferries and surfing (which is basically just ferrying in place). Again, not quite the same as in an OC as you don’t edge the raft like a canoe. Angle and speed are similar. Angle, speed, edge are your 3 factors in a hard shell.
    • Sight lines on a raft are higher than even an OC (much, much, higher than a kayak or inflatable kayak). This gives you a different perspective on the water allowing you to look much farther ahead and make decisions at a slower pace. It’s like being able to see the future.
    • Both paddlers have unobstructed sight lines in a raft when paddling R2 vs an OC2/IK2/ K2 where the stern paddler has to look around the bow paddler.This also means both paddlers can learn from each other.
    • Small R2 size rafts (or other inflatables) take up less storage space and some will fit in the hatch/trunk of a compact car. Portaging a deflated R2 on a beach cart isn't all that hard.
    • Rafts are a great way to take out non paddler family and friends. I was able to run Zoar Gap @ a high 1000cfs (III+) perfectly in an R3 configuration with my two 13 year old siblings, with me paddling off the back doing most of the steering, although, in a 3 man raft, everyone still plays a big role and my siblings did an amazing job.
    • Rafts are a great way to take the dog down river. This was actually the main reason we got the raft. I saw people in IKs taking their dogs down river and I was already feeling guilty for leaving ours at home every weekend. I feel like next year we'll be comfortable enough to run class II with Colvin in a OC2, but my worry was if we rolled it in some rapids this year that he'd become fearful of the whitewater and we wouldn't ever be able to take him. He actually really loves the raft and is protective of it. Barking at neighbors if they approach it. He gets excited when he sees it. 
    • A raft offers much more bang for buck than an IK.  It’s compact but holds 850lbs worth of people or gear. Two plus K9 and compact overnight gear is no problem. Or you can get 3-4 adults and dog in it. Or 4 adults (usually two couples come in under 850lbs). Definitely a lot of value for the money. You’d need at least 2 tandem inflatable kayaks for 3 adults and a dog. And probably 2 kayaks for a dog and two adults since IKs rarely hold over 400lbs and a lot of space is used by the legs being extended.

  • As far as cons:

    • You might get lazy. Although the basic techniques are the same in a canoe, kayak, IK/IC, or raft, taking balance, edging and bracing out of the equation for too long is a great way to end up swimming a lot. Most OC flips happen when the wrong edge is engaged. Canoes feel tippy but the reality is they have a lot of ability to edge, we’ve had our OC2 gunnel to the water and still recovered with a good brace.
    • A large raft generally requires a trailer.
    • Rafts aren’t cheap.
    • Rafts can be heavy
    • Rafts require a little TLC, especially get them dry for storage
    • Rafts don’t paddle long stretches of flat water particularly efficiently. They downright suck as paddle craft in the wind.

    From my perspective, the speed that everything is happening and putting it all together while in motion is the learning curve of an OC. You don’t get all that long to decide and react and in an OC2, that decision making and reacting has to be in unison. As you get better and more comfortable things slow down, but they pick back up again when you step up the difficulty.  Field of vision is somewhat limited  in a tandem canoe, and taking on big wave trains can lead to a lot of water entering the boat and an eventual swim on rivers without distinct eddies. Swimming isn’t bad per se, it usually means you were doing something hard enough to make you think, make you maneuver, or get in over your comfort zone. It also means you probably learned something, like crossing currents while ferrying between eddies,  but it’s also a chance for something to go wrong or to lose gear.

    Considering I’m not  much of an aesthetics guy, watching a skilled OC1 dance around rapids is one of the most beautiful things to watch. OC2’s rarely look that good -although, olympic slalom shows how good you can look-, but too me, a canoe is the ultimate mode of water travel. It was once the choice mode of commerce and the utility of a canoe is still far superior to anything on the water. Inflatables and closed shell kayaks have their advantages, but the open canoe is still king of the waterways when you factor in versatility.

    So if you see me out there on a raft, no worries...OC for life! In the end it’s all about getting on the water; raft, IC/IK, canoe or kayak!

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