Summer whitewater paddling is in full effect in Richmond. No longer turned away by cold temperatures and high water levels, James River Park System parking lots are packed and the river is busy.
Blessed with easy river access and quality urban whitewater, local paddlers will soon have brushed off the dust. Undoubtedly, paddlers will begin seeking new challenges. Those who normally paddle at Huguenot Flatwater might want to give the class I-II Upper James (Pony Pasture to Reedy Creek) a try. Those who normally paddle the Upper James might give the class III Lower James (Reedy Creek to 14th Street) a try. And those who normally paddle the Lower James might find themselves making the drive to other more challenging rivers. Exciting stuff.
So, how can we make sure these new whitewater experiences go as smoothly as possible?
Early in my whitewater paddling career, I found my myself standing precariously on a boulder that overlooked a jumble of rock and irregularly breaking waves that together formed a steep rapid. Wide eyed, I tried to study the rapid again and again, searching for a safe line through the maze of water and rock. No luck. As I picked up my kayak and began the short portage around the rapid I embarrassingly recalled the fact that minutes earlier I was sitting in my boat contemplating if this rapid was really worth taking a look at.
That day I learned a very important whitewater paddling mantra. When in doubt, scout. The simple act of parking your boat above a horizon line and walking down stream to evaluate the rapid is an invaluable tool that every paddler should use. Ask any professional kayaker and they will tell you that no one is ever too good to scout. That said, scouting is a skill. Not knowing what to look for, one could easily spend 15 minutes scouting a rapid, with 75 percent of that time devoted to blankly staring at a big scary boulder in the rapid. I dare say that this same person just might just find himself rather wet and boatless, camped out on the same boulder moments later.
W.O.R.M.S. is a whitewater scouting tool that I have learned to use so that I can evaluate rapids effectively and relatively quickly, without getting overwhelmed or distracted by unnecessary details. So, when it doubt, bring your W.O.R.M.S. to scout.
Scouting ahead of time can help you avoid this.
Water: Ask yourself, “What is the water doing?” and, “Where is the water going?” Those who are hydrologically literate will probably be able to quickly pick out river features such as eddies, downstream currents, and waves. And even more importantly they will be able identify how different river features are interacting within the rapid. Meanwhile, the untrained eye might feel overwhelmed and see nothing more than splishy-splashy rushing water going through some rocks. But, fear not, untrained eyes! Based on the paddlers I know, reading whitewater is not rocket science, it just takes a little time and intentionality. Little tricks like throwing a stick (not a log) in above the rapid and watching where it floats will provide beginner paddlers a good visual and an indication of where the river wants to push us.
Obstacles: Ask yourself, “If I don’t paddle at all, and just let the river’s current guide me, what obstacles will I encounter in this rapid?” and “What consequences could come with encountering those obstacles?” Based on those questions, I normally break obstacles into two categories, water obstacles and other obstacles. Water obstacles could include waves, breaking waves, eddy lines, boil lines, and munchy holes. Most notable in the other obstacles category are rocks and wood, but we could find ourselves considering everything from other paddlers to bridge pylons. Needless to say, obstacles can vary widely in character and hazard level. One paddler’s “yeehaw” wave could be another’s “oh-no” wave. Observe and assess accordingly.
Route: Ask yourself, “What path do I want to take through this rapid?” If you are used to thinking in terms of ball sports, this step is the equivalent of calling your shot. For this I always try to imagine myself in the rapid, starting with basic considerations such as boat position and paddle strokes, and eventually consider more advances concepts such as changing boat angle and the effects of the waves on my boat. With that in mind, remember to consider the difficulty of the rapid. Routes for class I and II rapids are often straightforward and require little maneuvering. Where as a class III and IV rapids will likely require advanced maneuvering, not just advanced confidence.
Markers: Ask yourself, “What can I see from the shore that I will not be able to see from the seat of my boat?” and similarly, “What can I see from the shore that I will be able to see from the seat of my boat?”. One of the biggest mistakes in scouting rapids is to not consider the change in point-of-view that occurs when you walk back to your boat. Suddenly you find yourself disoriented, visually groping for sight of waves and rock that moments ago were so obvious from your shoreline perch. To avoid this, simply search for markers that can be seen from both water and shore. For example, you might want to avoid a hidden shallow rock in the middle of the rapid which can not be see from the seat of your boat above the rapid. Well if you did things right you would have noticed that a single red leafed bush is on the shore perpendicular to the rock you wish to avoid. Now rather than searching for the hidden rock, you just have to spot the obvious bush and time your paddle strokes to avoid the marked obstacle. It’s my experience that this is a much more effective approach to scouting than the traditional return to raft and stand up like a prairie dog in search of hazards while floating towards the rapid.
Safety. Ask yourself, “If things go awry, how can I make sure that I stay safe?” Hopefully the effort you are putting in up front by scouting will pay off and your rapid experience will be free of swims, but remember, we are all in-between swims. So, for starters, never underestimate the value of the whitewater swimmer position in which feet are facing downstream and your nose and toes stay out of the water. Beyond that, safety plans can be as simple as knowing to swim towards the left shore if you end up out of your boat, but they can also be more complex and involve positioning paddlers with appropriate training and rescue equipment on the shore or below the rapid.
At the end of the day W.O.R.M.S. is just one tool among many that can help inform the decisions that we make while paddling whitewater. Even on the James River, a river that many local paddlers have nearly memorized, it will always be worth making the time to scout rapids. Whether you are driving slow in the right lane on the Lee Bridge evaluating the river on your way to the put in, standing in a crowd of strangers above Hollywood Rapid before running it for your first time, bushwacking toward a rapid’s roar on a remote river, or detouring from you normal bicycle work commute to get a glimpse of Pipeline Rapid when the river level changes, it’s important to remember that none of us are too good to scout. Add W.O.R.M.S. to your tool box and keep staying safe out there.