Wade, Wade, Wade Your Boat…
By Tamia Nelson
November 22, 2011
Not long after I acquired my first kayak, I found myself on a fast‑moving little river in the eastern Adirondacks. It promised to be a straightforward run, and it was — at first. But halfway between put‑in and take‑out the river ran out of water. It was a little river, after all. And this happened at the worst possible spot, just as I was negotiating a sharp bend. The current was pushing me toward the cutbank on the outside of the bend, where a tangle of sweepers waited to enfold me in an unwelcome embrace. So I decided to "hop the ferry" out of trouble, pointing the bow of my kayak toward the very sweepers I wanted to avoid and backpaddling furiously. It worked, too. That is, it worked right up until the moment when my paddle stopped moving water around and started shifting rocks. My back ferry had taken me over a gravel bar in mid‑channel. I now had just enough water under my keel to float my boat, but not enough to allow me to control it. I didn't need a crystal ball to predict what lay ahead. I knew I'd soon be headed back toward the sweepers.
Luckily, after a few seconds of feverish indecision, I had the presence of mind to make a quick — if somewhat clumsy — exit from my kayak's cockpit. In no more time than it takes to write about it, I was standing in less than a foot of water, picking my way cautiously down toward the end of the gravel bar, one hand on my paddle‑cum‑wading‑staff, the other on my boat's stern painter. All was right with the world once more.
Looking back, I can't understand why I hesitated even a few seconds before abandoning ship. After all, I'd waded my canoe over washed‑out beaver dams and sandbars many times before. Not to mention all the days I'd spent wading trout waters, fly rod in hand. But for some reason I didn't connect wading and kayaks. The combination seemed unnatural. It doesn't seem that way today, however. Wading may lack the fluid thrills of river‑running under paddle, but working watermen have waded their boats around obstacles and over bony shallows for centuries. And the technique hasn't outlived it usefulness. In fact, it's worth considering the very next time a river runs out of water under you.
First things first, though, beginning with the obvious question:
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.
OK. We've talked about the times (and places) when you might want to wade your boat. But so far we've said nothing about technique. Let's remedy that.
How to Wade Your Boat
It ought to be pretty simple, right? And mostly it is. Check the water depth (and bottom) and then step out of your boat, keeping a firm grip on gunwale or painter. (The old saw about "one hand for the boat and one for yourself" applies here.) Kayakers will find this more awkward than canoeists, of course, and they won't have a high gunwale to grab. Still, the cockpit coaming makes a serviceable substitute. In quiet water, you can even lead your boat on a painter like you'd lead a docile horse. Moving water isn't so forgiving, however. Sometimes you can let your boat down ahead of you while you hang on to the stern painter. Often, though, you'll need to keep hold of the gunwale or coaming. But never, never, get between the downstream gunwale of your boat and a rock. The power of moving water has to be felt to be appreciated. And once you've felt it, you'll never forget it. Don't wrap any part of a painter around your hand or body, either.
Where possible, and always keeping the aforementioned cautions in mind, tandem paddlers should stand on opposite sides and ends of their boat when guiding it through the shallows. Mr. Pink and Mr. Orange — you may remember them from an earlier column — show us how it's done:
This affords the maximum degree of control, minimizing the likelihood that a slip or stumble by one paddler will lead to the loss of the boat. But when it becomes necessary to lift the boat over an obstacle, a different approach is required. Now both paddlers move away from the ends and toward the center thwart, until they're standing side‑by‑side:
Then, when it's time to get back in, Mr. Pink and Mr. Orange simply reboard, one at a time — in moving water, it's best if the paddler at the downstream end boards first — and paddle away.
Solo boaters aren't as fortunate as Mr. Pink and Mr. Orange. They've chosen to forsake the advantages of the buddy system for greater independence. In quiet water a solo paddler can emulate Charlie in The African Queen, hauling his boat behind him on a painter. Moving water is trickier — and much more dangerous for the soloist. Sometimes, if the current isn't too fast, he can guide his boat from the upstream end. At other times, he'll have to position himself near the center thwart, always being careful to stay upriver of the boat.
As my repeated references to the importance of not getting between your boat and a hard place in moving water suggest, wading isn't without risk. And while nothing can eliminate that risk entirely, …
A Few Common‑Sense Precautions …
Can help you keep the odds in your favor. First off, …
Dress for a Swim Wear your PFD. Always. In or out of your boat. Make sure it fits well, too, and don't be tempted to unzip it. Your feet also deserve protection. River shoes or sandals are de rigueur on fast water. They're also fine for still waters, though some paddlers will prefer wellies or high‑tech overshoes. Cold temperatures dictate wetsuits or drysuits, of course.
Watch Where You Put Your Feet I've already mentioned the problems posed by "bottomless" bottoms of ooze. But moving water poses a special danger. Riverbeds aren't uniform. They're scoured by currents, pocked with holes, and studded with rocks that range in size from pebbles smaller than your pinkie to boulders the size of bungalows. Those rocks are not your friends when you're wading. If your foot slips into the gap between two close‑set cobbles, and if the current then knocks you over while your foot stays wedged in the cleft, you'll find yourself in a good imitation of a leg‑hold trap. Such traps are usually employed in what are called "drowning sets," and that pretty much sums up the danger. Take it from someone who's come too close on a couple of occasions — drowning is not a pleasant way to go. So watch where you step. A fast‑flowing stream that doesn't even reach to your knees can sweep you off your feet in a second.
Be alert for other hazards, as well. Broken beer bottles, coils of barbed wire, tangles of monofilament, and treble‑hook lures — they're all out there, waiting for someone to stumble into them. Don't be their next victim. Better yet, collect the trash you find while wading and haul it out for proper disposal.
Moving Water is Powerful Yes, I've said this before. But I can't say it too often. If you're wading in moving water, you're at risk. Never forget that. Watch out for surf and rips on tidal waters, too. On the seashore, it's perfectly possible to be splashing in two inches of water one minute and swimming in six feet the next — and it's no fun at all to be tumbling around in dumping surf with a fully loaded kayak next to you.
That's Funny… I Can't See the River Ledges and weirs often create dangerous reversals, and the height of the drop is no indication of the danger. Another name for reversal is "keeper," and that says it all. Once you're in one, it wants to keep you there, and you'll spend most of the next few minutes underwater. Some ledge drops can be run safely, at least at ideal water levels. Others can't be run at any level. And there's no universal yardstick telling you which is which. You have to scout each and every one. The best rule of thumb? If it's not safe to run, it's not safe to wade. Line it, track it, or portage it, instead.
And finally, the most important safety tip of all:
If in Doubt, Take Out Wading looks easy, and it is. Until it isn't. And then it's too late. The moral of the story? If you're having second thoughts about wading a drop or an obstacle, don't. 'Nuff said?
Then again, there are many places where wading is as easy as it looks, and no hidden hazards lurk to hobble the unwary. And it's places like this where taking your boat for a walk is pure pleasure. Why don't you come on in? The water's fine!
Working watermen have been wading their boats through shallows and around obstacles for as long as there've been boats to wade. But wading is fast becoming a lost art. And that's too bad. It's not for everyone — or every boat, or every situation — of course, but when it works, it's often the best way forward. So the next time you find yourself with too little water under your keel, don't sit and curse your fate. Just wade, wade, wade your boat…
Related Articles From In the Same Boat
- "Get Out and Get Over! Doing the Beaver Dam Shuffle"
- "Tracking Your Way Up a River"
- "The Lure of Lining"
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