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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

The Art of Planning a Big Trip

Part 3: Troubleshooting a River

by Tamia Nelson

The day you leave on a Big Trip is, of course, a Big Day, and, if you've been following along with Farwell and me, that Big Day is getting closer. You've chosen your destination—or you've at least settled on a short list of alternatives. Now the work really begins.

Put the atlas you've been using aside for the moment, and get hold of the most detailed maps you can lay your hands on. These are almost always large-scale topographic maps. (If you don't know what a topographic map is, stop reading now and ask a knowledgeable friend to help you, or get hold of a copy of Percy Blandford's Maps & Compasses.) With these maps in hand—and you'll probably need more than one for a trip of any length—you're ready to get up close and personal with your hoped-for destination.

Paddling trips often involve a mix of river and lake travel, interrupted now and then by overland hauls—the portages, or carries, so beloved of canoeists. Rivers present different problems than do lakes. Before tackling a river, you want to know how steeply it drops, how much water it carries at the season you hope to paddle it, and where to expect falls and rapids. You also need to know where to find the portages around those falls, and around any rapids you don't want to run. Lake travel is somewhat more relaxed. Here you're going to be most interested in the orientation of the lake relative to prevailing winds, and identifying possible campsites, as well as finding the outlet or the start of the next portage. Put simply—too simply, perhaps—your first concern on a river is survival. On a lake, it's staying found.

OK. Let's assume that our Big Trip involves stretches of both fast water (rivers) and quiet (lakes). We'll check out the rivers first. Two things to realize at the outset: (1) even the best topographic maps don't tell you everything you need to know, and (2) things change.

I doubt that the Greek philosopher Heraclitus was a canoeist, but he was speaking directly to paddlers when he wrote that "you can't step twice in the same river." Spring floods, landslides, and folks with bulldozers can alter the course of a river in a matter of days. Rapids that have been marked on maps for decades can disappear forever, and new rapids can appear somewhere else.

The weather, too, can hold surprises. A big thunderstorm in the hills, miles away from where you're paddling, can turn a thin, technical stream into a raging torrent in a matter of hours. If you're on the river, you'll find that its whole character changes. Riffles disappear. Minor drops suddenly develop terrifying, boat-destroying holes and huge standing waves. You can even find yourself dodging uprooted trees. The thing to do when this happens, of course, is to get off the river—fast—and wait for the water to drop. That's easier said than done, sometimes. Flood waters also drown out many possible riverbank campsites.

There's a lesson here, too. Even if you've finished paddling for the day when the river rises, you aren't necessarily home free. Picture this scene: You're sleeping the sleep of the just in your tent, on a picturesque little knoll just a few feet above the river. You didn't even hear the thunder in the hills earlier in the evening. Now it's three o'clock in the morning. Suddenly, without warning, you waken to find yourself in the river. You're lifted up off the ground, and you and your tent—accompanied by all your gear—start running the river in ways you never before thought possible. It doesn't happen very often, happily, but even once is enough for most folks.

OK. A map, like a book, is out of date even before it's published. And a few inches of rain can make a big difference in the character of any river. What to do?

First, make the Big Trip on paper. Spread your maps out on a table, and follow all the rivers you plan to paddle from start to finish. Calculate how steep they are. Identify all the falls and rapids, and locate possible portage routes around each one. And don't assume that the map-maker knows everything; look for the topographic clues that tell you where rapids might be, even if they're not marked: places where the river necks down after a long pool, for example.

You're getting confused? You think I'm leaving a lot out? You're right. Map analysis of the type I'm recommending is a pretty complicated business, and you're not going to learn it from one short article. Get a good book. Until I find time to write it, the best primer I know of is the one in The Complete Wilderness Paddler, by James West Davidson and John Rugge. The chapter you want to read is entitled "Troubleshooting a River." Read it several times and do all the sample exercises. Then go back to your rivers and get started!

Too much work? There's an alternative. Marry a geologist and let her troubleshoot your rivers for you. Here you're on your own, I'm afraid, but Farwell tells me it's a good solution.

Verloren Hoop Productions 1999

Rivers flow. Lakes don't. That doesn't mean you can take them for granted. Join Farwell next week as he finds out just what it means to "stay found." In the meantime, we'd like to hear from you. Send your comments and questions to us at (No attachments, audio clips or family snaps, please!) We won't promise that we'll answer each letter, but we can promise that we'll read every one—and we will. 'Nuff said.

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