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 destinationor 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 handand you'll probably need
more than one for a trip of any lengthyou'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 haulsthe 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 simplytoo simply,
perhapsyour first concern on a river is survival. On a lake, it's
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
riverfastand wait for the water to drop. That's easier said
than done, sometimes. Flood waters also drown out many possible
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 tentaccompanied by all your gearstart 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 email@example.com. (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 oneand we
will. 'Nuff said.