by Tom Watson
Each type of water: whether expansive oceans and lakes or meandering streams and rivers – have their own unique hazards that challenge the paddler. Some are natural such as currents, rip tides, rocks, reefs, narrowing channels, winds and myriad natural obstacles (surface and submerged). Other hazards are man-made (dams, weirs, spillways, structure abutments, stump fields, barge wake) that can also cause the flowing waters to act in ways that can be very dangerous to paddlers of all skill levels. Of these, arguable none present the diversity and intensity of hazards as do the flowing channels of water we call rivers.
One of the first of many river “hazards” we are introduced to as beginning paddlers is the current itself. Smooth, nondescript flowages of water can suddenly twirl and tumble causing disruptions in the surface and counter currents that can spin a boat around. We discover that rocks can create a wide array of challenges that disrupt the smooth water of passage. They can be giant granite monsters squatting defiantly right in front of us. They can be a string of boulders, clustered together in such a way so as to form a gentle series of riffles, or a continuous set of waves (like a corduroy roadway of water called a wave train). They can also turn the current into a churning cascade of turbulent water. Most often we learn to work our way through them, sometimes leaving submerged rocks decorated with telltale silver streaks from our aluminum hulled canoes.
We learn to “read” the river to tell us which course to take through a rapids such as the downstream pointing “V”-shaped flow of smooth water that indicates a clear channel through the rocks. Conversely we learn that rocks lying just under the surface causing that water to boil and tumble forms an upstream pointing “V” – a sign of caution for most – or an inviting challenge for the more seasoned and skilled paddler.