Friday, May 18, 2007

Scouting Concepts

Twice in my kayaking career I have uttered these words while scouting, “I’m not sure where to go, I guess I’ll just fire it up down the middle”. The first time I gave myself a concussion. The second time I broke my neck. Some lessons I seem to have to learn the hard way. Thinking back on the past seven years of boating, I realize that I’ve learned a lot of lessons the hard way. I’ve also been fortunate enough though to boat with some of the best boaters in the country on a regular basis. The lessons I learned from watching or talking to them were lessons that I learned the easy way. The following advice on scouting is a combination of my experiences and the experiences of boaters far better than myself that I’ve paddled with.

So when do you scout? For many people, the decision to scout is directly correlated to their vision. How much of the rapid can you see? Is it completely blind, partially blind, or can you see the entire line from the top? Advanced boaters will feel confident eddy-hopping down a partially blind rapid, getting information and vision in piece-meal format. Beginners will want to see the entire rapid before they attempt to catch any eddys that will commit them to the rapid. The only way they can achieve this is by gettting out of their boat and bank scouting. The willingness to boat scout instead of bank scout is one of the greatest differences between beginner/intermediate boaters and advanced boaters.

Suggestions for getting more comfortable boat scouting: We see people all the time on on the Nantahala that have run Nantahala Falls one or two times yet still want to get out of their boat to look at it before they run it again. There is nothing wrong with this approach. If you want to become a more comfortable boat-scouter though you’ve got to fight the urge to get out of the boat, and instead trust that you can catch the eddies required to open the field of vision as you get closer to the final drop. This often means that you must paddle slower than you’re used to. Similarly, to catch eddies easier you need to identify them earlier . To do this you will have to expand your vision to not just include your direct line of travel, but also your periphery and whats downstream.

Remember, the advantage to bank scouting is that you get to see the entire rapid before you commit. The disadvantage is that the rapid will not look the same from boat level as it does from bank level (especially at Nantahala Falls where the scouting platform is fifteen feet above the water). It is therefore important to pick discernible landmarks that you will be able to recognize from your boat.

So let’s assume you are bank scouting a rapid. There's a term in psychology called “thin slicing", which says that as human beings we are capable of making sense of situations based on the thinnest slice of experience. There’s a great article on this in the newest issue of Rapid Magazine which I would encourage everyone to check out. To paraphrase, we are capable of taking immense amounts of experiential knowledge and condensing it into a manageable chunk for decision making. We often don’t even realize that we’re doing it. How many times have you looked at a rapid and decided to run it or walk it just because you had a “gut feeling” or felt good/bad about it? That gut feeling is your brain taking all previous boating experience and knowledge and repackaging it into a simpler, more condensed form. Beginner boaters don’t have a lot of experience which makes it difficult to “thin-slice”. The brain has nothing to draw upon and slice up. Intermediate boaters have the experience but get hung-up on every little piece of information they see – what’s that tiny rock going to do, is that hole sticky, which one of the five eddies should I catch? Advanced boaters can often decide within a matter of seconds whether they will run or walk a rapid – that’s thin slicing.

Suggestion for quicker/more confident decision making when scouting: Obviously the more experience you have the easier it becomes to make the decision to paddle or walk a rapid. While you’re building that experience though, try to focus less on every piece of the rapid (paralysis through analysis) and more on the one or two moves that you will be required to make. Look at the big picture.

Fear is always a part of scouting. Face it, you wouldn’t be getting out of your boat to look at the rapid if you weren’t to some extent fearful. Most people agree that some nervousness is good, but how do you decipher between what’s fear and what’s just butterflies? It’s a difficult question, and one that I can only answer for myself. When I’m scouting a rapid that makes me nervous/fearful I’ll first ask myself if the required move is one that’s in my wheelhouse – one that I’m good at. Making a driving right boof is not something I am always confident doing, which is why I walk “Go Left”. Making a driving left boof is a move I can make 99% of the time, which is why I run “Sunshine”. You’ll be less fearful if the rapid’s crux move is one that’s in your wheelhouse.

Suggestion for determining fear levels: Before I get back in my boat I’ll shut my eyes and see if I can still “see” the rapid, and the moves that will be required to execute the chosen line. If I can’t see the rapid with my eyes shut then I’m not just nervous – I’m scared. My brain cannot filter the fear and fixate on the task at hand – and so I walk, even if everyone else is running it.

Scouting is about experience and confidence. One of the best ways to gain experience and confidence is to go first or lead rapids you have not run before, assuming they are within your skill level. If you feel that your boating has plateaued or stalled out, leading rapids is a great way to take your boating (and scouting) to the next level.


office said...

Herm and Rob,
I am looking awfully indecisive in the photo. I miss you guys.

Natedog (Nahikian)

Chan said...

Thumbs up for Rob!

Herm said...

Nate, your indecisiveness was understandable. That's clearly a big class 2 rapid you were staring down. We miss you too, Herm