Tuesday, August 21, 2007

River Awareness: The Big Picture

Part one of a three part series.

NOC Instructor training on Wilson Creek
Photo: Jon Clark

Whitewater paddling is a sport with a curious mix of personal and group elements that makes it very dynamic on many levels. On the one hand you are captain of your own kayak, making decisions and executing maneuvers based on your experience and ability while on the other your paddling mates are looking out for you encase you have any problems. Looking out for your paddling buddies is just part of a larger awareness that we call river awareness.

One extremely important concept about good river awareness is being able to take in the big picture while still being able stay focused on what you are doing and what is happening to you. What I want to focus on in this first article is the big picture that surrounds good river awareness. A great way to start is to remember that having good river awareness does not begin when you put on your spray skirt; it begins about the same time that a decision is made to go and paddle the river. There are many things that need to be thought over before committing to running a river, including, thinking not only about yourself and your personal skills, but how do these relate to the group you are paddling with and the run you are thinking of doing. Rather than start with the decision about whether you are ready for a run, ask yourself about the other people who are paddling that run; Is a typical group on this particular run super strong or super weak? Then think about your own particular group and their strengths and weaknesses. Is your group going to be one of the strongest out there and benefit the rest of the paddling community or are you going to be a disaster waiting to happen? After you feel confident about these decisions, ask yourself how you feel about the run. By joining this group are you going to make it stronger or weaker? When all of these factors have been considered, only then can you begin to make a wise decision about your upcoming river trip.

NOC Kids Camp learning about good communication
Photo: Jon Clark

Thankfully the sport of whitewater paddling is a very dynamic sport that is constantly changing and keeps us thinking very progressively. Unfortunately, this makes it very hard to make a statement that is inclusive enough to relate to the entire community and that will endure for any length of time. The above process will always have to be modified slightly to fit your personal situation but as a base line starting point it helps to keep the big picture in a much more easy to understand perspective.

There is nothing like having good backup on the river!
photo: Jon Clark

Another very important skill that is mandatory for creating good river awareness is effective communication within the group, both on and off the river. Again, good communication starts long before you arrive at the put-in, it starts from day one as a group is being formed. Communication sometimes can become awkward when factors like self-image, peer pressure, self-imposed goals, and community standards begin to have an effect on ones ego. It is important that each individual within a group of paddlers feels comfortable talking with each and every other member of the group about anything they need. This lets EVERYONE'S thoughts and ideas flow smoothly through the group so that when a decision has to be made, it is done effectively and concerns the entire group. Before a hard run I always ask my group members a few standard questions: How is everyone feeling today? Is anyone excessively tired or sore? Who has a throw rope and what other gear do they have? If you are on a more remote run or there are very few people around, ask, who has the car keys and where are they located? If anyone is feeling a little nervous, I ask him or her if they want to follow me for a while until they are feeling more comfortable. This needs to be done so that the entire group can hear what is being said. Good pre-trip communication can have a huge affect on the outcome of an incident.

There are so many factors that go into having a well-planned, safe day out there on the river but even the smallest detail will sometimes save a life. There are handfuls of other very important skills not mentioned here, but good group awareness and communication are two examples of skills that we ALL need to strive for excellence in.

Coming soon! River Awareness: Tools for Assessment

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