The other day I was reminded of my first trip to the Nantahala Cascades in 2001. The water was a little high and a large crowd had gathered at the first drop and was watching the boaters go over the waterfall. I watched my friends make two or three runs and then I decided that I wanted to give it a try. I had brought my gear up to the put-in and borrowed a boat (which I’d never paddled), but was unsure if I had the skills to navigate this section of whitewater. Finally, as it was getting dark, I worked up the nerve to give it a try and yelled to one of my friends to wait for me as he was about to put on for the last run. I’ll never forget his response – “No, Jeremy, you will die”. And then he got in his boat and paddled off. Very rarely are you confronted with such honesty.
Thankfully, stories like this aren’t that common. Very rarely are you told whether or not you’re ready to run a rapid. Most of the time you have to make that decision for yourself. This is one of the great aspects of kayaking, but also the most frustrating. How do you know if you’re ready to pull the trigger when you’ve never run that rapid before? Because no two rapids are identical it’s difficult to even compare one rapid to another. Just because you can navigate one class three rapid successfully, doesn’t necessarily mean you could navigate another one of entirely different character. If you find yourself struggling with indecision about running a rapid try thinking of the who, what, where, when, and why.
Who: Who are you paddling with? Are these people you trust, and do they have good safety/decision making abilities? Or are these people you just met at the put-in or are maybe lesser paddlers than yourself? You will certainly be more relaxed if you have confidence in your fellow paddlers to either show you a good line, or help you out if you blow the line.
What: What are the moves required of me in this rapid? Can you execute the moves required to run the rapid successfully? Are those moves in your wheelhouse? I have run very difficult class five rapids because the moves required were strengths of mine. I have also walked class four rapids because the moves required did not play to my strengths.
Where: Where are you? Are you on an unfamiliar river? Are you near civilization? The risks you might take on a rapid on a roadside run may not be the same risks you should take on a rapid in a remote canyon. This where could also apply to where you are on the actual river. For instance, the last rapid of the Middle Cullasaja is certainly a fun one. It ends in a small, but nice pool. Unfortunately there’s a two-hundred foot waterfall on the other end of that pool. That adds something to the equation. (A similar example might be Corkscrew into Crack in the Rock on the Chattooga.)
When: When is the right time to run this rapid? Do I feel good? Is my energy level high? Do I have butterflies or am I really nervous? Does today seem like the right time or should I wait for another time? In my example above at the Cascades, I was nervous, I was using a borrowed boat, and it was almost dark. It was not the right time - I would have failed the when criteria three times over.
Why: Why do you want to run this rapid? There is only one answer to this question – “It looks fun, I like the challenge, and I feel confident making the moves”. My friends and I often talk about a fun-factor to a rapid. If the rapid doesn’t look fun we won’t run it even if we know we can make the moves. (This is pretty subjective. Sometimes what looks like fun to someone, doesn’t look like fun to another.) You should never run a rapid because everybody else is doing it and you don’t want to lose face. You should never run a rapid to impress a girl (or boy). You should never run a rapid because someone is holding a camera. You should never run a rapid because you don’t feel like walking it. (I have proof from the Transylvania Community Hospital that laziness is not a good reason to run a rapid.)
I’m not saying that you have to answer in the positive to all these questions to run a rapid. Some, such as the what, may be more important than others, for example, the where. Making the decision to run a rapid is a lot like making a decision in any other aspect of life – you take a bunch of imperfect information and try and combine it to make the most well-informed choice.
Lastly, in this day and age of paddling videos, guidebooks, and the internet, chances are you know what rapids you’re going to encounter on a run. Don’t make up your mind about running a rapid beforehand. For instance, everybody knows that Bull Sluice is at the end of section three of the Chattooga. Don’t make up your mind whether to run it or not in the Food Mart parking lot in Clayton. Don’t make up your mind until you get to the rapid. This will allow you to enjoy the rest of the river relatively worry-free instead of worrying all day about one rapid at the end of the run.
In closing, if you’re looking at a rapid and you can’t decide whether to run it or not, don’t – chances are there’s a reason you feel so indecisive, even if you can’t articulate why.