A beginner’s guide to scouting rapids

How do we judge whether or not we’ll “run” a rapid? There’s some terminology to know before diving into this post. Whitewater Terminology explains what I mean when I say thing like “holes”, “strainers” or “standing waves”. Rapid Classes explains the basic classification system for rapids based on difficulty. Please skim these two posts if you’re unsure of something.

Note: Regardless of the level of whitewater you’re paddling, please always always always wear a helmet and lifejacket.

So how do we decide if the rapid is something we can run? There are a few things we keep in mind:

Planning Ahead

Popular rivers (like the Missinaibi, Bloodvien and Coopermine) have detailed guidebooks explaining what features there are along a river. By using the descriptions, you’re able to predict the likelihood that you’ll be able to paddle through, rather than portage. This helps estimate how much of the river you can complete on a given day. The guidebook may have suggestions on the best route to take down a set of rapids.

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Taken by my guiding partner, Connor Furneaux (Noire River, 2017)

Your Group

Single-handedly, the most important criteria for judging a rapid: your group! Keeping your group safe is your priority so you need to consider them when making decisions about rapids. And this goes past just knowing their paddling skills. Ask yourself these questions:

  1. What time of day is it? By mid afternoon, energy levels are falling and your group may not have the strength or focus to run a difficult set. Same can be said if it’s been pouring rain and windy all day: uncomfortable paddlers don’t always make the best decisions when going down a rapid. When it doubt, portage it out! (Or if it’s getting late, choose a campsite upriver of a big set).
  2. Leaders – how are you feeling at the time of the set? One trip in 2017, after the hardest portaging of my life, I knew I didn’t have the strength or focus to safely guide my group through the last rapid (I could barely grip my paddle, let alone go down a Class II technical) which was standing between us and our intended campsite. We ended up staying a makeshift site at the end of the portage. Not ideal, but definitely the safer option.
  3. How does your group feel about the set? Conducting a blind vote can reveal any insecurities you group has. It’s good to encourage participants to get out of their comfort zones (maybe switching up boat groups for the run, or walking through how they’ll stay safe even if they tip), but you should never force someone into a situation they feel is unsafe or frightening, especially with children.

Depending on the class, you can use different scouting techniques, which I’ll outline below.

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Perhaps unsurprisingly, I don’t have any photos scouting from the boat directly. Here is a photo of me explaining different features to my campers (Missinaibi River, 2017)

Scouting from the Boat

When the rapid is a Class I or a short Class 2, you may be able to scout from the boat (if it is safe to do so). Although it is common for the paddler to stand up in the canoe to see through to the end of the rapid, it is important that you do this safely. You don’t want to tip before even starting the set! The most important thing with scouting from the boat is that you have an unobstructed view all the way to the end of the set. That way, if someone were to tip, you know exactly where they’ll end up.

Scouting on Shore

Anything bigger and you should get out of the boat upriver from the set (typically at the portage trail) and take a look. First, walk all the way to the end of the set, scanning for obstacles. You’re looking for any red flags that would indicate a no-go. What constitutes a red flag often depends on your group.

Looking at a feature, here’s how I determine if it’s a red flag: If someone tipped upstream of them, what would happen? If I don’t feel confident I could get them out a feature safely, we don’t run the set. A big one for me are strainers – I don’t mess around with those. I very rarely run a set with any big strainers because of how dangerous they are. Get under a piles of logs and the water pressure will trap and drown you.

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I couldn’t find a good photo of a strainer from my own photos, so here’s one from Montana River Guides (https://montanariverguides.com/2017/03/swiftwater-rescue-class/)

Red flag means back to the start – we’re portaging. If I’ve gotten to the end of the set with no red flags, I work backwards up the set determining the “line”. The “line” is paddler talk for the route you’re aiming to take (though keep in mind this won’t always go as planned!)

We use this acronym to remember all the things to look for when scouting: WORMS.

Water – Where is the water flowing? Where is the bulk of the water? Look for the direction of the most forceful water (it’s where your canoe would go if you weren’t paddling).

Obstacles – Look for anything that will get in between you and the end of the rapid. Watch for holes (the recirculating water can trap someone), standing waves (if they’re big, they can tip or swamp a boat), strainers (obstacles like trees let water through but not a boat or person). If someone were to tip above an obstacle and you wouldn’t be able to rescue them, don’t run the set.

Route – What pathway will you take down the rapid?

Markers – Look for objects (markers) that will remind you where you are in the set (like big boulders, tress, bends).

Safety – If you’re paddling bigger water, I’d highly recommend doing a whitewater rescue course so you know how to do proper upstream and downstream safety. For smaller and safer sets, you can get away with informal safety (going down one at a time, picking up paddlers if they fall out, etc.)

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Photo by my guiding partner, Connor Furneaux (Noire River, 2017)

Running the Rapid

Once we’ve determined how to get down the rapid, we’ll start paddling. If the rapid is complex enough that we’ve had to scout it from the shore, I’ll typically have my group go down one boat at a time. Either I or my guiding partner will go down first (we’re the most experienced so the least likely to tip, and then we can paddle to pick up anyone that’s fallen out during the set).

If you’re serious about paddling fun rapids regularly, I’d highly highly highly recommend doing an introduction to whitewater paddling class or a whitewater safety course. You will learn so much about doing rapids safely, which means you’ll be able to do bigger and better sets. Please get in touch if you’re interested in taking your whitewater skills to the next level – I can help you find a course that matches your level and experiences.

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This is one of my favourite sets I’ve ever run. There’s a great campsite adjacent to it, so we took a rest day here to play in the rapids with empty boats (Photo by Connor Furneaux, Noire River, 2017)

I’ve included quite a few photos from my guiding partner, Connor, because he took so many great ones on our trip. You can check out more of his stuff here.

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