Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Advice: 5 Tips for Touring a River in a Kayak

If you own a touring style kayak like I do, you are "restricted" to bodies of water large enough to accommodate 14-17' length boats. I put "restricted" in quotes because large bodies of water (lakes, the ocean, bays, etc.) are often anything but restricting in terms of area (conditions may be a different matter). You have plenty of room to turn, plenty of choices in direction, and plenty of depth beneath you. When it comes to rivers, however, those factors can be absent for some or all of the trip. That is why you should carefully choose where to put your touring kayak into a river. 

Rivers come in many forms - wide, narrow, fast flowing, slow meandering, fresh water, salt water...the list goes on. Dams may be present, tides may influence conditions far upriver (read my post Paddle Trip: The Merrimack River - from Rocks Village to Merrimacport), and even the cleanliness of the water can be an issue. How steep are the banks? Do you have anywhere you can get out of the water, or out of the way of boat traffic or the path of a floating log? For instance, kayakers sometimes brave the locks that grant access from Boston Harbor to the Charles Rivers, providing a unique urban kayaking experience. I have to admit, though, the thought of being in a lock, waiting for the water to rise, next to a 25' yacht gives me a sense of trepidation. I'd sure hate to get squeezed against the lock wall by a larger boat drifting in my direction (that doesn't mean I won't try it someday, though 😏).

There's a lot to consider if a river is on your wish list for paddle trips. That being said, a river can offer unique experiences that other venues cannot. You can follow a meandering river upstream into forest or farmland, and get a completely different perspective on areas you drove by or hiked through dozens of times before. Animals are often plentiful at river banks or in the water - deer, birds, turtles, fish...even alligators, manatees, and wild pigs in Florida. If the river is flooded beyond its' typical banks, you might get access to areas you otherwise could not paddle. A few years ago, Tim (see my post An Unexpected Adventure) and I paddled the stretch of the Concord River that flows past the Minuteman Statue and the Old Concord Battle Ground (map here). Paddling around that monument on still, flooded river water was an experience I won't soon forget. Later on the trip, we were able to paddle among flooded hardwood tree trunks - something more usual in cyprus swamps down south. It was a fantastic trip, and an example of the surprises that await you around each bend of a river.

A kayak trip on the flooded Concord River in Massachusetts
Paddling the Concord River

Here's a few tips to help plan your river adventure:

1. Select a river or tributary wide enough for your kayak. If your kayak is of a touring style, choose a river wide enough to comfortably accommodate your boat sideways from bank to bank with enough clearance to turn fully in the opposite direction. Otherwise, you might have to get out on the bank, and lift/muscle your 'yak to turn it around before getting back in.

2. Choose a stretch of the river with calm waters. If you want to run rapids, then get a creek boat and a whitewater paddle and take the time to learn properly. Whitewater kayaking is a discipline unto itself, and is not to be taken lightly. There are serious safety concerns that require proper training and planning (read my post on Riptides and Currents). If you're not prepared for that, then scout a nice flat section, do your research to avoid rocks, dams, and choke points - and enjoy a leisurely exploration.

3. Be prepared to portage. "Portage" means, basically, to carry your boat. If you're paddling a shallow river, and hit a spot without enough water to keep from bottoming, then you'll have to get out and lead your kayak, or even carry it, to a deeper section. If you're not capable of doing that, then it's best to turn around and head back.

4. Paddle upriver first. Starting your trip by paddling upriver first will get the hardest effort done when you're at your freshest. Then, in the worst case, you can drift back downstream with the flow. I haven't always followed this advice myself, but trust me, on a long trip, it's sure nice to have the option to float back.

5. Go where the river leads you. Sounds simple, right? But what I mean is that rivers were the highways of this country before we had paved roads, and eventually paved highways. There's a really good chance the river you paddle was navigated in canoes by native peoples long before Europeans showed up. Even after we did, rivers were used as sources of industrial power, trade routes, water for agriculture...they were the lifeblood of our land. When you paddle a river, you are re-tracing history. You can travel them for a unique perspective on a city (like this tour in Chicago), or an exploration of a quiet, dark woods under overhanging branches, or to hear the wind shimmering through marsh grass on a brackish marsh river. 

Rivers can provide a great alternative to ocean paddling in the bumper seasons (see my post 5 Tips for Paddling in the Bumper Seasons) when ocean winds can get uncomfortably cold, or in the heart of summer when access to ocean side parking can be difficult. They offer another facet to your kayaking experiences, and a way for you to see the world you thought you knew with fresh eyes. I can remember slowly drifting around an oxbow bend on a wooded section of the Exeter River in New Hampshire (map here) to see a young buck deer with his nose in the water for a few seconds before he knew I was there, then watching him bound off through the trees on impossibly light hooves. I'll look at the world through those eyes anytime.

- TB on the Water 





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