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Tips and Techniques - To Run Or Not To Run


To Run or Not To Run, That is The Question

As an instructor and trip leader for over 20 years, I have had the opportunity to witness a great many situations where a boater is standing beside a rapid and asking themselves, "should I run this or not?" It is my job to help them make the best decision for themselves and the group. Here are a few pointers that may help you answer the question when you find yourself in that position.

First, look at all the options:

As an example, Hance rapid in the Grand Canyon is fairly large and long. The right side is aptly named "the land of the giants" due to a succession of huge, ugly holes. I have seen paddlers swim for over a mile when they mess-up here. Hance has a number of lines and they vary depending on the water level. So to start, look at all the different lines and rate them from easiest to hardest. This may differ from person to person based on their paddling strengths and weaknesses. Once you've identified all the options, you're ready to move on to the next step.

Break down each of the lines into its component moves and parts:

Still using Hance as the example, let's analyze the right side to middle line. You would start out by cutting across the tongue from the right side of the river. The goal is to make it through the big curlers on the left side of the tongue and eddy out behind the giant mid-river rock. Now you're in a nice big eddy and can bail (or not, if you ran those waves clean!) your boat while getting ready for the next move. From there, the next move would be to come out of the bottom of the eddy and make a cut angling toward the left shore. This sets you up to slide between some medium size (still huge by most standards) holes in the middle of the rapid. Then you would eddy out on river left and wait for the rest of the group.

Now give yourself an Honest evaluation of your boating skills:

This is the hardest part. I've found that many paddlers have a tendency to underestimate their skills. So don't be modest or macho, just be honest and realistic.

Using this assessment of your skills, ask yourself if can you make the first move of the run (in Hance, making the cut into the eddy). Pretend that the rest of the rapid doesn't exist and that there is nothing but flat water above and below the move. If the answer is "yes, that's easy," then look at the next move and do the same assessment. Keep doing this until you reach the bottom of the rapid. If somewhere in that process you hit a "no, I can't make that move," then you might want to scratch that line off the list and look for an easier one. Repeat this process until you have evaluated all of the possible runs.

Now here's the tricky part. If the line you just evaluated was the easiest of all possible routes and has a "no" checkmark next to a move, then it may (see the next section) be time to consider walking the rapid. If the opposite was true and the line seemed easy, then you should look and the next route repeat the process until you max out your skill level.

The next step is to evaluate the consequences:

Only you can be the judge of what is an acceptable level of consequences for a given move or rapid. I frequently encourage my students to review their personal paddling goals while evaluating the difficulty or consequences of a run. Do you want to move up to the next level or are you happy where you're at? Deciding whether or not to run a rapid is not about a gut feeling. It is an honest evaluation of the river, your skills, and then matching them so the odds are in your favor. Many paddlers are unwittingly holding themselves back by only looking at the consequences. Once again, it takes an honest self-evaluation to figure this out.

So here's what I recommend:

If the odds are in your favor that you can make the move, go for it even if the consequences are on the high side. If you don't, you will not be pushing your comfort zone or growing. If the odds of making it are really against you but the consequences are low, go for it anyway—you might surprise yourself. If the odds are against you and the consequences high, then don't do it and pick another route or walk.

Some final thoughts:

Don't fall victim to all the hype about a rapid and let it psych you out. Traveling around the country, I hear all kinds of horror stories about this or that rapid. Use the process above to make your own evaluation of the rapid and your skills.

Don't let peer pressure push you into something you're not ready for.

Don't focus on just the consequences. Acknowledge them, but don't make them your sole focus. Instead, focus on where you want to want to go, not just where you don't.

Never be ashamed to walk a rapid. I have walked Hance. On that day, my mind and paddling skills were not up to the river and I shouldered my boat. On other days, I have run it and did so thinking this is a piece of cake.

Make sure you're still having fun! Don't run something so scary that it makes you want to hang up your paddle and never go out again.

Webmaster's note:

When Bob and I were talking over ideas for new tips, I suggested this one based on my own experience at Hance rapid in the Grand Canyon. It was a classic example of being spooked by watching someone else getting trashed and then not being able to focus beyond the consequences. The following is what I wrote to Bob when were discussing the idea. I've since spent a lot of time working on not "looking over my shoulder" or worrying about how bad someone else's run was...

As an example: At Hance after watching (name removed to protect the guilty) get hammered, I walked the top part because I didn't think I could make the move (cut the diagonal to catch the eddy behind the giant mid-river rock). For me, that move should have been a piece of cake but all I could see was the "land of the giants" (one monster hole after another on river right). I convinced myself that I would blow the move (just like so and so) and end up over there getting the worst trashing of my life. This blew away my confidence by not looking at the rapid in simple easy to handle steps.


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