Learn to Read River Flow for Kayaking

8-minute read

Paddling on rivers—whether with a kayak, canoe, packraft or paddle board—requires a knowledge of how rivers flow and a solid foundation of paddling skills. The faster the river and bigger the rapids, the more knowledge and skills you need.

 paddler packrafting whitewater

(Photo courtesy of Caj Koskinen)

We asked some of our Ambassador team members to offer their advice on what river flow is and how to learn to read it for safe and fun paddling. Their tips will apply to any paddler, no matter what type of watercraft you use.

Basic River Reading

Beth Poliquin has a few decades of kayaking experience on whitewater, flatwater, the ocean and big water like Lake Superior. She’s an ACA Level 2 Kayak Instructor and added paddle boarding to her skillset several years ago as well.

Beth offers some basic information about river reading for those just starting out:

“While the main current is usually in the middle of a river, water moves more quickly around the outside edge of a turn or bend. This can lead to a buildup of silt and other deposits on the inside edge of the turn and make the water more shallow.

“This is great for plant and animal life, and can be an interesting place to linger or take a break from more rigorous paddling. However, it means that cutting the corner close isn't always the fastest way to go.

An eddy happens when moving water encounters an obstacle and swirls behind it. This causes some of the water to flow in the opposite direction of the river and the line between these two flows can be extremely turbulent on fast moving water.

“Eddies occur at the surface but also beneath it, and can cause an updraft. An updraft can be tough to spot, depending on the force of the water. I think it’s fascinating that each eddy is unique because of all the variables of water flow, land shape and obstruction shape and size.

“One thing I go back to when it comes to being on the water: I love the water so much, but the water isn't my friend. My paddle is my friend.

“I will explore and enjoy the water, but the water doesn't care about me. When my paddle is in the water, I have a say in what is happening to me. Without it, the water has complete control and that can be a very bad thing.

several kayakers on a river in spring

“People who are new to paddling tend to freeze, holding their paddle above the water if they get nervous about anything. The opposite is the proper response—keep paddling. This will keep your watercraft more stable and help you move past or through potential traps.

“I think this is the most important thing to understand for any paddler, and why it's good to have a paddle you like and can depend on.”

(Beth uses Aqua Bound’s Tango Carbon bent shaft kayak paddle and the Malta SUP paddle in Green Tide.)

*  *  *  *  *

Caj Koskinen is a packraft guide and instructor in his native Finland. He has extensive wilderness packrafting experience in the Scandinavian north, including whitewater, and is also an avid sea kayaker.

Kevin Whitley is a sit-on top-kayaker and angler with over two decades of open water kayaking, long-distance touring and kayak fishing experience. He started running rivers in 2018 as another fishing option.

Here’s their advice on river flow and river paddling:

River Flow Changes Dramatically

Caj says, “Rivers are dynamic environments and are constantly changing. Some rapids can be easy one day and change completely after heavy rain. Floods are dangerous because they can take all kinds of stuff from the land and move them into the river. And they make a long, strong current and can cause the eddies to disappear. It isn't easy to get out of a river like that.”

Kevin adds, “It’s surprising to me that folks don't check river flow before heading out. Most rivers have a gauge telling height in feet and cfs (cubic feet per second). This will tell you how powerful the river is.

man whitewater kayaking with a fishing kayak

(Photo courtesy of Kevin Whitley)

[NOTE: You can find river height and cfs online, too. Look at websites for popular paddling rivers and watershed organizations.]

“This is probably the most important thing to know before heading to a river. The water level is everything. High water without experience can be deadly. Low water can bring a rapid that’s Class III at high water down to a Class I.”

Important Safety Considerations

As always with paddlesports, safety must be top-of-mind no matter the water environment. This is especially true for river paddling because of currents, eddies, whitewater and obstructions.

Whitewater paddling is not a solo sport,” says Caj. “You need a team with you. It’s difficult to get precious experience at the beginning, so being part of an experienced group is ideal. Look for a local whitewater paddling club and join them.

“Be open to learn and remember to be humble. It’s very easy to over-evaluate your skills. You can always learn more. Gain the experience to read all the possible risks and know your own skill level. Keep it safe.

“The second tip I have is to increase your skill level actively in easy-access places with a good crew. Have a good risk analysis before each trip, and have a solution for the risks.

“On wilderness trips, you don't want to go over your level, and you need to learn solid wilderness skills too. With longer trips, have a safety talk every morning and be sure everybody knows the plan for the day. Always have the right kind of safety gear with you and learn how to use it.”

Kevin offers this safety advice, too: “Never go without a PFD. Check the river gauge leading up to the day you’re going. Know where your skills are. Don’t overestimate yourself and your abilities. Wear a helmet when the water speed picks up [and when there are obstructions like boulders].”

NOTE: Another important safety consideration is to dress for immersion. Know the temperatures of the water you’ll paddle and wear a wetsuit or dry suit as needed.

fishing kayak along a river shore

(Photo courtesy of Kevin Whitley)

How to Learn to Paddle Rivers

Kevin took a very calculated approach to learn how to paddle rivers, especially rapids:

“I started in the summer when the water was low. Even though the runs I did were rated Class II-III, at low water all those rapids drop to Class I. The next spring as the rivers started to rise, I would only go in half-foot rises. So if I had run it at 2-feet, the next time the water rose, I would only run it at 2.5 feet, then 3 feet.

“That's how I progressed without going over my abilities—but still challenging myself to improve.

“Another great learning tool is video. I’ve recorded video on all my river runs since I started. Memory isn’t always accurate, but video is. Video can tell you why you flipped on the rock you didn't see. You can study the video to find other lines you might not have been paying attention to. And you can go back and review a video of a certain water level to remind you of the hazards at that particular level.”

Caj offers these suggestions to those who want to learn river paddling, including whitewater:

“Have a goal for your whitewater paddling and train yourself for it! Do it step by step. If you want to be a Class III river paddler and you start from scratch, it may take years. And you may need some coaching.

“Start building strong paddling technique, train eddy turns, surf and try some bracing. Go to your closest river with rapids and train, train, train. And remember, you usually need some help from advanced paddlers.

“The best way to learn is to take courses (paddling and rescue) or if you’re lucky, you can find a mentor who will train you. Whitewater paddling is not something you can learn overnight. With active training, you can learn usually to be a solid Class II paddler in a couple of years. That means you can take every line of a Class II rapid, catch all the eddies and make rescues easily.

“When packrafting, you find out soon that you swim a lot, and that’s part of the game. Learn whitewater swimming techniques by swimming rapids, and train your self-rescue to be fast and furious. Having solid swimming and rescue skills gives you self-confidence.

“You also get the skill to evaluate a river by how nice it is to swim. If you don't want to swim a rapid, do you want to take the risk to paddle it and capsize? This is usually the question to ask yourself.”

paddler in a packraft on whitewater

(Photo courtesy of Caj Koskinen)

Kevin and Caj both agree that river paddling enjoyment rests on not over-extending your abilities. Wearing the right apparel for the environment, having a comfortable PFD and using a good paddle will all increase your enjoyment, too.

(Caj’s favorite paddle is Aqua Bound’s Shred Apart. Kevin’s favorites are the Tango Carbon for saltwater kayaking and Tango Fiberglass for rivers.)

Thanks to Beth, Caj and Kevin for their time and advice!

Do you have paddle questions our friendly Customer Service Team can help you with today? Contact them: 715-755-3405 • [email protected]

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