Breaking Away from the Numbers

River of the month #62

author: Pat Reilly
date: August 2003

It’s August again, and for the past several years, the August ‘River of the Month’ has been about a paddling topic rather than a specific river. Lately I’ve been presented with a topic that some folks, including myself, seem to think is very important! It’s about rating the water and determining your skill levels.

A local outfitter has reported that they frequently get people coming into their shop looking for their first boat (usually a recreational kayak) and stating that they have no intention of paddling anything over a class 3 or 4. Say what? ‘Yeah, we just want to do a little fishing and paddling around, and maybe a little whitewater, nothing more than class 3 or 4.’ Aren’t they jumping the gun a bit? Then I received a call about a recent CCGH trip to the Falmouth area of the Susquehanna by persons looking to go along in rec kayaks with no helmets. The trip was rated class 3 in the newsletter. And rightfully so, Falmouth is big whitewater, with waves to 5 feet (see ‘River of the Month’ for September 1998 or River Tale # 6 on the Blue Mountain Outfitters web site.) This water would quickly fill a rec boat without a substantial neoprene spray-skirt (most rec boats have a nylon skirt, if any) and is no place for un-helmeted paddlers.

So where do recreational paddlers get the idea they’re ready to go down class 3 or 4 water? For that matter, the bigger question may be, ‘just what is class 3 or 4 water?’ You may be aware of the ‘downgrading’ of many eastern rapids by the new American Whitewater standards that came out in 1998. This was an effort to conform eastern United States standards with the tougher rated western rapids and to allow for rapids (which haven’t changed) now being run by many more boaters (whose methods and equipment have changed). It’s surprising how a rapid really has to require complex skills to rate a class 5 in the ‘revised’ standards. Ever see ‘Wonder Falls’ on the Big Sandy River in West Virginia? It’s a very photogenic falls that’s featured on posters and in books, including the cover of the popular ‘Appalachian Whitewater, Middle States’ guidebook. The new AW ratings give it a class 4 -. 4 minus? It’s an 18-foot waterfall for God’s sake! Then look at ‘Meat Cleaver’, a gnarly rapid on the upper Youghiogheny that will live up to it’s name if you miss the complicated move over the double falls between the two ‘cleaver’ rocks. The Appalachian Whitewater guidebook calls it ‘a true class 5’ but the new AW standards rate it a mere 4+. I hope some of these new paddlers aren’t anticipating running Wonder Falls or Meat Cleaver with their rec boats.

While the AWA has brought a number of eastern ratings down a notch or two, some organizations and outfitters continue to keep ratings high. And this, I believe, is where the true misconception comes in. For example, an outfitter running rafts down Pennsylvania’s Pine Creek Canyon refers to the river as having “some challenging class 2-3 rapids”. Pine Creek is readily navigated by experienced novices in open boats. Now lets say those same boaters try Falmouth in their same open boat. They’re likely going to have problems. Calling Pine Creek a class 2-3 makes it sound exciting and attractive to a prospective rafter, but it also lulls new boaters into thinking they are now class 3 paddlers once they have a successful run down the canyon. This scenario holds true on Pennsylvania’s lower Yough, as the state Bureau of Parks refers to the river as having “numerous class 3 and 4 rapids”. You make it down the lower Yough and now you’re a class 4 boater? Let’s go run Meat Cleaver! Wasn’t it just a few years ago that CCGH referred to the Dauphin Narrows as class 2-3? I trust we all know that sneaking down river left in the Dauphin Narrows doesn’t make one a class 3 boater, but that’s the conception some rookies get when they see numbers like these.

Contradictory and changing ratings are exactly why I’ve stayed away from any numbers when talking about rapids in the ‘River of the Month’ columns. Instead I try to describe the water conditions as accurately as possible. I believe the writer or reader should concentrate on 3 main traits – volume, gradient and features. First of all how big is the creek? We can put exact figures to this category, namely, the size of the river’s watershed in square miles and the flow in cubic feet per second (cfs). A number can also be assigned to gradient, in feet per mile. Features are more abstract, and address what is in the creek bed - rocks/, ledges or both, and how the creek goes about draining it’s watershed - tight turns or straight forward, consistent gradient or pool/drop.

When evaluating a new river, a boater may have a chance for an on-site inspection of the water in question. Road, bank or bridge scouting requires a bit of experience in itself to properly rate the water. The paddler needs to remember that water features are always bigger at water level than from the shore. You can also gather information from other paddlers that have experienced the section of water. But keep in mind the wide range of boater personalities. i.e. Young macho boater, ‘Anyone can paddle the lower Yough, it’s only class 2.’ Old canoe club instructor type, ‘You better have at least 3 years of experience before you tackle a river like the lower Yough.’ Stick to specifics, ask about gradient, flow and river-bed characteristics, and take opinions for what they are.

Now, after learning about the specific qualities of the water in question, instead of just the number assigned to it’s difficulty, the paddler can make an informed decision on whether to boat it or not depending on her or his experience. So how does one rate one’s skills? First of all, there is, of course, no substitute for experience. When you run a river, learn about what kind of water you are on, what’s the gradient, the watershed size, and the level? Then you can compare past experiences with potential new rivers. This is one reason I keep detailed logs of all my paddling experiences. Remember also that rivers are of different types. Just because you’ve been running steep creeks doesn’t mean you’ll have the skills for big water even if the ratings are the same.

I suppose it all boils down to the same thing we’ve said in two past winter columns. You’ve got to use common sense and make an HONEST evaluation of your skills and your equipment. All we’re really adding to that discussion today is to also gather as much information as you can about the water you’ll be attempting while staying away from the ratings game! The numbers were only meant to be a general guideline in the first place, each river is different.

Pat Reilly

Copyright © 2003 Pat Reilly. All rights reserved.