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Reading whitewater: It tells a great story

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Story and Photos by Dave Zinn EBS Contributor

Each spring I enjoy seeing river friends reemerge from winter activities and reunite on our local waters. Navigating a moving medium such as a river is an incredible feeling, but to the uninitiated the challenge presented by complex sequences of waves, rocks and pour-overs that create rapids can be daunting.

However, with some training and practice, pathways through the maze of whitewater present themselves like the drawings of sports commentators analyzing a play. Some basic tools provide whitewater enthusiasts the means to pick their way through everything from mild rapids to complicated whitewater.

Wave Train Kayak Team members look for the best line through a rapid on the Jefferson River.

Wave Train Kayak Team members look for the best line through a rapid on the Jefferson River.

Horizon lines: As I scan downstream I’m looking for places where the river seems to disappear. The larger unseen gaps in a river indicate steeper and taller drop-offs. Arriving at a horizon line is a thrilling component of river running. It tells us to slow down and assess the upcoming obstacles from our boats or from shore.

Eddies: As I move down the river, eddies are my place to stop, regroup, scout a rapid or surf a wave. An eddy is the calm water occurring when an obstacle, such as a rock or bend in the river, blocks the current. Recognizing eddies, big and small, and being able to navigate your boat to them in order to stop is critical to safely navigate a river.

Follow the downstream “V”: This is another way of saying, “Go where the water goes.” When water forms a “V” facing downstream, this shows me where I can find deeper channels that may be unimpeded by obstacles. On a mild river we can often follow that first “V” and arrive at the bottom of the riffle. As rapids become more complex and technical, we may follow a series of different “V’s” or break out of the primary flow to avoid obstacles or hazards.

Waves: Waves can be obstacles to avoid or opportunities for fun. Waves also tell me a lot about where I want to place my craft as I travel downriver. Waves that are relatively large, regularly shaped and uninterrupted indicate the deepest and fastest flowing channel in a rapid. If I see many small waves packed tightly, I know the water in these areas is shallow and slow moving.

Holes: These often present themselves as a horizon line in the river. The water humps up and over a rock or ledge and water rushes back upstream to fill in the depression formed by the drop. Depending on the shape and size of the hole, this river feature may be a fun place to play, but be careful: Holes can also capture a boat and paddler.

This basic set of tools can help you understand the routes used to navigate a river. Knowing your path down a rapid is a good start, and the ability to control a craft as you navigate a preplanned route is another step in your whitewater progression.
The reality of running more challenging whitewater is that each rapid contains a series of these features. The job of the paddler is to develop a mental map that will allow him or her to successfully arrive at the bottom of a drop, ready to give rounds of high fives.

Creating this map and executing the course takes time, practice and training. Always paddle within your ability level and look for mentors to provide guidance as you progress.

Dave Zinn has been instructing kayaking since 1996 and has guided in eight different countries. He is currently the director and head coach of Bozeman’s Wave Train Kayak Team ( and the organizer of the Gallatin Whitewater Festival ( When he’s not working Dave enjoys finding his own way through the rapids of southwest Montana.

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