River Features

River Bends

Whenever possible, stay on the inside of bends. Rivers run fastest and deepest at the outside of bends, and because of this most of the debris usually piles up there. Should you overturn and get your life jacket or clothing caught in the branches of a half-submerged tree, it could be impossible to work your way free. You may be lucky to escape with your life! For this reason you should seek the outside of a bend only when the water is low or the current sluggish.

The safest way to negotiate bends is by ferrying. For crossing wide expanses of water, the for-ward ferry is preferred; otherwise, the back ferry is best. To begin the back ferry as you approach a curve, tuck your tail to the inside of the bend and back-paddle. Although going around a bend sideways appears dangerous, it is in fact quite safe, for your canoe is almost perfectly aligned with the current. A slight pry or draw will quickly spin the bow downstream, putting you back on course. When you hear the thunder of rapids ahead but a curve prevents your seeing the telltale haystacks, get to the inside of the bend and cautiously back-ferry, keeping your stern just a few feet from shore. Should the rapid prove unrunnable, a few paddle strokes will bring you to the safety of the riverbank.

In 1982 friends and I experienced a polar gale along the remote Hood River in Canada's Northwest Territories. For three days we were confined to our tents by 55-mile-per-hour winds and unrelenting rain. When the weather cleared, we were greeted by a silt-choked river in flood stage, the hydraulics of which were unbelievable. There were uprooted dwarf willows and debris everywhere in the river, and they all piled up on the outside curves. The powerful current, which we estimated at more than 10 miles an hour, produced human-sized waves at the outside of every bend. In many places the river was more than 1/4 mile wide!

Getting downstream that day was a matter of staying tight on the inside bends, away from the debris and engulfing whitewater. First we would ferry furiously to reach the right bank, only to ferry back across the channel when the river curved left. It was a continuous and exhausting battle to stay on the inside of curves. And it would have been impossible without well-practiced ferries. Indeed, I doubt if we could have gotten downriver without them!

A final note on ferrying: Early in this chapter I emphatically suggested that canoes should always be trimmed dead level. Ferrying is an exception. Here, the downstream end is best trimmed slightly down. Since it's usually impractical to lighten one end of the canoe before the start of the ferry, your best bet is to always load dead level!

Eddies Are a Canoeist's Friend

If you have ever thrown a stick just beyond a large rock or bridge piling in a river with a good current, you have probably observed that the stick floats back upstream in the lazy current below the obstacle. This is an eddy. Paddling long stretches of difficult rapids can be exceedingly nerve racking. The quiet water of an eddy is a convenient stopping place to rest and collect your thoughts. Polers commonly travel upstream by hopping from eddy to eddy. If the water is sufficiently deep, paddlers can also successfully use this technique.

Since the movement of water within an eddy opposite to that of the river's flow, there is a current differential at the eddy's edge. This is the eddy line, and crossing it in strong currents can be dangerous if you are not prepared for the consequences. If you cautiously poke your bow into the slow upstream current, the main flow of the river will catch your stern and spin it quickly downstream. The result is a possible dunking. To enter an eddy bow-first, you must drive powerfully forward across the eddy line. As the stern swings downstream, lean the canoe upstream to prevent upsetting. In figure 6-5 the bow person "hangs on" to the calm water of the eddy with a strong high brace and severe lean, while the stem person-who has not yet crossed the eddy line-also leans to the right to offset the centrifugal force of the current. As soon as the canoe completes the turn (which takes only a split second), the pair paddles forcefully up to the rock.

If, however, the bow person were paddling on the left and the stern person on the right, the roles-but not the canoe lean-would be reversed.

Both paddlers would drive the canoe forward until it crossed the eddy line; then, at that moment, the stern person would lean far out on a low brace while the bow person sliced forward into the eddy, completing the maneuver with a pry and a forward drive. Whew!

Whenever possible, I prefer to "eddy in" with the bow paddle on the inside of the turn, as illustrated in figure 6-5. The procedure is less tricky and seems to result in greater control, due to the powerful stabilizing effect of the high brace up front.

Any eddy turn from a fast current is exciting and sure to produce a dunking if you aren't well-practiced in the technique. The most common error is failure to apply a strong upstream lean as the eddy line is crossed. Another mistake is that of judgment-entering the eddy too late. It won't take you long to discover that you'll miss the eddy by a wide margin unless you enter it just below the rock. The current carries you downstream, remember?

The safest way to enter an eddy is by back-ferrying. Begin the ferry as you approach the eddy line. Set the stern into the quiet water and paddle back to safety. When you have rested sufficiently, leave the eddy at its weak lower end. If the upstream current is very strong, this may be impossible, in which case you'll have to use a fast forward ferry combined with a strong downstream lean-a sophisticated tactic called the peel-out.

To do a peel-out, the canoe is angled at least 45 degrees to the current (a somewhat steeper angle than is used for ferrying) and forward power applied. As the bow crosses the eddy line, the bow person reaches far out on a high brace and leans the canoe downstream (figure 6-7). The stern supports the lean and sweeps the canoe around. As the boat realigns with the current, the pair recenters the weight and resumes normal paddling.

In the alternate method the bow person paddles on the left and the stem person on the right. As the bow crosses the eddy line, both partners lean downstream; the bow person pries or cross-draws while the stern person applies a low brace.

Here again I prefer the former practice (high brace on the inside of the turn), because it seems to provide greater stability as the bow crosses the eddy line. But perhaps I'm simply more experienced in the procedure.

When paddling difficult rapids, you should proceed from eddy to eddy. At each new stopping place, you can survey the conditions ahead and determine the safest course. Eddies can be used to your advantage only if you can perform competent ferries, so the importance of these tactics cannot be overemphasized.


When the river narrows sufficiently for its flow to be severely restricted, a chute of whitewater is formed. When the fast water racing through the chute reaches the calmer water below, its energy dissipates in the form of nearly erect standing waves called haystacks. A series of uniform haystacks indicates deep water and safe canoeing-that is, if they are not so large as to swamp the canoe. To help the bow lift over the large haystacks, you can slow the canoe's speed by back-paddling, or you can quarter into the waves at a slight angle. You can also lighten the front end by putting the bow paddler behind the seat. Running a chute with large standing waves below is one of the few times when you may wish to stop and rearrange the load in your canoe.

Falls and Dams

Low falls can be successfully run if there is sufficient water flowing over them and if they are not so steep as to produce a heavy back roller at their base. If after checking a falls you decide it is safe to run, pick the point of strongest water flow, align the canoe, and proceed at river speed over the falls. Upon reaching the base of the falls, dig your paddles hard and deep to climb out of the trough below.

It is almost always unsafe to run a dam-any dam, even a low one-unless, of course, part of it has broken away. The trouble with dams is not the lack or flow over them or even the steepness of their drops. Rather, the danger lies in the well-formed back rollers at their bases. The back roller is actually an extremely powerful eddy, and the upstream current of this eddy can stop you dead in your tracks. Your canoe can be flipped broadside to the current and may spin over and over like a rolling cigar, perhaps to remain trapped until a period of drought lowers the volume of the river. Because some ledges and falls produce the same effects as dams, they should be considered extremely dangerous until proven otherwise.

Broaching at the base of a darn may mean certain death. Your only recourse in an upset may be to abandon the craft and your life jacket, and swim down under the eddy to the current beneath-a frightening maneuver that calls for calm nerves and a realization of what's happening.

Excerpted from Canoeing and Camping: Beyond the Basics by Cliff Jacobson with permission from Falcon Publishing.  www.cliffcanoe.com

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