10 Tips For High Water Paddling

Last Updated 7/19/2023


Higher water does NOT directly translate to more fun… BUT certainly can be a hoot and a half with good pre-trip planning, knowing your own limits, and being smart with your gear. Be prepared for worst-case scenarios as opposed to assuming that nothing will go wrong.

Here are some things to know about high water & boating on high water.

  1. KNOW THE FLOWS: Years with bigger snow-pack & unexpected Winter or Spring storms may give rivers higher than predicted flows. Three great sites we use regularly in California to check river flows are Dreamflowswww.cnrfc.noaa.gov, & CDEC.  (Do realize that flow sites use gauges that may be located below the run you plan to do… water can be higher than what the gauge is showing). You can get predicted flows from the CDEC site as well, but realize that these predictions may be off in either direction. If you are paddling below any dams, realize that dam releases can happen anytime and especially in big storm events where dams can begin to spill or emergency releases can occur and suddenly up the flows significantly.
  2. CATCH IT ON THE WAY DOWN: It has always been good advice to catch high water on the way down as opposed to on the way up for many reasons related to the information given below, so again, watch the gauges for when flows start dropping.
  3. DEBRIS & NEW WOOD: California can often go several years without experiencing any dramatically high flows. As a result, when rain and or melt conditions develop to create higher than normal flows, the amount of debris coming down could be very significant as logs and other debris both at and above the previous high water lines and coming downside creeks enter the system in increasing amounts as the water rises.  After new re-licensing on many rivers including The South Fork American, new reservoir operating does not require that debris be held back in the reservoir but instead, it can be released through the system. Fires in drainage over several previous years also create a much greater likelihood of additional wood, soil, limbs, and other debris coming downstream and into lakes, reservoirs, and the ocean. Consider the potential for chemicals and other pollutants to be carried into the water system as well.
  4. PADDLING IN MUDDY WATER: On many runs such as the South Fork American, large fires have occurred since the last high water, and this in its worst case can add dramatically to poor visibility. One of the biggest effects is to change the look of the water to muddy browns like chocolate milk, which can be much harder to read since there isn’t a large contrast between blue or green water and “white” or aerated water, making it hard to see “holes”, shallow rocks or ledges or even trees. For those of you who roll with your eyes open… it is disconcertingly dark and unlike your typical pool or clear river rolling experience.
  5. RAIN on SNOW: In a scenario with warm temps and rain above 8,000 feet elevation causing melting snow as well as direct rain run-off, water levels will tend to escalate quickly with a compounding effect as the water moves downstream and short-length creeks add to the water coming from higher up.
  6. PADDLING IN THE TREES: Water WILL be up in the brush and trees making shore access (ingress and egress) for swimmers or rescuers, avoiding strainers, etc. difficult or impossible in many areas. Swimmers or gear can easily get caught up in the brush or strainers and those who might attempt rescue are put at higher risk as well.
  7. FUNNY WATER: High water can significantly alter the appearance, dynamics, and consequences in many parts of the rivers. Areas that are normally full of nice swimming rocks and safe eddies may now be strewn with big holes where the eddy rocks once were.  Big features can disappear and become flattened while rapids can run together making for much longer swims and any recovery from a swim extremely difficult.   Boils can appear out of nowhere as surges occur compressing water against the river banks. Be prepared to run the river as you have never seen it before.
  8. Swimming is NOT A OPTION: On higher flowing or flooding rivers, swimming is just not something you want to happen.  Rapids can run together & Eddy lines become wider blocking your ability to get to shore either as a swimmer or while wrangling a boat. In some ways worse than the risk you put yourself at, any swim then puts all other members of a paddling group at greater risk as well. As a rescuer, you have to remember that no matter what the scenario is that unfolds, keeping yourself safe is paramount. Adding additional potential swimmers or victims in need of rescue only makes the situation that much worse for your fellow paddlers as well.
  9. Combat Rolls ONLY: This is the roll that has been tested in dynamic conditions.  A roll that is pool worthy or even worthy in a calm eddy in the river is not a proven combat roll. Remember 80% of rolling is your headspace and unless you have had unpredicted rolls in the river with success you won’t know how that roll will play out in pushier dynamic situations you might find at high water.
  10. Gear Retrieval & number of paddlers: High water is a great time to make sure you have a solid crew of folks and enough boats.  The single boat is not really ever a good idea but can become a serious hazard in high water.  Whether you are rafting or kayaking having multiple boats can expedite gear recovery and shorten people's swims.  High water can pull boats, paddles, and people away from containment quickly.  Always go for the swimmer first but keep in mind, gear can often jettison downstream quickly.  To help minimize swims for yourself and gear loss, make sure your gear is well fitting & well-marked. This way you don’t blame the swim on the boat or an imploded skirt and should it leave your possession hopefully it will find its way back to you.  Gear is often harder to find in flood conditions as paddles can get stuffed into brush or sieves, and boats can travel miles quickly.  The good news/bad news is eventually it may reach a reservoir..  but maybe not in the condition you last saw it in.

REMEMBER… True friends don’t let friends paddle above their skill level. Don’t be afraid to tell someone that you are not willing to paddle with them if you do not know their skill level or if you do not trust/feel comfortable with their ability to not only be in control themselves but also be able to rescue you if you get into trouble! Paddlers during regular summer-like flows often go out dependent on one or more folks in the group to rescue them if they get into trouble, but under high water conditions, EACH AND EVERY paddler should be well equipped, trained, and capable of rescuing each other as well as themselves.

GEAR FOR HIGH WATER

There is always more you can take for high water paddling, but here are a few essentials I would want when paddling at higher flows. Think of it this way, be prepared to spend the night under wet and cold conditions and perhaps without your boat or some of your gear. Consider what equipment to have on your person in the event that your boat decides to leave you behind after a swim or a mishap. Consider fastening all of your gear such as dry bags and even float bags into the boat.

  • PFD that floats you  (IF it is faded or shrunk or just more than a few years old, the jacket will likely not have enough float even in regular water… it is time to get a new PFD!)
  • Appropriate clothing and footwear for the conditions of a long swim and potential walk-out or necessary portage
  • Throw Bag
  • Whistles
  • Fire Starting Kit
  • Space Blanket
  • Spare Paddle
  • Extra dry layers for potential bivouac or body heat recovery after a swim or extended exposure
  • Food & Water for energy and possible extended stays ( the river will not be drinkable and energy is consumed much more quickly during cold, wet, and stressful conditions) Energy chews or similar are a good addition to a 1st aid/survival kit
  • tested and working float bags
  • patch material for field repairs ( and a pump for inflatable craft after repair)
  • A boat that you know and trust ( as opposed to a “new” or borrowed boat you are unfamiliar with!)
Thank you to Dan Crandall from The River Store for this article.
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