A river is like a liquid conveyor belt that meanders through its valley offering up the best views of that valley, along with the opportunity for a paddler to ride it down at his or her leisure.      Each river has a life and personality of its own.    Some are large arteries that move at fast speeds and offer up big water, while others are small capillaries that drop through steep narrow river beds, over waterfalls, and then there is everything in between.     Warm waters of the rain fed rivers, and cold waters of the snow fed rivers,  smooth bedrock or boulders, to urban channels through culverts and under bridges, you’ll find so much diversity.   


    If somebody told you that they were a river runner, what image pops in your head?     For me it is anyone who has a plan to start in one location and finish somewhere else.     A river runner is someone who runs rivers.    A creek is simply a small river.     So someone who calls themselves a creek boater, is a river runner who spends much of their time on small steeper rivers.   


    What kind of boats do river runners use?  


    Most often, you’ll find river runners in:


  1. River Running/Playboats-   easy to roll, comfortable, lightweight river runners that are lower volume and planning hulled offering the paddler great wave and hole surfing performance, along with eddyline and flatwater play.  
  2. River running/creekboats- easy to roll, comfortable, heavier, higher volume, stout boats for a primary goal of getting down the river right side up.    
  3. Creekboats- made primarily for steep sections of river, waterfalls, and technical rapids.     Normally easy to roll, but not as maneuverable as the river running playboats.
  4. Playboats- when the river isn’t particuarly challenging, or it is very deep and big volume, playboats are often the river runner’s boat of choice to take advantage of the play available on the way down the river.



    Who are the river runners of the world?   Just about everyone you’ll meet paddling is a river runner.   


    Types of River running you’ll see or be able to participate in.


  6. River Running/Play- Starting at the put-in and running the entire river, but surfing waves, holes, and playing on eddylines, or with the rocks on the way down, river running play puts the river to the most use.    From the Zambezi river in Africa, to the futalafu river in chile, to the Dart river in England, or the Ocoee River in TN,  This is the most common type of river running you’ll see. 
  7. River Running/racing-  In recent times, a resurgence of longer less playful river running kayaks can created a paddling style best described as” River racing”.   This style is a stay in the middle, ducky style paddling trip where the paddler sees a lot of the river in a short amount of time.    It allows less experience paddlers to go along with the more experienced ones and share the same experience.   Rarely are the paddlers racing, but they are usually taking the faster lines and staying in the current.   
  8. Creekboating- Get upwards of 100 feet/mile of gradient and you start getting rapids that have a different character, including horizon lines, waterfalls, boofs, and “busier” rapids requiring more precise maneuvering.    You can find creekboating on rivers like the Ottawa in Canada- on the Garvin’s rapid, for example, or just about anywhere you look in the Alps and Rocky Mountains.    The Appalachian Mountains are home to thousands of creeks as well.    Creekboating offers the paddler specific challenges on each rapid and there are usually specific lines that are the easiest or safest, while in a larger river, the entire width of the rapid may be fine for running down.    One specific thing that a creekboater gets used to and learns to use to their advantage with creekboating is rocks.    They are not only the obstacle that creates the water features, but they are launching pads, support, stopping points, and landmarks to the creekboater.  
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    River Runners are also the Soul of Kayaking.     999 out of every 1000 paddlers are river runners.  Some spend their times playing the river on the way down, some running straight down the river, some on the steeper creeks going from their predetermined put-in to take-out.       There are a few slalom racers, and a few freestyle kayakers that won’t be found running a river, but in my year’s of experience,  I have only seen a handful of such boaters.     A slalom boater that trains 300 days/year may only run 20 rivers in their season, for example, but there are plenty of people who only run 20 rivers/year period and are considered to be river runners.     Therefore that slalom racer is still a river runner, I believe.  Make sense?


    My biggest concern for most paddlers who are running rivers is the trend in their choice of kayaks.     In the past 5 years we have seen more paddlers choosing river running kayaks that are best suited for creekboating or straight down river paddling and less suited for playing as well.     There is a very important role for river running/creekboats, which is to get a paddler from the put-in to the take out of technical rivers or rivers or shallow rivers with the least amount of flips.     The issue with this type of boat being used by paddlers as their primary kayak is that their learning curves are stymied by the lack of variety of experiences they are exposed to.   

    Paddlers who paddle their local runs in high volume river running boats usually don’t spend much time with the 5 major features of the river- waves, holes, eddies, eddy lines, and rocks.       Take a paddler going down the Nantahala or Ocoee Rivers- (class 2-3+) as their primary paddling location.    A beginner can learn to get down either river in their first season comfortably.     The paddler who is paddling a river running playboat will attempt to surf waves and holes, squirt on the eddylines, get enders, etc. etc..      This means they’ll get a lot of rolling practice, and become comfortable maneuvering in holes, on waves, and know what to do when they find themselves vertical.     The paddler in a high volume river runner will only get vertical a few times at the most and not have a chance to learn what to do.    The goal when paddling this type of boat is to stay right side up and therefore the number of times the paddlers get to do their combat roll is much less than the paddler trying to play their way down the river.    Often, the paddlers become afraid of rolling and their progress gets stymied quickly.     I believe you can graph a paddler’s learning curve based on the type of boat they are paddling as their  primary boat during the front end of their career.      The contrary to that is when a paddler is constantly getting on new rivers and trying to push their comfort level as a rule.    That is when a traditional river running/creekboat is the best type of boat for that paddler.    I do believe that every paddler should have a river running/creekboat to use whenever they are on a new river that they want to stay upright from the put-in to the takeout.    An appropriate creek boat for paddling on creeks that are best suited for creekers is recommended.     



    A mis-conception about river running boats is that the river running/creekboats are easier to get down a big  volume river such as the Futalafu, Zambezi, etc..    Big volume boats are hole bait compared to smaller river running playboats and more importantly, are much harder to get out of holes and maneuver in holes.    With a good roll,  a river running playboat is the boat of choice for getting down the hardest big water runs.     The concept of speed being an advantage for river running is another mis-conception.    There are a few situations where a faster boat can make a move easier than a slower boat, but for every one of those, there are 50 situations where a more maneuverable boat will help the paddler make the move easier.    The average speed of a river runner boat going down rapids is, on average, about 1-2 miles/hour faster than the water.   The average speed of a river running playboat down the same rapids is about 1-2miles/hour on the average.      People just don’t sprint downstream and use the forward speed of a river runner to their advantage.      Where a fast boat comes in handy is going back upstream.   The potomac river in Washington, DC is a great place for a fast boat.    This is one place where many people put-in downstream and paddle upstream to the whitewater.     The slalom boat is the boat of choice there.


    The variety of paddlers who are river runners is so vast that many river runners look at each other and consider the others as being in a different category all together.       Many of the Paddlers who run the Green River in NC on a regular basis don’t see the people who regularly run the Nantahala River as being in the same category as them.    Certainly the Green River is quite a bit more difficult, but on a relative basis, it is a very similar or possibly the same experience to the paddlers.     Like to runners- one going 6 minute miles and one going 10 minute miles.   One runner may be faster and more experienced and fit, but they are both likely sharing a similar experience, one of challenging themselves in their own way, and finding the joy in being outdoors in a beautiful place, and hopefully with other paddlers that add to their experience.     


    I consider myself lucky to be able to experience new rivers each year, after so many years of paddling.   I have averaged about 30 new rivers/year for the past 25 years on 6 continents.    Each time I am on a new river, I feel like an explorer and my mind is wide awake, taking in as much as I can.     I always feel a sense of accomplishment at the end of each new river run.    I have found ways to duplicate that experience on rivers that I am familiar with that anyone can use.     First-  Take new lines on familiar rapids.    It is amazing how many people run a class 2 rapid the same way, on the easiest line, when they also run class 4 rivers.     You can usually make a class 2 rapid into a class 3 or 4 rapid by hitting the micro eddies, or running through a hole, or through a slot, etc. etc.    This is a great way to make a staple river new again. 


    Here are some suggestions for making your river running more fulfilling:


  11. Make at least one major travel plan to run a river you have never run before in the next year.
  12. Work on your skills to be ready for that river by doing some of your local runs but running lines you don’t normally run (assuming you can do it safely, of course).   Get in better physical shape as well.
  13. Play your local run- hit every rock, surf every wave, or hole, and make sure your rolling and bracing are improving.
  14. Play games on the river
    1. Compete against your friends on hitting new eddies, doing rock spins, or attainments.
    2. Race your friends down familiar rapids, looking for the fastest lines, not just paddling hard.
    3. Do some playboating competitions in your river running boat
  15. Make a take out plan- bring food and beverages for not only you, but your friends.  Make a tailgate party out of the takeout.
  16. Turn a one day run into two days and enjoy the camping.
  17. Bring a fishing pole for overnighters.
  18. Bring a friend and paddle a tandem boat with a newby.
  19. I am sure you have plenty of ideas yourself!

    Here are some very non “soulful” ways to approach river running:


  21. Judging others based on their equipment or skills.
  22. Not being welcoming to visitors.
  23. Building yourself up by putting down others (remember kindergarten?)


    The next subject of the Soul of Paddling will be on Racing