Paddling braided rivers with constantly changing channels can be tricky business. With multiple routes to choose from, including many false leads, it’s easy to get lost out there. Here is a system that if followed correctly, will provide success 99.9% of the time.
Rule #1: Look Farther Ahead
When you’re sitting down low in your kayak with the river falling towards the horizon, you’re pretty limited in how much you can see ahead of you. However you can in fact see farther than you think, if you simply take the time to look. While paddling on the river, it’s easy to go several minutes just staring down at the water right in front of your boat. Every second you move farther down the river, more of the horizon is being revealed to you. By constantly scanning the horizon as you paddle, you’ll be able to gain more information all the time. So stop staring at the front of your boat, and start searching for possible routes, potential hazards, and the answer might become obvious.
Rule #2: Go with the Flow
If you’ve been scanning the horizon and the answer still isn’t obvious, you’ll need to use rule number two “Go with the Flow”. By this I mean choose the braid with the most volume of water flowing down it. Not just the deepest, not just the fastest, but a combination of these two factors. You’re looking for the channel with the most water flowing down per-second (cubic metres per second). Developing your ability to read the water and judge the flow takes time and experience. Paddling braided rivers with a well organised club, participating in kayak races, and taking a multisport kayak course, are all great ways to build your ability to judge the water’s flow.
Rule #3: Go Downhill
Every river I’ve ever paddled on, flowed down hill… except for the Waimakariri. Oddly enough, I’m not joking. As the river braids split into several channels, some of these channels drop down-hill quickly, while others appear to actually climb up-hill right in front of you. Of course, these channels can only flow up-hill for a short distance, until they eventually run out of momentum and end in a wide shallow pool. This is how many beginners get stranded during the Coast to Coast Race. When you’re sitting down at river-level, the braid that drops down quickly is hard to see (hidden by the horizon). The braid that is levelling-off or climbing up-hill slightly, is much more visible and often quite wide – it looks like the obvious place to go. As unaware paddlers follow this higher braid, the water in it eventually slows down, becomes shallow, and will split into channels so small, that kayaking becomes impossible. You’ll now have to drag you boat over the shallows and down to the lower braid you missed earlier. The lesson here is to take the braid that drops away the fastest. Get low early and the remaining water will surely find you again.
Rule #4 Keep a Mental Map
Sometimes you’ll need to make a tough choice. You often wont have much time to decide, and it’s usually best to make a decision early and stick with it. If you’re following rule number two and chose a braid going left that holds 60% of the total river volume, that means that 40% of the river is now to your right (not under your boat where you want it). Keep a mental map of the fact that a large portion of the river is somewhere out to your right side. Keep an eye out for an opportunity to link back up with this flow again. You want to be as close as possible to 100% flow volume under your boat at all times.
Keep in Mind...
It’s important to understand that the rules described above work best when used in the correct order. If you’re looking down trying to figure out the volume of water (rule 2) you’re probably not looking up enough (rule 1), and may miss something really obvious. Similarly, it’s no good dropping low early (rule 3) if there’s simply not enough water volume to float your boat (rule 2). So at each decision point, work through your rules quickly in order from 1 to 4. Try not to skip ahead or make it more complicated than it is. Many of our clients will actually scribble these rules on the front of their boat for quick reference while paddling on the river.
It’s my experience as a kayak coach that sticking to the correct order of priority while under pressure is the hardest for new paddlers to master. One of the most valuable things you can do to develop your confidence in picking the braids is to attend our Coast to Coast Multisport Kayak Course. We’ll share with you all the clues that indicate good flow volume, plus you’ll gain lots of practice making your own choices using the rules mentioned here.
Time for one last tip. Remember to always look back over your shoulder after making a tricky braid decision. Review whether it was in fact the best choice for the situation, or if you could have chosen a better route. I personally do this all the time and it’s one way I keep myself learning and improving with every trip I take.