Lessons from Low Water Paddling

Low water paddling

One of the best things you can do to prepare for wilderness paddling trips is to go playboating, aka fooling around on local rivers in tiny canoes equipped with saddles, thigh straps and airbags.

Playboating allows you to develop your skills in full protective equipment, friends standing by to rescue you if you swim, and – worst case – a short walk to your car if you lose your boat. The increased responsiveness and twitchiness of these smaller boats also helps sharpen your reflexes; if you can keep a squirrelly little boat going in a straight line towards an eddy then you should have no problem with larger tripping boats.

It can be discouraging to pull up to your local river and find low water levels, but playboating in low water can still teach you a lot. For example

  • Low Water Route Finding. The more experience you have in low water the better you’ll be at knowing where to find the water deep enough to paddle in. You’ll learn to interpret waves, swell and rooster tails to figure out where the shallow rocks are, and where the thalweg (the deeper, faster water) is.
  • Bumping Over Rocks. It’s easy to panic and lean the wrong way when you hit a rock, but if you bump and grind your way over enough wetted boulders you’ll learn to ride your canoe like a bucking horse. Once again, this skill is best developed in the relatively safe setting of an empty boat kitted out with airbags to minimise the cost of failure if you screw up.
  • Unbroaching Yourself. On a low-water river you’re inevitably going to broach your boat sideways on a rock protruding above the surface. This is not a reason to panic; instead, stay calm, tilt your boat towards the boulder (so it doesn’t fill up with water and get taco’d around the rock), and figure out how to work your way free. Eventually, you might become so comfortable with this skill that you’ll start broaching your boat on purpose to take a break and/or scout some rapids.

A day paddling in shallow water is so much better than a day without any paddling at all!