What Does “High Water” Really Mean?

Posted April 13, 2006 by Robyn Suddeth

high water 5.jpgIn the boating community, stories about High Water Years are fairly similar to Grandpa’s tales of the Good Ol’ Days: familiar but always entertaining, shrouded in just the right amount of mythical exaggeration, and always told with the slightest hint of a smile on the storyteller’s face. They often start with sayings like, “So there I was,” or “Well you won’t believe it, but”, and are very effective at making the listener wish that he, too, had been around for such an amazing time.

Unlike the “good ol’ days”, however, “high water years” have the wonderful ability to return.

California got one last year, and now this year we’re looking at an even bigger snowpack for most rivers in the state, giving all of us rafters the chance to gather some of our very own “High Water Year” tales. That way, years from now, we can pull them out and exhaust our friends and relatives with another rendition of “The river was raging higher than ever before that day, just raging! And old Jimmy was wearing his lucky Chacos…”

high water 2.jpgBut good stories aside, what is truly to be expected on a high water trip? How does all this snow change California’s rivers? (As great as those stories are for learning about that amazing flip where so-and-so managed to stay absolutely dry by jumping onto the bottom of the raft as it was tipping over, they tend to leave out some important details about the rivers themselves.)

The truth is, the term “high water year” has very different implications depending on the river you’re talking about. In general, however, high water implies more excitement, and a longer season for California’s “spring” rivers. More specifically, the water is faster, the hydraulics (waves and holes) more powerful, and calmer sections fewer and far between. Compared to a low water trip, the river is much more alive. Its currents feel as though they are literally pulling your raft downstream, over and through continuous waves that have replaced those previously calm, lazy sections between rapids.

But it’s not just the tempo and power of the water that is different. High water also implies that, of course, the water level is actually higher. (I don’t mean to be obvious.) I stress this because water level is the most significant factor in determining the way a river changes from normal to high flows. As the water rises, it begins to cover up rocks, trees, and sometimes even hydraulics, while also encountering new obstacles. This means that some rapids may dissappear or become “washed out”, whereas others turn from technical boulder slaloms to much higher-paced, technical, hole slaloms. (You’re steering your boat between huge hydraulics rather than around rocks, often finding yourself thinking: “Wow… I’m really glad I’m not in there.”) Also, completely new rapids will form where the rising water flows over a boulder or ledge that was previously above water.

high water 4.jpgIn summary: Not only does the river become more powerful and thrilling overall, but the rapids themselves may change, dissappear, or become longer, and new rapids show up in places that were previously flat. When the water is significantly higher, you’re looking at a whole new river!

[For more about this season’s flow predictions and information on specific rivers, visit the All Outdoors Flows Page or read this other recent post: Another High Water Year In California!]

Taking all of that into account, (faster, longer rapids and big, powerful water), a lot of people wonder whether or not a “high water trip” is a good idea for them. It’s definitely a worthy question to ask…

On the one hand, swims (if they occur) can be longer and more humbling than on a normal trip, the paddling a lot more intense, and the likelihood of flipping or wrapping a boat much higher. Being out of the boat on a high water trip is both the best and worst way to gain an immense respect for the power of those stronger currents that pull us all downstream. (And yes, I do know from personal experience.)

high water 1.jpgAll that power and intensity, however, are also what make high water trips the most fun, dynamic, and rewarding rafting available. Not only is the river exciting and challenging, but it is in a form totally different and unique from what is most often experienced. It is water at its best: thrilling, mischievous, and beautiful all at the same time. And as for flips, wraps, and other such unplanned adventures: they become the bonding and learning experiences that make up the best part of all those high water year stories!

high water 3.jpgOn top of all that, there is nothing more exhilerating than rapids at high water… breaking through a huge diagonal to barely miss the monstrous hole behind, digging your paddle into the green face of a wave, back-paddling hard to avoid a wrap rock, and finally, reaching the bottom completely exhausted and awe-struck at the same time, only to realize the next rapid is just downstream. Not until the end of the day can you really digest and appreciate everything you experienced.

So, the decision of “to go or not to go” is, essentially, up to the individual. Having previous rafting experience is helpful but not necessarily required. Being adventurous and aggressive is a must. But most importantly, high water trips are best for those who have a fun-loving, up for anything attitude, and who can take a long swim and still come up smiling.

Even if that smile doesn’t appear until a few years later when you tell your grand-kids that familiar old story about the day the river was raging higher than it ever had before…


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