Kayaking helpful for rafting? A Case Study on the South Yuba

Posted March 5, 2008 by Robyn Suddeth

I’ve heard many kayakers utter the following words: “Kayaking improves your water-reading skills for rafting because you learn to respond to smaller and subtler currents.” Well this winter, I have had a lot of opportunity to test that theory. Here is the conclusion I’ve come to: Kayaking certainly does improve your rafting skills, but even more than because of having to read smaller currents, it is because you have to become a quick and scrappy fighter in order to stay upright and/or survive.

When my kayaking roommates are planning trips to narrow creeks (in which rafts don’t fit) I am faced with two options: Inflatable kayak or stay home. Not being one to enjoy sitting at home, I choose to kayak. Mind you, this is not the hardshell, more graceful looking kayaks that star in adventure videos and the Olympics. No, this is the blow-up kind that behaves like an errant and easily distracted toddler even under the best attempts at control. (Everyone else on the trip is usually in a hardshell, however, making me feel especially cool).

Three weekends ago I got another chance to improve my water-reading skills, scrappyness, and quick reflexes (all the while showing off my undoubtedly amazing grace). With beautiful sunny weather, a few friends and I couldn’t resist the chance to do some “warm” winter boating on the Yuba River. It is rare to find a river running during the winter that isn’t flowing because of recent rains, and, in fact, we didn’t technically find a river that was running: There was definitely water in the South Yuba that day, but the flow was a good 170 cfs lower than the recommended minimum flow. And yet we thought, “Eh, what’s a couple hundred cfs? This’ll be fun!”

And it was fun, albeit a bit rocky and technical at times. It is actually run-able that low for kayaks, and more importantly I think I reduced my lateral response time to a fast approaching lee-side rock by about a half a second. Here is the thing with a kayak versus a raft when it comes to fast-approaching walls: A kayak tips over almost immediately, whereas a raft usually climbs up the wall or rock for a few seconds, giving you more of a chance to do something about it. In both cases, you want to “highside”, or put the weight in the boat towards the rock so that the current rushing towards you cannot force the upstream tube of your boat down and over. It’s just that in a kayak you should do that about a second before you even hit the thing, or it’s game over. Same goes for big waves, actually, especially if you don’t yet have what those kayaker folks call “a brace.” My thinking is that this heightened sense of urgency will translate quite well into rafting.

The day did prove to me yet again, however, that I have far to go in my kayaking endeavors. Although I have to say, I was admittedly impressed with my own eddy-catching skills. No, not the kind of eddy-catching you do while still in your little inflatable boat. More the kind of eddy catching you do when you find yourself out of said boat above a rather rocky looking drop. I swam to that eddy in record breaking time.

So, the verdict is still out about the biggest reason that kayaking might be good for one’s rafting skills. I’ll keep working on my kayaking this winter, and who knows? Maybe when I’m not so busy paddling, leaning, and otherwise scrapping for my life I will learn more about those smaller currents all my kayaking friends keep telling me about. (They do exist). Either way, the Yuba that day was absolutely gorgeous, and I am sorry I didn’t have the camera with me to provide pictures!


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