Imagine the day yawning with promise as you step toward the cool, clear running water. At the river, it’s usually calm where you start, but you know before long that serenity, that calmness, will be replaced by a thrill that few other things in nature can match. River rafting has been a part of cultures for thousands of years and while for a majority of these years it was about survival, river rafting in today’s culture is about the thrill of excitement, embracing nature and all the power it holds within it, and being out among the open air, listening to the deafening roar of that power all around you.
When people tend to think of river rafting, they have visions of whitewater rapids, of a washing machine type of rolls of the water crashing over and around rocks, smashing everything that comes near it into oblivion. But this is only one image of river rafting. There are many levels and grades of river rafting, many that don’t actually produce any whitewater, but still offer the peaceful serenity and occasional excitement that comes from drifting down a river in the middle of a glorious afternoon.
Hundreds of years ago, river rafting was a necessity of survival, carrying traders to different towns and villages to earn a living. It also connected different tribes of people to each other, opened up a world of opportunity, and posed some critical challenges of survival. For millions of people around the world, there is a lure about water that tends to draw them close to it, whether it’s to the ocean to feel the waves splash against the ankles, or to lakes to enjoy an afternoon swim, or to the rivers to enjoy the constant power and presence that is the core of nature.
Rivers have carved out some of the most breathtaking scenery in the entire world, from canyons and ravines to inlets and capillaries that make up our modern civilization. It’s natural to want to be surrounded by this power, to be a part of it, and to share in its glory, if only for a few minutes, or hours, at a time.
River rafting simply offers an experience of a lifetime for anyone willing to take the chance. The unique aspect about river rafting that separates it from all other forms of outdoor adventure is that it is open to anyone and everyone. You don’t need to succumb to the pressures of Grade 6 rapids –those harsh, nearly un-navigable rivers- to enjoy river rafting. No, there are numerous Grade 1 rapids that one could even float down in a tube, just to bask in the glory of nature surrounding them.
If you have ever wondered just what it would be like to river raft, then you’re already on your way to experiencing the thrill of a lifetime.
River rafting has been around for a long time, though it became intensely popular as a recreational activity during the nineteen-eighties. While many people tend to think of river rafting as the intense, thrill-seeking adventure, the majority of the river rafting excursions that are popular involve minimal impact and are incredibly safe.
Men and women have attempted to navigate almost every river and every section of every river that exists throughout the world. Some rivers are quite still and calm and barely bristle with any movement and instead act more like lakes than rivers while others fall at steep grades, conjuring up rolling water that can swallow an entire boat, shatter it or tear it to shreds, and then hide most of the evidence.
It is believed that the rubber river raft, the predecessor to today’s modern river rafts, was invented in the 1840s by Lieutenant John Fremont. The intent of this invention was to explore the Rocky Mountain region as well as the Great Plains. Beyond that, the first commercial river rafting trip occurred at the turn of the century. Of course, in the beginning, military surplus rafts were the choice of professional whitewater trips and the inflatable rubber rafts came along as a reliable alternative much later.
As with most inventions and expansions of business throughout the twentieth centuries, it was the private enterprise that altered the face of river rafting, as a business, in the mid part of the century. John D. Rockefeller, one of the most notable names in business throughout the twentieth century, built a resort that introduced floating trips down river. It was the first of its kind in the country, but it didn’t meet with the reception that Rockefeller apparently had hoped it would. By the time the nineteen-sixties and nineteen-seventies rolled around, whitewater rafting companies began to form and take shape. These were exclusive companies that catered to an elite population. Some of these earliest companies included Becker-Cooke Expeditions and Slickrock Adventures.
In its earliest days as a commercial enterprise, river rafting offered the thrill of excitement amongst the power of nature and this attractive a number of people to its daring and heart-pounding thrills. It is arguable that other factors also led to its rise in popularity, including the constant attempts of some high-flying adventurers to tumble over the falls at Niagara, New York.
People have constantly been in search of greater thrills when it comes to the outdoors. The greater the thrill, the higher the adrenaline rush that a person gets and the toughest rapids in the country provide some of the most intense thrills. River rafting is, for the most part, unlike any other sport or recreational activity in that a person can navigate the same grade 5 or grade 2 rapids day in and day out, but the risk remains the same, regardless of the experience level.
The popularity of river rafting took off in the nineteen-eighties, thanks in large part to its inclusion as a sport in the Olympic Games in Munich in 1972. It has since been featured in a number of movies, including The River Wild, and more Olympic competitions, including 1992 in Barcelona and 1996 in Atlanta.
River rafting has taken on a life of its own and with the safety equipment, new technology of rafts, helmets, life vests, GPS navigation, and more, it has become even more accessible and enjoyable for people of almost all ages and all walks of life.
Grades of Water
The ranking system is designed to give rafters an idea what to expect before setting out on a trip. Sections of a river can have multiple ratings resulting in a range. This will indicate the extremes of what that section has to offer.
This is an indication of a very calm section of water. There may be a minor degree of paddling. Examples of this may include a slight bend in the river. This is the perfect level for socializing and relaxation.
This is the type of classification when your main goal has more to do with enjoying the view. The skill level required is minimal which makes it perfect for everyone in the family.
In this classification the speed of the water has increased. There may be a few minor obstacles and rocks in your way. This may mean you have slightly more paddling to do. This level will require you to be generally aware of your surroundings.
There is still little to no danger in this class. It is also probably the highest level that first time rafters should face. It allows for a decent amount of practice with the paddle and can build up needed arm strength for more challenging classes.
Water at this speed can actually be classified as white water. This means the spray and disturbance in the water forms white foam. There will be rocks and possibly a dip or two.
At this level it is recommended to have people experienced in paddling. The danger posed is not great, but it will definitely soak you.
Here the white water gets rougher. The waves you encounter go from small to medium. There will definitely be rocks and drops to get the heart pounding.
Advanced rafters should only attempt this level. A strong team will be needed to work effectively and avoid the obstacles.
This is the highest level that most rafters will ever attempt. The waves have now progressed to being high. The rocks are bigger and the drops are farther.
This is a dangerous level even for experienced rafters. Only with an expert team should this be attempted.
A class 6 section of water is pretty much telling people not to try it. However, this does not stop some people. This classification says that the passage is unmanageable. You can’t navigate it.
Those who attempt it are either fools or the best in the world. Usually people will say they are both. Bodily injury is almost assured. There is also a high probability of death.
What to do
When you are rafting in a group of rafts, there are many occasions to communicate between rafts. Many guides will instruct you on all the signals you’ll need to know. However, you can make sure that a few basics are covered.
When covering these signals it is good to do so before you’re on the water. If you wait the need for one of the signals may arise before you have learned it. The following are examples of some of the most basic signals. As seen, there can be multiple ways to signal the same thing. This difference may occur between different outfitters.
Every raft in the group needs to show readiness. If you don’t you may start before all the gear has been packed. This can be important gear like a first aid kit or slightly less important like someone’s sun block.
Whatever the case, it is important to make sure that everyone is ready for the trip. There’s nothing more inconvenient when someone needs to use the bathroom and they couldn’t because other rafters just couldn’t wait to see if everyone was ready. This is especially troubling when that someone is you.
To execute this move hold your paddle straight up in the air. Remember to shake excess water off before signaling. Eventually you will get wet, but you don’t have to start your trip already soaked.
For some outfitters a fist raised in the air can serve the same purpose. Whatever the signal is make sure that all agree how to read it. You don’t need every raft responding differently to a command that means one thing.
On occasion you may need to stop for any number of reasons. That person who didn’t go to the restroom can’t hold it any more and needs to pop into the woods for some relief. This may be embarrassing, but it could be dangerous if your group gets completely separated. Therefore this command is helpful.
To execute this move hold your paddle above your head. Grip the paddle in the middle so it forms a T shape. This is often referred to as holding your paddle across the river.
The other way to give the same signal without the paddle is to hold your arms straight out. In this maneuver, your whole body forms the T shape. This is necessary for the times when you’ve lost your paddle. If this happens to you it is easy to see the value in stopping.
Trouble or Help
Safety is a major concern in any sport. Many times something unexpected will happen while rafting. When emergencies like this happen you will need to inform everyone in the group.
This move involves holding the paddle above your head and making a swirling motion. This signifies that all the rafts should gather up and assist. This is probably one of the most important signals.
With many higher level forms of rafting something unexpected is very likely to happen. The event may involve a serious exchange with the river or sudden collision with something.
If injury does occur you should use the trouble or help signal. However, sometimes it just looks bad. In these cases your team may need a moment to regain their bearings. This is when you need to give the okay signal.
This tells the others in the group that there are no problems and that they can continue.
This signal involves putting your paddle across your lap. Then you raise your arms above your head to form an O. This signal is often done when you reach calmer waters since relinquishing your paddle could get dicey in rougher conditions.
This is an especially useful signal when there are bends or side channels to a river. The twists in the river may cut off vision from the entire group. This will cut vision down to only a raft or two in front and one in back.
When this happens, the raft in the lead will need to indicate which direction to go in. That way the message can be relayed to all the rafts no matter the terrain limitations.
This signal is probably the most simple. Raise your paddle and point where you are planning to go. The only thing to keep an eye out for is never point at an obstruction in the water with your paddle. If you do you will be instructing the following rafts right into it.
Equipment Needed for River Rafting
Perhaps the best thing about river rafting in the twenty-first century is that one doesn’t need to own any equipment to take part in a thrilling adventure down the rapids of a river. Nearly every professional, commercial river rafting expedition company throughout the country has its own fleet of rafts, life vests, helmets, guides, and instruction so that you can simply tag along for the ride, hang on, and let the spirit of excitement and adventure take over.
There are those die-hard thrill seekers, though, who prefer to tame the roaring rapids on their own, and while they have most likely been taking trips down river for many years, anyone can set out on their own adventure, at least on the lower grade rapids, with the most basic equipment.
The first and most important thing that anyone will need is a life vest. Unlike many boating trips that people take across lakes and down gently flowing rivers, life vests on any river rapid trip should be worn at all times. Even the tamest of rapids can pose some threat of capsizing the boat, tossing the person into the water, and when the river is flowing, it can pull a person downstream quite quickly. It doesn’t matter whether this individual has great swimming prowess or not, anything can happen on a river.
A person can slip out of the raft and hit his or her head on a jutting rock. He or she could be tangled in branches or debris or have their wrist tangled in the rope that runs along the edge of the raft (for hanging onto). Always wear a life vest.
The next thing every river rafting person should have is a helmet. This is in case they are tossed overboard, or encounter strong rapids that toss the raft around. Rocks are commonplace in rivers. So are branches floating by. One minor concussion to the head can cause temporary blindness, or knock a person unconscious. It’s simply not worth the risk to take. Wear a helmet.
The last thing a person needs is a raft. Ideally, the raft that one chooses should be large enough to hold two to four people and you should never head out onto the rapids alone. Even the most experienced river rafting experts prefer to head downriver with at least one other person.
Oars are essential to navigating the rapids successfully. These oars should be plastic composite, designed to withstand intense forces, be able to float, and they will likely be short. These oars are unlike the oars of rowboats in that their purpose isn’t to propel the craft through the water, which is what the river’s flow does naturally, but to steer or guide the raft to certain sides of the river.
How to Start the River Rafting Experience
In nearly every part of the country, there are rivers. Some are more intense than others, but rarely will one be unable to find quality rapids to begin their river rafting experience. The first thing that one needs to do in order to enjoy river rafting is to contact a local river rafting company and sign up for a trip downstream.
Think small. Begin small. Someone who has never taken part in a grade 4 or grade 5 rapids trip will not only find the experience terrifying, although most likely thrilling at the same time, they will be a liability to the other individuals in the raft. Experience matters on the water and you will likely find much more enjoyment if you focus on taking is slow and start out with the tamer rapids first.
When you find that river rafting is ideal for you and your adventurous spirit, then you can inquire about higher grade rapids. Different companies will have different policies about grades of rapids, so you may have to call around to several companies before finding one that will take you where you want to go.
One note of importance: If you ever plan on tackling rapids on your own, or ideally with another experienced river rafting friend, many national and state parks prohibit river rafting in certain, treacherous regions of the river. Taking part in a trip downstream could result in arrest for trespassing. This is usually the case when the rapids, or the underlying factors, such as depth of water, drop-offs, or flood induced debris makes it dangerous for anyone to navigate.
Types of Obstacles
The following are descriptions of types of obsticles you`ll find while rafting. Many of these are only found in higher classes or grades of water conditions.
Strainers are formed when an object blocks the passage of larger objects but allows the flow of water to continue - like a big food strainer or colander. These objects can be very dangerous, because the force of the water will pin an object or body against the strainer and then pile up, pushing it down under water. For a person caught in this position, it will be difficult or impossible to get to safety, often leading to fatal outcome.
Strainers are formed by many different natural or man-made objects, like storm grates over tunnels, trees that have fallen into a river ("log jam"), bushes by the side of the river that are flooded during high water, wire fence, rebar from broken concrete structures in the water, or other debris. Strainers occur naturally most often on the outside curves of rivers where the current undermines the shore exposing the roots of trees and causing them to fall into the river forming strainers.
In an emergency it is often best to try and climb on top of a strainer so as not to be pinned against the object under the water. If you are in a river, swimming aggressively away from the strainer and into the main channel is your best bet. If you cannot avoid the strainer, you should swim hard towards it and try to get as much of your body up and over it as possible.
Sweepers are trees fallen in or heavily leaning over the river, still rooted on the shore and not fully submerged. Its trunk and branches may form an obstruction in the river like strainers. Since it is an obstruction from above, it often does not contribute to whitewater features but may create turbulence. In fast water sweepers can pose a serious hazard to paddlers.
Holes, or "hydraulics", (also known as "stoppers" or "souse-holes"), are formed when water pours over the top of a submerged object, causing the surface water to flow back upstream toward the object. Holes can be particularly dangerous—a boater may become stuck in the recirculating water—or entertaining playspots, where paddlers use the holes` features to perform various playboating moves. In high-volume water, holes dramatically aerate the water, possibly to the point where it may even lose the capacity to carry any water craft.
Some of the most dangerous types of holes are formed by lowhead dams (weirs), underwater ledges, and similar types of obstruction. In lowhead dams, the hole has a very symmetrical character - there`s no weak point - and where the sides of the hydraulic are often blocked by a man-made wall, making it impossible to slip off the side of the hydraulic.[clarification needed] Lowhead dams are insidiously dangerous because their danger cannot be easily recognized by people who have not studied whitewater.
Waves are formed in a similar nature to hydraulics and are sometimes also considered hydraulics as well. Waves are noted by the large smooth face on the water rushing down. Sometimes a particularly large wave will also be followed by a "wave train", a long series of waves. These standing waves can be smooth or, particularly the larger ones, can be breaking waves (also called "whitecaps" or "haystacks").
Because of the rough and random pattern of a riverbed, waves are often not perpendicular to the river`s current. This makes them challenging for boaters since a strong sideways or diagonal (also called " a lateral") wave can throw the craft off.
In fluid mechanics, waves are classified as laminar, but the whitewater world has also included waves with turbulence ("breaking waves") under the general heading of waves.
Pillows are formed when a large flow of water runs into a large obstruction, causing water to "pile up" or "boil" against the face of the obstruction. Pillows can be dangerous because sometimes the object that forms the pillow is undercut and so paddlers can be swept underwater - possibly to be entrapped. Pillows are also known as "pressure waves".
Eddies are formed, like hydraulics, on the downstream face of an obstruction. Unlike hydraulics, eddies swirl on the horizontal surface of the water. Typically, they are calm spots where the downward movement of water is partially or fully arrested - a nice place to rest or to make one`s way upstream. However, in very powerful water, eddies can have powerful, swirling currents which can flip boats and from which escape can be very difficult.
Undercut rocks are rocks that have been worn down underneath the surface by the river, or loose boulders which cantilever out beyond their resting spots on the riverbed. They can be extremely dangerous features of a rapid because a person can get trapped underneath them underwater. This is especially true of rocks that are undercut on the upstream side. Here, a boater may become pinned against the rock underwater. Many whitewater deaths have occurred in this fashion. Undercuts sometimes have pillows, but other times the water just flows smoothly under them, which can indicate that the rock is undercut. Undercuts are most common in rivers where the riverbed cuts through sedimentary rocks like limestone rather than igneous rock like granite. In a steep canyon, the side walls of the canyon can also be undercut.
A particularly notorious undercut rock is Dimple Rock, in Dimple Rapid on the Lower Youghiogheny River in Pennsylvania. Nine people have died here, including three in 2000.
Another major whitewater feature is a sieve, which is a narrow empty space that water flows through between two obstructions, usually rocks. Similar to strainers, water is forced through the sieve, resulting in higher pressures which forces water up and creates turbulence.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is it safe?
Under the right guidance, river rafting has become an incredibly safe adventure. For those who take it into their own hands, then safety becomes a secondary consideration. Always seek out experienced professionals for your river rafting experience.
Do I need to be able to swim?
No, though it helps with one’s comfort level on the water. Life vests keep you afloat, should you –in the rare event- go overboard. Most of the time, though, you never actually have to enter the water.
River rafting has become a popular and exhilarating experience for millions of people every year. Setting out on the river with the expectation of thrills and excitement, of enjoying the peaceful serenity and wonder that nature offers as you gently float downriver, knowing soon enough that you will encounter rougher water, rolling currents, and that these will toss your boat around, try to bounce you from the raft, and make you hold on tight, is enough to attract most adventurous spirits.
Even for those who have less of an adventurous side to them, river rafting on lower graded rapids, such as grades 1 or grades 2, simply offers the wonder of a world that can often be forgotten in our hustle and bustle world, the fast-paced life that many of us have become accustomed to. River rafting can bring us back –if only briefly- to our childhood wonder and awe of the world around us.