Paddling with Darren Bush
It’s that time of year when a lot of us are itching to get on the water, even if it’s cold water and the rivers are running high from all that glorious Spring rain. A glance at the parking lot at work shows 75% of the cars have boats on them, making the 25% look sad and lonely.
It’s also the time of year when we discover that some of our favorite river and streams have added some arboreal obstacles. Wind, ice, floods and general winter mayhem have transformed your favorite stretch into an aquatic American Gladiator course. Silver maples, willows and cottonwoods like the moisture, but that puts them in precarious conundrum; while water is life, water also takes the soil from around your roots and lands you in the drink. And this doesn’t even take into account hungry, gnawing beavers who hate running water more than the Army Corps of Engineers.
When you come around a bend and there’s a new impediment, there are three possibilities you encounter: the Complete Block, the Partial Block, and the Limbo. Here’s how I handle them.
The Complete Block
The Complete Block is an easy one, once you determine that’s what it is. You get out; you go around the obstruction. A giant cottonwood or two can block off a small river with ease.
A complete block can be tricky if the banks are steep and muddy, as they often are in the spring. Kayakers have a disadvantage in this situation. Standing up in a narrower boat with a smaller cockpit and getting your legs under you is a challenge. I suggest you practice getting in and out of your kayak somewhere when there’s not a large tree across the stream twenty feet from you. Canoeists have an easier time standing and hauling themselves out, but it still takes practice. So practice.
Sometimes you can (carefully) navigate over a log if you’re in a canoe. I’ll drop my bow paddler on the shore, paddle up on the log, step to the center of the canoe, and pull it over the log. I then jump back in (carefully) and pick up my bow paddler on the other side of the obstruction. This can be tricky and dangerous if you fall in the water upstream of the obstruction, since the current could trap you against it. If you do start to fall, fall downstream, but the best plan is to avoid falling altogether.
The Partial Block
The Partial Block is the most common scenario. Many popular rivers are maintained by clubs, outfitters, or kind and magnanimous individuals. Just cutting out 4 or 5 feet of a Complete Block is sufficient to make it fairly easy to poke through, with one caveat – you need to hit the gap or you’re going to be wet, angry and possibly in a position where your life can be endangered.
When trees fall, they create a strainer. It’s just want it sounds like; they let water through, but nothing else, including boats, paddles, cargo and paddlers. Stuff can be replaced; paddlers can’t.
If you take nothing else away from this short epistle, it’s this. Don’t mess with strainers. The good news is that there are ways to get around them if you do something completely not intuitive.
Current affects your boat more than you think. When you’re pointing straight upstream or downstream, the current can slip by and you hardly notice its impact. But turn your canoe or kayak broadside to the current, and you’ll see how quickly you’re pushed around. Look at it this way: if your kayak has a waterline of approximately twelve feet (144 inches), and your kayak has a draft of a few inches, that’s not too different than water pushing a 288 square inch piece of wood submerged in the current. Water is dense, and it always wins.
Most folks will do what’s natural, and paddle like heck for the gap. While they make forward motion, they also made downstream motion. Sometimes, it’s right into the upstream branches of a strainer, which is exactly where you don’t want to be.
So instead of making it through the gap, they end up like this. This is inconvenient at best and dangerous at worst.
So why not let all this current work to your advantage? Take a breath and fight the urge to paddle for the gap. Instead, point your boat where you don’t want to (into the strainer) and back paddle.
Now the current is pushing against your upstream side of the canoe, and with the angle of the boat you’re going to hold position relative to the banks of the stream. Wait and let the canoe or kayak slide to the left, and after you’re lined up, paddle forward and through the gap.
It’s hard to do that without (again) practice. It’s called a backferry, which makes sense – you’re going backwards, you’re ferrying across the river, without making any forward or backward motion. Again, find a place in the river where there are no obstructions and practice moving back and forth across the river without moving relative to the banks.
The key to a successful ferry is the angle. Too little angle relative to the current and you move glacially, and too much and you just slide down the river. Every boat is different, as I sometimes forget when I try to execute a ferry and realize I’m just sitting there, or I suddenly find myself 10 yards downstream from where I thought I was.
The Limbo is a satisfying way to get past a downfall. It’s simple: look for a spot where you can go under the obstruction. Sometimes, the side near the shore where the tree went down has a tall enough bank, and perhaps the roots of the tree are large enough to elevate the trunk.
In that case, approach cautiously, back-paddling to control your speed. In canoes, this is fairly easy; just sit on the bottom of the canoe and see how low you can go, and let the current pull you through the gap. In kayaks, it’s a lot tricker, so make sure you have room to hug your deck.
Of course, when I showed these sketches to my friends, one of them said, “Just stick to the blue stuff.” He’s right, of course, but if it were that easy, I wouldn’t find so many flip-flops, half-full bottles of sunscreen and assorted hats caught in eddies downstream of a bunch of deadfall. I have also found various pieces of swimwear. The former owners must have improvised some modest alternatives for the long ride home.
Let me be clear: operating a paddle craft in and around downfall is potentially dangerous and requires skill to avoid trapping yourself and your craft in the debris. Only by practicing maneuvering your canoe or kayak in low-stress, low-risk situations can you gain the skills you need when you come around the corner and are faced with a quick decision.
The time to learn the reaction skills is before you need them.