WW Beginner Guide

(updated versions can be found here: https://docs.google.com/Doc?docid=0AQvZMbr-g4DyZGhicjd0OXNfMWhkNTI3cWdm&hl=en)

Arn & Deborah’s Newbie Guide to Paddling in Seattle

We started whitewater paddling in May 2006 with a class at Northwest Outdoor Center (NWOC). We like to say that we started to paddle “by accident” – in the sense that neither of us had any intention of actually enjoying whitewater paddling. We took the class because we had an extended sea kayaking trip planned and friends suggested that the best way to improve your sea kayaking skills was to take a whitewater class. Well, after taking the class we were hooked. But, we were a bit confused as to what to do next. How do we get started? What rivers should we try to run? How do we meet other people to hook up with to paddle? Etc.

So, after close to a year of finding our own path through the wilderness, we thought it might be useful to other newbies to document what has worked for us and what we’ve observed has worked for others. I don’t think we have any secret sauce and our goal is not to be class V boaters – we don’t have the aptitude or risk acceptance profile. We simply want to be competent on class III and easy class IV water.

This guide is divided into two parts – the first is a set of “steps” to get started. The second section is our observation of a reasonable order in which to run the rivers here in the Seattle area. The second section is also very opinionated – even more so than the first section. If we dissed your favorite run, we’re sorry, it is just our opinion – your mileage may vary.

Getting Started

Step#1: Get a roll – We were lucky in the sense that we both had “pool” rolls before we ever took a whitewater class. We decided in the fall of 2005/winter of 2006 to go to the pool sessions to learn how to roll our sea kayaks. We took a lesson locally but that didn’t work so well for us though I’m sure that there are classes here that are great. We got “The Kayak Roll” video and must have watched it 50 times – at least 2x before every pool session – and almost learned entirely to roll from the video. We would go to the pool sessions with a video camera and record each other’s failures (there were many) and try to debug what was going on wrong with the aid of the videos above. We also received lots of helpful coaching from random kayakers at the WKC pool sessions, and, in general, we’ve found that people are over the top helpful when they know you are learning. Sometimes the advice is not particularly actionable (“keep your head down”) when the real problem is resistance on the paddle. But, it is always done in a positive spirit. Our observed rule of thumb is that if you are 100% successful in the pool with your roll, you’ll be successful 90+% in the river. If you are successful 90% in the pool, you’ll be successful 50% or less on the river. This is one skill that you absolutely have to get to 100% success in the pool. On your first roll. Seriously. Special note to guys teaching wives, girlfriends, etc. to boat – Deborah would say that one of the only reasons she is comfortable on the river is because she invested in getting a solid roll before ever getting on the river. And, since Arn wrote most of this but asked for my input, I’ll throw in my two cents about getting the girl in your life to boat with you. As Arn said, having a solid roll has made a huge difference in my confidence. In the pool, I got Arn to stand at the stern of my boat. His job was to whip the boat in any direction and my job was to practice bracing and rolling. This was very helpful and he seemed to enjoy this opportunity immensely. It is a big investment in time and energy, and, let’s face it, the river is more fun than the pool. But swimming sucks, and at the risk of sounding sexist, the prospect is even scarier for women than men.

Step#1a: If you are swimming every trip, go back to step #1 and/or go back to easier rivers. We are both constantly amazed to see people on the river that don’t seem bothered swimming and never seem to have time for pool sessions. What’s up with that?? In your mind you need to believe in your roll and believe that swimming is not an option. There are lots of exercises you can try in the pool to simulate the river. Like getting someone to flip you over. Or try hanging out underwater for 15 seconds before rolling up. How about trying to pass your paddle from one side of the boat to the other while you are under water?  Try rolling over with the paddle behind your back.  How about with the paddle in one hand and upside down?  Bottom line: get comfortable spending time underwater.

Step#2: Take a class – Friends don’t teach friends how to boat. The reason we say this is that our observation is that most people want to run the river and/or play in the river. Instead, to get started, what you really need are lots of drills – peeling out, eddying out, ferrying, over and over and over again. And, let’s face it, most of the time, your friends want to run the river, not ferry the same stretch of river 100x or catch every eddy in the river. We took our classes with NWOC and thought that Herbie and John did a great job. I’m sure the other shops in Seattle are great as well as is the yearly WKC class.

Step #2A: Arn did a great job of finding classes for us. While I (Deborah) did sign up for the classes, I declared the right to put my boat off the river at any moment and to quit. I was both terrified and excited on our first river day. A big breakthrough happened for me on our 3rd river day. I decided the only way to have confidence in my roll was to start using it in current. So, while in class with the support of instructors, I started “peeling, dumping and rolling”. I didn’t care which side I flipped over on and I didn’t care which side was the upstream-side. Frankly, I didn’t know the difference. It was a huge gain to know I was going over and being ready to get my head upside-down and ready to roll. I looked for big waves and pushy water to me (i.e. about the force of you spitting watermelon seeds) to test it out. I believe the “peel, dump and roll” practice has been the key to my not pulling my boat out of the water and calling it quits. This was the confidence builder that let me have fun while my stomach was nervous.

Step#3: Invest in a drysuit and preferably get one that has sewn-in socks. Of course this is a big expense but you can always find used suits on craigslist and/or ebay and they don’t have to cost an arm and a leg. One of the guys we regularly boat with found a used one for $100. In 2007, another friend found a brand new 2005 Kokatat suit for just over $500. The difference in comfort and safety especially if you are boating in the winter is like the difference between night and day. Special note to guys teaching wives, girlfriends, etc. to boat – this is another area where we think that you can really improve your WAF (wife acceptance factor) score here by investing in the dry stuff (or renting a drysuit if you aren’t sure that they are going to like it). And, speaking as the WAF (or wife), I would not have made it without my drysuit. While Arn has done stuff in a wet suit in cold water, I have not. My drysuit has kept me warmer than any day I ever went downhill skiing (and that is a fair number of days). I would also recommend a pair of Glacier Gloves (fleece-lined) for your girl’s hands. They are the best I’ve found. And girls, if you get the gloves, I highly recommend practicing with them in the pool. I didn’t and it made for my worst day of paddling ever. I lost all feeling for the paddle. And let’s just say, on that day, I went kayaking on the Olympic Peninsula and my roll went for vacation elsewhere.

Step#4: Get active on Professor Paddle and with the Washington Kayak Club. Find some suitable trips for your skill level and talk to the trip organizer about where you are at. Under sell and over deliver on your ability level – everyone will be happier this way.

Step#5: Take a swift water rescue class; preferably with your boating buddies. We took our class with a group called Sierra Rescue on the Cedar River (with great instructors, Abigail Polsby and local Will Robens). A swift water rescue class will teach you how to be a good rescuer; but, even more importantly, how to be a good victim. You will get opportunities to practice swimming and breathing in rapids the correct way (breathe in the troughs of the waves). Yeah, we know what we said about swimming above but we are all between swims. Deborah hates swimming even more than Arn but she would say that after taking this class, it added another level of comfort to her boating. You’ll learn about simple (and more complicated) systems for rescuing boaters in trouble. And, that boater could be you - so understanding what your rescuers are going to do to try to save you will help you if you ever are in that situation.


A much more detailed description for all of these rivers is on the Professor Paddle and/or American Whitewater site.

First steps

Snoqualmie (Powerhouse), Yo Yo section of the Green – Both of these runs are short with places to practice all of the essential moves. Your class was probably on one of these rivers. Go back here. Practice.  In 2010, we have the unfortunate situation that both of these runs are problematic with respect to access (or will be soon).  Make sure you check websites to see the current situation.

Cedar – Other than the slalom course section (which is not for beginners), this run, IMHO, is boring and often full of wood. Go down the Cedar to see the Salmon in the October. Otherwise, skip it.

Upper Middle Fork of the Snoqualmie –This is a beautiful stretch of river and the vistas are so beautiful that it will remind you once again how lucky we all are to live in the Pacific Northwest. If you have II+/III skills, put-in as high as you can at a put-in known as “Bridge View.” The American Whitewater site has details of this new access point. None of the rapids are particularly difficult on this run but wood can be a problem. We’d argue it provides a great wilderness experience practically in our backyard and should not be missed even by much more experienced kayakers. And, if you have the skills, you can continue on the Middle-Middle section of the Middle Fork of the Snoqualmie and put together an 18 mile run. Unfortunately, the road may not be open all the way to the "Bridge View" put-in as of May 2010.  But, access is now reopened to the Middle Fork Campground and Taylor Bridge so you can 

Club Section of the Middle Fork of the Snoqualmie – We’ve never run this put it is a fairly popular run for new boaters.

Next steps

Railroad Bridge to Big Eddy section of the Skykomish – This is a great run though has the unfortunate feature of having the hardest rapids first. There are two choices here. The first choice and easiest put-in is above the Railroad Bridge at Split Rock. Unfortunately, that means you run a solid class 3 rapid as soon as you get started. And, to make matters worse, the easiest line is river right so you have to ferry across the river to be on the correct line for this rapid. The other alternative is to put in below the Railroad Bridge. This avoids most of the class 3 rapid to get started but there is still some more difficult water here. The second rapid you come to is the other hard rapid on this run – Fisherman’s. So, great run, lots of places to practice, and almost always flowing. But, it starts with the hardest water first.

SF Snoqualmie – This is our favorite beginner run close to Seattle. IMHO, this run has everything – beautiful scenery and lots of variety. It starts off with a short rapid, followed by lots of flat water building up to a great canyon, a weir and some surf waves. At low flows, the canyon is technical and provides lots of opportunities to practice everything you learned in class. At high flows, the canyon becomes class III and is an explosion of big fun waves (and hard to catch eddies – be careful). You can also drag your boat up ½ mile above the normal put-in and run a fun class III “boogie water” section. There is one problem with this run – that is water. It is not reliable so catch it when you can.

Headworks Section of the Green – We’re sure many will disagree with us on this but we really don’t like this run. The scenery is boring and the river does not contain many well defined rapids. Yes, there are a couple of great surf waves, for sure. And, the one class 3 rapid (another weir) is fun. But the rest of the river is void of features and the nature of the river (dam controlled) means that there is lots of vegetation on the sides and there are not a great number of eddys. This means that swims can be long here. And, to make matters worse, the level is totally unreliable because the people that control the flows like to mess with the kayakers. Skip it.

Lower Green Gorge – This is a beautiful section of river that is close to Seattle and has an altogether different feel than the other rivers listed in this document. The beginning of this section (put-in at Paradise) feels very much like an Olympic Peninsula river. Steep canyon, lush vegetation, undercut walls. The put-in is a bit treacherous and the shuttle is a bit on the long side. Still, it is a beautiful river and contains more class 3 rapids than any of the other rivers in this section of the document. Unfortunately, the run starts out with the most difficult rapid first. So, be prepared and try this after feeling confident on some of the other rivers listed above.

Wenatchee – Everyone’s favorite play run in eastern Washington. Okay, everyone except Arn. No really, Arn likes it too but it really is for play. If you don’t want to do a great deal of playing, make sure you choose your paddling buddies carefully when heading to the Wenatchee. Runs from Rodeo Hole to Cashmere (the best play section) can last 25 minutes or all day depending on how much play you are doing.

Moving On

Skykomish (Cable Drop to Split Rock or Index to Split Rock) – This is a great run with reliable flows. Try running it below 2000cfs to get started and plan on walking Boulder Drop for a while. You can combine this with the Split Rock to Big Eddy run for a nice relaxing wind down after the excitement of the upper section. When you decide it is time to run Boulder Drop, a good first time level is around 1500-1750 cfs. The section above the pickets isn’t too pushy at this level and the lower section (after airplane turn) isn’t too technical. With more water (say 2200), the entry rapid is harder but the lower section is a little easier. Choose your poison! Our best advice is not to be in a big hurry to run Boulder Drop. It is significantly harder than every other rapid on the Sky and harder than any other rapid in this Newbie guide. Many in Seattle will tell you about their swims in Boulder Drop and how the rapid has been swam every such way and it isn’t a big deal. But, people have had very scary swims here – even at low water – and had some close calls as well as serious injuries.

Sauk – This run does not seem to be run by Seattle area boaters very much and we’re not entirely sure why. Perhaps because it is similar in nature to the Middle Middle and a lot further away (about 1.5 hours to the take-out). But, it is fun and there are a number of boaters active on Professor Paddle that live north of Everett and boat the Sauk regularly. More technical than the Sky and less of a pool drop nature to the river. The gauge on the Sauk is rather interesting in that it is located downstream of the confluence with another river. And, since the two rivers have drainages at different elevation levels, readings in the winter aren’t comparable to the spring. 4000 cfs feels too low to us in the winter but fine in the spring. 7500 cfs is a crankin’ good time in the summer once you know the lines.

Middle section of the Middle Fork of the Snoqualmie (Middle Middle) – This is our favorite intermediate run close to Seattle. Beautiful scenery, lots of fun rapids and technical rock gardens. If you liked the SF of the Snoqualmie, you’ll love the Middle Middle. Look for something under 2000 cfs, preferably under 1500 cfs to get started. The website lists 1000 cfs as a minimum but we’ve run this at 900 and know others that have run this at 800. Personally, we feel that the easiest level for this river is around 1250-1300 cfs. Below this level, there are more rocks and strangely, House Rocks, to us, seems harder at water levels lower than this. The holes aren’t as big but the current doesn’t guide you as well through the crux section at low water levels. As a simple rule of thumb, House Rocks at 1500 cfs is class III+; at 2500 cfs, consider it IV- and at 3500 cfs consider it a class IV. Most local boaters put-in below 1st Island Drop and do not run the section between Concrete Bridge and 1st Island Drop. But, that section is fun too and if you want to extend your trip, consider putting in at Concrete Bridge. Also, there are some other take-out or put-in options to create either a class III only trip (no House Rocks) or a “Best-of Middle Middle” to run (or avoid) the section below A-Frame rapid. Talk to someone that knows.

SF Stilly (Middle) – This is a fun class III (III+) run around 6.0 feet on the gauge and ½ step easier than the upper section of the Sky (without Boulder Drop). At 7.5 feet, it is mostly class II and class III “boogie water”, a couple of class IV rapids, and one very dangerous wood obstacle just above the take-out. Be careful.

Upper Green Gorge –The Upper Gorge is even more beautiful than the Lower Gorge but it is significantly harder. The Middle Middle should feel rather boring at 2500 cfs before jumping on the Upper Gorge. It isn’t that the Upper Gorge is so much harder than the Middle Middle – rather, it just feels much more remote and committing than the Middle Middle. There is no easy road access once you are in the Gorge and your buddies could have trouble reaching you if you get yourself stuck in a bad place. The only big minus about this run is the take-out – that is, the climb out from Paradise (or the hot springs) is a real grunt for weaklings like Arn! In fact, our current mode of running the Gorge is to run both the Upper and Lower together for a beautiful 11 mile paddle.

White Salmon (BZ Corner to Husum) - This is an amazing run and a fantastic place to go in July and August when everything in Seattle has dried up.  The run starts with an optional class IV rapid (Maytag/Top Drop).  Put in above, below or in the middle of this drop - it's your choice.  It ends with Husum Falls - run it or portage it.  I used to try to talk Deborah into running this falls but stopped after the falls changed in 2009 after some logs were stuck at the base for a while.  I've seen lots of people have some serious downtime since then.  At summertime flows, it isn't that difficult to hit your line - still, take it seriously.

Tieton – This is a unique run in that the river comes to life in September when everything else is dry. We have mixed feelings about this run – it doesn’t have a great deal of rapids on it to keep an intermediate boater interested and it is continuous enough with likely wood obstacles that could really get a beginner in trouble. Be careful.

Toutle – This is another unique run as it features lots of tangled debris from the Mount St. Helens eruption of almost 30 years ago. This run has two really fun sections and lots of flat water in the middle. Try it mid-winter when nothing else is running and you are tired of another Sky run @ 1500 cfs. The crux rapid is an easy class IV rapid @ 2500 cfs and there are a couple of other fun class III+ rapids on this run as well.

Beckler – The Beckler is difficult to classify.  It is mostly class II and class III boogie water without many defined rapids.  The first mile drops about 100 feet per mile and is in a beautiful setting but after that, the setting isn't as great and the boogie water steps down a notch.  Still, this is not a river to take lightly - especially at high water - because of the ever present wood danger.  When we ran this river in 2008, there were three or four required wood portages and the wood can come up quickly due to the nature of the river (lots of boogie water, limited eddies).  We'd say skip it as it has the same issues as the Tieton - limited interest for the intermediate boater and lots of potential problems for a beginner.

Multi-Day and International

Rogue – The Rogue is a fantastic 3 or 4 day kayak trip in Southern Oregon.  The scenery is great and it is a perfect first multi-day trip in a kayak.  In fact, we did this trip as our 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th day ever in a whitewater kayak.  We went with DeRiemer Adventure Kayaking and can't say enough great things about Phil & Mary.  The Rogue is a perfect place to work on your roll and improve your river skills.  If you are comfortable on the South Fork of the Snoqualmie, you'll probably enjoy the Rogue.  And, if you go on a raft supported trip and you are unsure about any of the rapids or Mule Creek Canyon, you can always throw your boat on the raft. 

Middle Fork of the Salmon – Another great multi-day kayaking trip, this one in Idaho.  Getting a permit is difficult - especially if you want to try to get a permit when there is good water and good weather.  Joining a commercial trip is easy (but expensive).  If you are comfortable on the Middle Middle at 2500, you'll love the Middle Fork of the Salmon at 3.5 feet.  100 miles of III-IV water (mostly class III) and fantastic scenery.  What more could you ask for.

Grand Canyon - For many, paddling the Grand Canyon is the ultimate kayak trip.  Unique scenery, spectacular hikes and big waves.  For us, unlike the MF Salmon trip, the Grand Canyon is literally (and figuratively) a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  We loved seeing it and especially enjoyed all of the fantastic hikes up the side canyons.  But the flat water, sand and incredible heat won't have us going back anytime soon.  We suspect this is a minority opinion among paddlers.  Anyway, if you are solid in class III and have a bombproof roll, you'll be fine on virtually all the rapids on the Grand Canyon.  Most rapids are one move wonders with huge pools of flat water at the bottom.  Keep paddling until you are totally past the boil zone at the bottom of rapids; stay out of the scariest of eddies and have fun!

Costa Rica – We aren't class V kayakers so if Costa Rica is your favorite place, well, ignore the rest of this.  Costa Rica is relatively close and the water is warm.  You can drink the water and eat the food.  And the country is relatively safe.  If you enjoy running away from walls while kayaking, Costa Rica is for you!  Seriously though, even though the Pacuare River is truly beautiful, the quality and variety of the whitewater isn't as good as Ecuador or Chile (see below).

Ecuador – Ecuador is a poor country.  There are health concerns (food and water) as well as safety concerns (in the large cities).  But the people - especially in the countryside - are friendly and the scenery is beautiful.  And, the variety of rivers is outstanding.  Finally, your $$$ go a long way in Ecuador.  If you are comfortable on the Upper Green Gorge, you'll enjoy a III+ or IV- trip in Ecuador.  We've gone twice with the DeRiemers but others in Seattle have gone with Small World Adventures and have really enjoyed their trips as well.  One of the nicest things about Ecuador for paddling is the accessibility.  You can get a full week of paddling in while only missing a full week of work (leave on Saturday, return the following Sunday).  The only bad thing about paddling there in January is that it is practically impossible to get back in your drysuit and face the cold water and snowy Pacific NW put-ins after paddling in a shorty.

Chile – Chile is our favorite place to visit in South America.  The food and water is safe practically everywhere and there are very few safety concerns - even in the large cities, even at night.  We use our "women and children" test when we travel and if women are walking alone or with small children, it is usually safe.    We haven't paddled in Pucon though there is supposed to be great creeking there.  We have paddled on the Futaleufu and it is fantastic.  You don't need to be a class V boater to enjoy the Fu, but you probably want class IV skills so you can run the vast majority of the river.  We did our trip with Bio Bio Expeditions and were over-the-top elated with their camp and the overall experience.  Great location, beautiful setting, fantastic food and amenities.  Even if you just want to hang out, cycle, run, or raft, this is a great place.  The only big negative is that it takes an awfully long time to get here.  There is no option for the quick one week pop-in, pop-out experience like in Ecuador.  Have fun!

(posted with permission from the authors)