By Graham Litman
Being prepared BEFORE you go on a whitewater kayaking trip
As someone who grew up on Vancouver Island I was always interested in learning to paddle rivers but never knew how to get into the sport. For a place with so many quality runs, whitewater kayaking is a surprisingly underground sport on Vancouver Island. Hopefully this post will make the learning curve a bit easier.
Know Where and When to go:
One of the main things that separates white water kayaking from other outdoor sports is that a river is more like a living thing than pretty much any part of the natural world. Rivers have moods that are dependent on how much rain has fallen and the character of the riverbed.They may be anything from slow and listless, to fast and playful, to angry and violent. Sometimes you’re in the mood to go out and wrestle with a couple of tons of crashing water, but it’s nice to know what the river is going to be doing in advance so you can get pumped up with the right soundtrack on the drive up.
When I’m planning a trip I start by checking the weather forecast for the river’s drainage basin. A drainage basin is the area where water collects upstream of the section you’re thinking of running. I find the weather network page for the Cowichan valley works well for most South Island Rivers. I’ll also check the government water gauges online or on the app to figure out how much water is currently in the rivers and compare the expected level to river guides.
A few options are Liquidlore, BC-WW and Whitewater kayaker books, as well as your own river journal. If I’m planning to take my kayak out in the surf, I use Magic Seaweed and look for a 4 or 5 star rating for the relevant surf break.
In addition to rain, temperature is also an important consideration. Cold weather, in addition to being uncomfortable can be dangerous in the event of prolonged exposure. Modern gear, like a Kokatat drysuit, makes paddling in colder weather more feasible but,even with proper gear a prolonged rescue in freezing weather can be serious.
In terms of river difficulties, I think that it’s important to keep ratings consistent to avoid the “class IV is way easier where I come from” problem. This generally seems to come up when your stuck in a steep canyon with a bunch of Americans. I try to use the International Scale of River Difficulty as much as possible to avoid confusion.
Know Who to go With
In the past few years of paddling rivers, I’ve had some of the best days of my life, as well as some pretty scary ones. It’s not too hard to put together a crew to have a good time with. Whitewater kayaking attracts the type of people that can turn a three-hour car ride into a mobile house-party. The challenge is making sure that if things get out of control, you have people you can count on.
A good rule of thumb I have learned from Clay Derouin is to assign a +1 to strong paddlers capable of rescuing someone, a 0 to paddlers who can look out for themselves but who don’t know the river well, and a -1 to paddlers likely to need rescuing. If the sum of these numbers is below 0, the trip is risky and it may be better to rethink it or find an easier river. If you’re not sure of your own level, it’s far better to be conservative and rate yourself down than the opposite. One way to make yourself more capable in an emergency is to take a swift water rescue course.
Facebook is an essential tool to find people to paddle with. There is a Vancouver Island Facebook group you can use. Paddling clubs are another great option; in Victoria, there is the VCKC club and the UVIC Paddle Club. Kayak festivals are another way to meet other paddlers, and they allow you to see expert paddlers run your local features the way they were meant to be run. I recommend the Gordon Creek Race in March and the Puntledge River Paddle Festival in May.
Know What gear to bring
Starting from the top, a white water specific helmet. Sweet Protection tends to be more expensive, but I like to keep my brain safe and my ears warm so I drank less for a month and used the money I saved to get myself a Rocker.
Personal Floatation Device (PFD)
No matter how good you think you are, at some point your going to need something to keep your head above the water if you end up out of your boat. Plus you need a secure place to store your snacks. I use an Astral Green Jacket, but Kokatat also makes some very buoyant white-water specific PFDs.
As the rivers on Vancouver Island are rain dependent, they tend to come in during the colder parts of the year. A dry top and wetsuit bottoms combo will work in the fall and spring, but if you plan to go out in the winter regularly a drysuit is a worthwhile investment. I’ve had a great experience with Kokatat’s willingness to repeatedly patch up my suit under warranty, but I have friends that swear by their Sweet and Stolhinquest drysuits as well.
If you prefer to catch that last eddie rather than flail backwards down a major rapid, it’s a good idea to have a decent Carbon Fiber or Fiberglass paddle for runs above class III. I’ve worn my Werner Powerhouse down to a nub because I like it so much. If you’re unsure of what length to get, use a sizing chart or ask the staff at Ocean River
Often overlooked, proper footwear can both keep your feet warm and prevent you from slipping on the rocks that will be inevitably covered in wet moss or ice and stand between you and the river. Astral brewers have special rubber in the soles that grip rocks extra well, plus they look snazzy enough to wear off the river.
The best boat is the one that fits you, you’re comfortable paddling, and is designed for the type of white-water you’re on. Not having any major cracks in the hull is a major plus. I use a Dagger Nomad 8.5 for higher class creeks like the Gordon and Pyranha Jed Large for surfing waves on wider rivers like the Nanaimo or at Chesterman Beach, Tofino. A good way to figure out what boat is right for your weight range and intended use is to check the manufacturer website however, there is no substitute for borrowing a boat from a friend or a store and trying it for yourself.
Fleece insulation keeps you warm and comfortable under your other gear, neoprene socks protect the feet on your drysuit from abrasions, pogies make the difference between a fun day on the river and counting down the seconds until you can hold your hands over the air vents in the car. You will also want a throw bag to pull those Americans out of the river when they think you can run class IV without a reliable Eskimo roll, and nose plugs even if they make you look silly – Conner Bebe seems to overcome this with smooth wave-wheels.