Picking Braids, How to Paddle Without Getting Lost

Paddling braided rivers with constantly changing channels can be tricky business. With multiple routes to choose from, including many false leads, it’s easy to get lost out there. Here is a system that if followed correctly, will provide success 99.9% of the time.

Rule #1: Look Farther Ahead

When you’re sitting down low in your kayak with the river falling towards the horizon, you’re pretty limited in how much you can see ahead of you. However, you can in fact see farther than you think – if you simply take the time to look. While paddling on the river, it’s easy to go several minutes just staring down at the water right in front of your boat. Every second you move farther down the river, more of the horizon is being revealed to you. By constantly scanning the horizon as you paddle, you’ll be able to gain more information all the time. So stop staring at the front of your boat, and start searching for possible routes, potential hazards, and the answer might become obvious.

Rule #2: Go with the Flow

If you’ve been looking and scanning the horizon – and the answer still isn’t obvious – you’ll need to use rule #2 “Go with the Flow”. By this I mean choose the braid with the most volume of water flowing down it. Not just the deepest, not just the fastest, but a combination of these two factors. You’re looking for the channel with the most water flowing down per-second (cubic metres per second). Developing your ability to read the water and judge the flow takes time and experience. There are many clues (too many to cover here) that can help indicate flow-volume. These clues are best leaned while kayaking with experienced paddlers, or on a kayak course with the help of a qualified coach.

Rule #3: Rivers Run Down-Hill

Every river I’ve ever paddled on, flowed down hill… except for the Waimakariri. Oddly enough, I’m not joking. As the river braids split into several channels, some of these channels drop down-hill quickly, while others appear to actually climb up slightly in front of you. Of course, these channels can only flow up-hill for a short distance, until they eventually run out of momentum and end in a wide shallow pool. This is how many beginners get beached during the Coast to Coast Race. When you’re sitting down at river-level, the braid that drops down quickly is hard to see (hidden by the horizon). The braid that is levelling-off or climbing up-hill slightly, is much more visible and often quite wide – it looks like the obvious place to go. As unaware paddlers follow this higher braid, the water in it eventually slows down, becomes shallow, and will split into channels so small, that kayaking becomes impossible. You’ll now have to drag you boat over the shallows, and down to the lower braid you missed earlier. The lesson here is to take the braid that drops away the fastest. Get low early and the remaining water will surely find you again.

Rule #4: Keep a Mental Map

Some of the time you’ll need to make a tough choice. You often wont have much time to decide, and it’s usually best to make a decision early and stick with it. If you’re following rule #2 and chose a LEFT braid that holds 60% of the total river volume, that means that 40% of the river is now to your RIGHT – not under your boat where you want it. Keep a mental map of the fact that a large portion of the river is somewhere out to your right side. Keep an eye out for an opportunity to link back up with this flow again. You want to be as close as possible to 100% flow volume under your boat at all times.

How to Use these Rules

It’s important to understand that the rules described above work best when used in the correct order. If you’re looking down trying to figure out the volume of water (rule #2) you’re probably not looking up enough (rule #1), and may miss something really obvious. Similarly, it’s no good dropping low early (rule #3) if there’s simply not enough water volume to float your boat (rule #2). So at each decision point, work through your rules in order from 1 to 4, and try not to skip ahead or make it more complicated than it is. Many of our clients will write these rules on the front of their boat for quick reference while paddling on the river.

It’s my experience as a kayak coach that judging the volume of flow (rule #2) is always the hardest for new paddlers to master – particularly while also trying to concentrate on the actual paddling itself. One of the most valuable things you can do to develop this skill set is to attend our Coast to Coast Kayak Course. We’ll share with you all the clues that indicate good flow volume, plus you’ll gain lots of practice making your own choices using the rules above. It’s also a good idea to look back over your shoulder after making a braid decision, and review whether it was in fact the best choice for the situation. This is how we learn and keep improving each time.

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