Using luck to get to the bottom of a rapid is not a strategy.
So what can you do to remove luck and replace it with skills? Here are some tips for getting the most out of every step on the paddling progression ladder:
- Scout your own lines. Whenever possible, scout your own lines on new rivers. Once you’ve done a river, scout out new lines to try that aren’t the standard ones. Learning to read water and assess hazards will benefit you far more than simply memorizing and repeating what the person before you did. You haven’t mastered any given class of water until you can read it and choose your own lines.
- Work every move. Don’t just complete the river to check it off your list—try to master that river. Rather than always taking the standard lines, try catching challenging eddies and making tough ferries, and do whatever else you can to (safely) increase the difficulty of your home runs. A river where you feel comfortable is the best place to learn new technical skills. If the standard lines call for a lot of boofs, try punching some holes instead once you’re regularly hitting the boofs. Force yourself to learn skills that are not the accepted norm in your home area, but which might come in handy somewhere else.
- Link moves and rapids together. If your common paddling area features drop/pool rivers, try linking multiple rapids together in order to prepare yourself for more continuous water. Within a given rapid, try linking many challenging moves or eddies together without pausing—in order to build your fitness and stamina, and to decrease the time it takes you to mentally transition from one move to the next. Paddling is a sport; it requires physical and mental training. Linking moves on an easier river can often do more for your paddling than just getting down a harder river.
- Paddle a more challenging boat. Once you are comfortable on a given river, try paddling it in a different boat. If you become comfortable on your home Class IV run in a playboat, you will feel that much more confident when you switch back to your creekboat for an unfamiliar Class IV run. Changing boats is one of the best ways to increase the number of skills that you can gain on a given river or set of rivers. Paddling a playboat down a Class IV creek can often do more to prepare you for unfamiliar Class V than running your home Class V creek in a creekboat will. Attempting downriver play moves in Class III can ramp the technical difficulty up to Class V, but in a much safer setting.
- Combinations. If you want to keep growing as a boater, you can combine all of the above in order to keep progressing. Create your own sequence of the hardest eddies and ferries in a given rapid or river, and then learn to link them all together without stopping. Once you’ve mastered that, try linking them together in your playboat and throwing some play moves into the sequence. This will keep your physical and mental edge moving forward, even if you paddle the same river(s) over and over.
- Yup, flip over! Never underestimate the value of a solid roll, and never stop working to achieve and maintain that skill. As much as we all love those dry hair days, too many of them in a row on the same run is a sign that you aren’t pushing yourself as much as you could. Learning to roll up in a variety of different situations is a critical skill that is best practiced on your home rivers in a familiar environment. If you’re regularly paddling a given run without flipping over, you need to be trying one (or more) of the above list of things in order to continue progressing.
- Paddle as many different rivers as possible. Working all of the hardest moves on a familiar river can be the best way to hone your physical skills, but there are a host of mental aspects of paddling that benefit more from exploring new and different rivers. Water reading, hazard identification, line selection, and learning to know when your skills are sufficient to hit a given line are critical mental skills that are best gained on unfamiliar runs. Doing this on a regular basis in your home area is the best way to prepare for exploring new regions—so that you’re not trying to learn these while you’re also paddling styles of white water that are unfamiliar. Paddling as many different rivers as possible will also expose you to the widest variety of physical moves to practice. As you explore, keep in mind that it’s best not to push your technical skills and mental skills at the same time, so you might want to choose rivers a step below the difficulty that you paddle on familiar runs.
- Whitewater is a wonderfully complex and thrilling environment, and also a very physically intense one. It requires a broad range of problem-solving skills and physical abilities, as well as judgment and nerve. The effort that you put into mastering paddling correlates directly to the benefits that you’ll receive. Think about your goals. If your aim is to get to a specific river so that you can get outside and enjoy it, progressing up the ratings ladder could well work for you. However, if you’re looking to explore a wider range of rivers, or for greater growth as an athlete, there are better ways to build your readiness and skills. The most important thing you can do in order to get the most from your white water experience is to keep trying to improve, instead of simply striving to make it to the take-out.