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HomeNL-2017-07 River Running

River Running - and More!
Reprinted from July 1987
by Martha & Leonard Hulsebosch

The newsletter section of this web site contains 40 years of Houston Canoe Club newsletters. Amidst those many publications are buried a lot of gems of wisdom, that are still just as valid today as when they first appeared. The following article from 30-years ago is one of those gems.  

In the previous article, we discussed how novice and other paddlers sould meet like-minded people. Considering that you now have met these people, now what? Well, let's see if we can take advantage of all available information to improve your skills and also learn about different rivers and the "right" sections of those rivers to paddle.

All available information means literally picking the brains of experienced river runners, utilizing the large amounts of information now available in books and maps (remembering books can't teach you everything), and finally, running rivers with knowledgeable boaters - the latter probably the most important single source of river information. Be sure you take note of each run's length and other features, such as exact location of "put-ins" and "take-outs", and the location of rapids and other river features. Maps don't always show all of this information, so make and mark your own set of river maps. Don't ask experienced boaters if you can "handle" a certain run - since it's your decision anyhow. Get all available information on the river and be skeptical about it. Just assume that the run is more difficult than what people have told you - scout as much as you can and then form your own opinion after the run is over! The best plan is to run rivers with others who are familiar with the run and gradually expand your river knowledge by paddling with different people.

There are four criteria to judge a river to be suitable or not for your own paddling skills: 1) Class of water, 2) Flow, 3) Speed, and 4) Gradient. We'll discuss each of these in order to determine whether or not you are sufficently skilled to "run" the river.

CLASS. The ICF (International Canoe Federation) and many other organizations have adapted the Class I through VI rating scale for river difficulty. Class I is the easiest and Class VI, the hardest river to "run". Remember, only the scale was adapted, nobody has systematically rated river segments. You can expect somewhat of agreement among local boaters in one area about a river, but when you go to a new area, you can't assume that their ratings are like the ones you are used to at home. Always go down new rivers cautiously, scouting whenever, no matter what the local rating is. Western water, Class II is one big change from Texas water, Class II. So, proceed on any new river carefully until you get used to the types of river hazards and rating customs of the new area!
FLOW. On many rivers, the U.S. Geological Survey and other people set up checkpoints along rivers to measure how much water is flowing by. A reading of 500 cubic feet per second (CFS) means that 500 cubic feet of water is flowing by every second - a fairly good flow. Don't trust reading from "feet" gauges, which resemble big yardsticks stuck at or in the river. Five feet on one gauge could mean flood stage on one river, but low water on another. Know which gauge people are talking about and what level is considered to be good boating. Where flows are controlled by dams, water can be high one hour and low the next. There are a number of places one may call to get the flow - U.S. Government agencies, but rely mostly on river stores, liveries, and club newsletters. All will have numbers of somebody you can phone for flow information.

SPEED. Indirectly, the speed of a river is related to the flow of water. If the flow increases from 500 CFS to 1000 CFS, the speed of the water does not double because river banks are slanted so that the river spreads out and covers more area and increases in height! In shallow, narrow areas, the speed is greater than in wide, deep spots, although the total CFS flow remains the same! When planning trips, remember one averages 2 to 6 M.P.H. in a canoe - depending on the speed of the river. On the Lower Canyon Run (Rio Grande River), we've paddled 15 miles in 8 hours one year, and the next year, we paddled 36 miles in 6 hours because of greater flow and greater speed of the river.

GRADIENT. The element that makes rapids is the steepness of river beds. People measure "steepness" in feet/mile - the number of feet the river bed elevation decreases for each mile we proceed downstream. A drop of 20 means a lot of pools and riffles; 20-30, look for intermediate whitewater; 50-100, hair-raising and difficult. The real question is whether the gradient drop on any river is evenly distributed over the entire mile, or used up in one big falls! Low gradient does not mean an easy trip, but you can bet higher gradients do guarantee that the river will be intermediately difficult - II-III. Gradient combined with class can give you a pretty good idea of a river's difficulty. However, few boaters utilize gradient when describing rivers to others, and they refer to them as Class II, etc., but seldom use gradients. Get in the habit of using gradient in your river language. A Class II, gradient 20 is a heck of a lot different from a Class II, gradient 60!

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Next month! - We 'll talk about river hazards, both to boaters and equipment.

The authors, Martha & Leonard Hulsebosch