Scouting is just another term for decision-making; in essence, you are looking at what lies ahead and deciding what course to take. A major key in progressing from class 2-3 whitewater into the realm of class 4-5 is the ability to make smart decisions. That being said, good decision-making is not something you are born with, it cannot be taught in a classroom, it must be lived and learned … it emerges from experience. This article is not a cut and dry how-to, it will hopefully make you think about things in a different light and allow you take some knowledge onboard so that you can begin, or improve, your path to better decision-making and scouting.
I am going to start with the very basics, the fundamentals of reading a rapid… scouting. Keep in mind, none of these concepts are set in stone, and as you get yourself into increasingly harder whitewater, you will find the “rules” change or vary. I will also NOT attempt to describe every feature or hazard you will find on the river, or how to deal with them … this is where that experience thing comes in. Get out there and paddle rivers.
When do we need to scout? Do we need to scout this? This should be the first thing popping into your mind every time you roll up to a rapid. A great general rule of thumb is … if you can’t see the entire rapid and the features in it, you should scout.
There are two types of scouting; scouting from shore or scouting from our boat (*scouting from a helicopter on your ride to the top of a river is definitely not recommended). When scouting from shore it is wise to start from the bottom of the rapid (i.e the large pool you will end up in) and work your way upstream. I have gotten to many rapids and excitedly started scouting every possibility on my way down, only to find around a bend that the rapid ended in a large, unrunnable, pile of … something. So save yourself the effort and check that the entire rapid goes before you start your scout. This same idea applies to boat scouting, always make sure you have an out. What I mean by this is, make sure when you are eddy hoping your way down a rapid, scouting from your boat, you don’t commit yourself to an eddy that you can’t get out of (i.e unrunnable downstream + cliffed in walls make getting out on shore impossible = difficult vertical extraction).
When I am teaching someone to learn how to scout rapids I like to use the acronym W.O.R.M.M.S to establish a “check-list”, of the essentials, that can easily be remembered and repeated
W = Water, where is the main flow of water, or in many cases the deepest / fastest water. At a very basic level you can use features such as; down-stream V’s and wave trains to locate this.
O = Obstacles, what are the main hazards in the rapid you will need to avoid. I will not go into the hazards you can find on a river, as this is information you should be comfortable with prior to ever getting on the water.
R = Route, once you know where the main flow of water is going (water always takes the path of least resistance … which sounds good to me if I want to get down a rapid) and you know what obstacle you need to avoid, your Route will be the line you will take from the top of the rapid to the bottom, determined from the info gained previously in the W and O.
M = Markers, your perspective changes as you move from your vantage point on shore where you are scouting, to down low at water level in your kayak. The key then is to pick out objects that will allow you to landmark yourself in the rapid relative to where you need to be … your Route.
M = Momentum, determining how much, where and when you will need directional momentum (i.e speed going left to right).
S = Safety, how will you safely run this rapid. If you are having troubles thinking of what safety needs to be set, here is a great question to ask yourself. What is the worst-case scenario, and how and where could I be saved if that happened? If setting safety is something that intimidates or confuses you I highly recommend taking a Swiftwater Rescue course. It will greatly improve your confidence on the water, and therefore improve your overall kayaking.
Now that you know what to look for when scouting, the next step is to figure how to use this information to make smart decisions, or more simply put, when to paddle and when to give it a pass.
Obviously, this will differ for every kayaker, varying each day, as individuals have different skill levels and motivations for paddling. It can be broken down into one simple question. Is the Risk worth the Reward? For many, paddling “hard” (Relative to your skill level) whitewater isn’t worth the risk, they feel their skill levels not quite up to the challenge that grade of rapid presents and would rather gain experience on easier water. However, some feel their skills are capable of reducing the risk enough to make it worthwhile. They see the rewards of stepping outside their comfort zone, and pushing their personal limits in order to gaining that experience necessary to continue growing their skills.
The decision to paddle “hard” whitewater should be a well thought out process. Even though more experienced paddlers sometimes feel this as a “Gut Feeling”, they have just trained themselves to process this same information that much quicker ,or unfortunately in some cases people don’t think at all and quickly huck themselves off a drop because they feel they should or have too. You need to make your decision based upon a realistic assessment of your own weaknesses (can you make the moves required) and the scope for failure (what are the chances you miss your moves). Once you weigh this up, and have committed to your decision, you need to flick a mental switch and paddle the rapid as if there was never any doubt you wouldn’t nail it. Doubt is the fundamental cause of error in sport, so if you can remove it from your thoughts you will be that one step closer to mitigating the risks.
In the end… it is just kayaking. Have fun. Play safe. Don’t do stupid shit… paddle within your abilities and those amongst your group.
Team Wave Sport Member