The dumbing down of the river

I have seen the debates on forums calling for the re design of the grading system. A lot of the people who contribute to such discussions are experienced paddlers of many years. People who, I would suggest, understand the variances of white water, different conditions and that an alpine grade 4 is somewhat different to a UK grade 4. One of the issues is that some people reading guide books and forums do not know. They are basing their decisions on their own ignorance and others perceptions of a river and its hazards. Guidebooks are after all, just that, guidebooks. They are not absolutes, written as commandments in tablets of stone. Rivers change, constantly.

I don’t know when the first guide books came out but certainly the ones we read and use as our bibles have been written by UK paddlers. The North and South Alps guides as well as the Nepal guide, were written by British paddlers, with perhaps our very British mindset to paddling. We only have to surf the net for half an hour at lunchtime to realise the difference in rivers in other lands compared to our own.

It is certainly true that things have changed, the Inn shoot in Austria, once classed as unrunnable is now run by people in play boats on a regular basis. In the formative years the boats would have been fibreglass and would often require patching up after a day on the river. The Dudh Khosi expedition to Nepal in 1976 to explore the headwaters of one of Everest’s rivers from the Khumbu Glacier to its confluence with the Sun Khosi took two fibreglass boats for each paddler, initially to Europe to train then onto Nepal. That would be unthinkable now as well as unnecessary given the advance in boat building materials but does it mean that the Inn shoot should be dumbed down, are there still must make moves?

I watch DVDs of trips from around the world and see some fantastic boaters making moves in what I would term almost impossible situations, surely if someone can make a move in that water so easily then its only grade 4. I think it’s our own individual perceptions that differ.

A recent debate, perhaps tongue in cheek has suggested that Palouse Falls are grade 3, as all you do is paddle down an obvious green finger of water, tuck and duck. That may be simplifying the argument somewhat but where do you draw the line? Could you really class that 186 foot world record fall as grade 3, I don’t think so.

I believe that the grades are there to protect us all to some extent. When starting out how does one know or learn anything about this new sport that they have chosen. From listening to others, from reading books and watching DVDs or U tube video clips. All of which are fraught with danger. One man’s grade 5 is another’s 4, depending on their viewpoint, ability and experience. How do you appreciate the description of a river you read in a book when you do not know the author and their perceptions. To over hear a conversation that the Fairy Glen on the Conwy is a 4, an on going debate in some circles, could perhaps be dangerous if overheard by someone with little experience.

The Fairy Glen is seen by many as a test piece grade 5 paddle. It is hard, it is scary, it is dangerous. Yet locals paddle it in ten minutes, how can it be regarded as a grade 5 section. Does an exceptional boater with many descents make a river easier and affect its grade?

Which leads us into the question of environment and where a river is situated and whether that should affect the grade? Does the inaccessibility of a river affect it’s grade? Big water paddling, you have to ask yourself the question, is anyone coming to get me, the answer is inevitably, no. Does it make big water more dangerous that some tree infested, pin potential ditch in North Wales, probably not, they both fall into the parameters of the grading system as it stands. I don’t want to paddle Rhaeadr Mawdach nor Itanda. That’s one of my grading systems. I will never forget how quickly my brain said no as I first laid eyes on Itanda, truly huge, a line? What line? Yet I watched couple of Ugandan locals paddle it with consummate ease.

Early in my paddling career I saw Tumwater Canyon on the Wenatchee River in May in big water conditions, looking back now I realise I didn’t have a scooby of what lay before me, it didn’t seem that bad, I didn’t want to paddle it but I didn’t seem too bad. Inexperience led me to believe it looked ok!

There was an interesting programme on TV the other week in which Danny McCaskill explored what allows some people to do the things they do, skills, fears, perceptions, training, what becomes the “norm”.

Danny McCaskill was and is a you tube phenomena. Working as a bike shop mechanic he is also a very talented trials bike rider. A friend of his videoed him in Edinburgh, riding his bike, using the city as his canvass, performing “stunts” that I and many other would consider impossible. This video, once placed on you tube went global and became the most watched sport video in the world. Danny has been signed up by Red Bull as a pro rider. A subsequent film saw him front flip off the walls of Edinburgh Castle. The footage we see is of his first attempt and he admits to being extremely nervous, bordering on scared prior to attempting it, the consequences of a miscalculation being enormous. This from a man we have already seen ride a push bike up a tree and back flip to a safe landing. Surely his skills, his experience and prior successes mean he is fearless. It seems not.

Danny goes on to talk to Guy Martin, the charismatic lorry mechanic by day, motorcycle road racer by weekend, famously, yet to win a race at the TT. Watch his interviews on you tube and draw your own conclusions. A talented man. Danny rode on the back of Guy’s bike round a track circuit. Danny was almost beside himself, with a high heart rate. Already an adrenalin junkie for want of a better phrase this was something alien to him demonstrated by a high heart rate around 150. Guy on the other hand was having an easy day in the office and rode steady away with a heart beat of around 80 beats per minute. Riding motorbikes fast is normal for Guy, hence he doesn’t get excited about it, well maybe when he is on a 130mph lap of the Isle of Man he does.

I went to the TT this year and watched the road racers lapping a 37 miles closed road circuit at average speeds around 130mph laps, that’s pushing it. To those racers travelling at speeds that would equate to a 100mph lap would appear slow, their perceptions change as their speed and abilities increase, a 100mph lap would terrify your average biker, but to these guys it’s what they do and it becomes the norm.

The same could be said of top end boaters, their boundaries lie well beyond mine and most other I would imagine. What I perceive to beyond my ability is well within theirs but does that mean that the grade of the river should suffer?

The availability of affordable waterproof still and video cameras and the ease with which pictures and footage can be posted worldwide sometimes within minutes of getting off a river has certainly changed perceptions, for the better? I am not so sure. Kodak courage has never been more real. Whilst the video does offer a more real sense of what is and can happen a photograph offers no sense of what else is going on, the intimidating roar of the water and general environment. Neither offer the wider view that our eyes see and our brain assimilates.

You only have to search on you tube to view any number of accidents in kayaking or any other sport for that matter. A lot of the carnage you will witness is at best, people being daft, at worst dangerous, there are videos all over you tube of people dying, yes really! How often do we see a true professional crash and burn. It happens and it will continue to happen. However through exercising a degree of sensibility we can perhaps choose whether or not to put ourselves in the firing line and any number of grading systems will not account for some decisions made. Want to see a professional at work?

I am as guilty as the next person of posting pictures on the net of trips and rivers I have paddled, perhaps some people have thought what a cool place to go and used some of the information I have posted to assist in planning their own trips. Some may view the pictures and think that’s easy, I could do that, I hope not but that is something I have no control over.

I’ve paid my hard earned over to be guided by professional boaters in some instances, been led friends and done my fair share of leading over the years and have been lucky on all of those occasions to be with good people, we have had our moments for sure but in nearly all circumstances I have felt it right to be there, at that time, in those conditions, with those people and that is really important, to me at least.

I have only ever changed my mind on a river once. My initial decision of not to paddle a rapid changing to ok, I’ll paddle that and I admit there was degree of peer pressure involved, something I don’t like. The words that were chosen that influenced my decision were balanced, accurate and true. It was pretty straight forward rapid on the Tamur in Nepal, with a horrible run out, it was the run out that put me off. I smooshed the move, a simple line past a hole and through a crashing haystack wave and dealt with the horrible water that lay beyond by directing the boat left to right in my initial set up. Guy Baker told me that I couldn’t say I have paddled the whole river if I walked the rapid, and asked if I would ever be back.

I heard the words, re evaluated and changed my mind, looking back it was easy. Am I glad I changed my mind, yes, no question, was it a wise decision, I don’t think so. A good rule is to trust your initial gut reaction, we know that the time spent looking at a rapid is directly proportional to the severity of the beating we will take if we get it wrong. Did Guy’s words make the rapid easier or change the grade, no at all, merely changed my perception of the way I was looking at the rapid. I will qualify this by adding that I often say to people if anyone ever exerts peer pressure upon you and tells you that you should paddle something then go find someone else to paddle with.

Listening to your friends and peers is important. Particularly in your development. An experienced paddler will often know an individual’s abilities better than they do. They can use their knowledge of the river and your skills and can offer words of wisdom, they may be either to paddle or walk.

Ask yourself the question of could I paddle this as opposed to should I paddle this, a subtle difference. As much as a skilled paddler may advise that a rapid is within your remit it is important to recognise that some people base their advice to another on their own ability and advise that someone could paddle something but basing that guidance on their own ability rather than that of the individual concerned. I know this happens.

As a lead on a river you bear a massive responsibility to your self and your group. As a member of a group you also bear a massive responsibility to yourself and those you are with. We all bear responsibility to friends and family. I realise that some will see the river as their escape from the hum drum of life, I have written that in other articles. Some may see the river as time away from the stress of the modern world, somewhere they can loose themselves completely and that is not governed by the difficulty of the river. Staying upright in a boat for the first time paddler requires as much concentration as the more experienced looking at and undertaking a difficult move and is certainly just as scary.

The beginners fear is based upon what they don’t know, the experienced on what they do know. Striking a balance is key.

Doug Ammons has written extensively about fear in kayaking and I would not attempt to explore the subject in as considered detail as he. Of all the hard rivers he has paddled he writes that “so little of my own experience in kayaking has been fearful” That may de difficult to comprehend knowing where and what he has paddled but having had the opportunity of speaking to him at length I know this is no idle boast.

For my own part I think I have only been truly fearful on one occasion, nervous on many. “I am Scared” were the first words I wrote after I paddled Inferno Canyon on the Futalafeu. We had been paddling well for two weeks, Fergus Coffey, our paid guide told me I was good enough to go in there. I took him at his word, he was right. He knew the river, he had paddled with me for two weeks and knew what I was capable of. In turn I had paddled with him for two weeks, seen how he boated, how he made some of his judgement calls, listened to the words he used and the way in which they were delivered. I trusted him, that was in 2007 but I would again tomorrow

I have been lucky to paddle with some good paddlers over the years, I have learnt from them and in a number of instances have moved my skills beyond theirs. I have also paddled with plenty of people who can do things in a boat I could only dream of.

There is certainly a difference in being led down a river, having another choose the lines. You can of course choose whether or not to follow those lines, if you are able to be precise enough to follow the line set. It you cannot, should you be on that river? One of my best river days was being led down the Wnion, trusting the lead, having faith in his ability not to put us into a bad place, he in turn was happy to lead us down, confident that we could cope with the river at those levels. We did it twice, the first being the best, the unknown for me and dealing with river as it unfolded before us was something special. Knowledge is power or ignorance is bliss, you chose which camp to place yourself in.

I can temper that with a simply stunning day on the Tortum river in Turkey, hard grade 3, easy grade 4, depending on your perspective, very little information, we knew there was something stick hard in there, no grade, just dangerous, information can be like that sometimes. Of all the rivers I have paddled this stands out as one of the best days, head and shoulders above others, clear blue skies, turquoise clear whitewater stretching ahead of us. Paddling the river a second time in the week I was nearly garrotted by a low cable stretched across the river, where was that mentioned in any guide, that wasn’t there 2 days ago!

I have paddled rapids on some one else’s say so, having been told if I see it I will not paddle it, they were right, a simple straight forward rapid and easy line to make, the sheer scale of it making it daunting. Paddling in Italy sees you paddle off a blind horizons based on someone else’s judgement. Equally I have been the person making that judgement passing on my thoughts to others. Trust in your own ability to read something then relay that information is as important as it is to trust the information being given.

I continually hear people saying that they have been paddling x months and feel that they should be a better paddler, someone who has not been paddling as long as them is better, or so it seems, if only in their own eyes. People refer to themselves as intermediate paddlers as they have been boating x months, when in reality they are still beginners or at least their skill level is. It is true that some will boat for ten years, yet will still be beginners. I firmly believe we do not get better by paddling harder water, we get better by paddling easier water harder. A good friend of mine is a far better natural boater than me, I have to work at it so much harder, yet on our day you would be hard pushed to separate us in abilities. Ability counts for a lot. Training and practice can make up the rest.

I recall one river that I defiantly should not have been on. The biggest problem I now know is that I didn’t know or appreciate that then. This particular river is graded 3/4. I was a beginner and could roll in anger on moving water. This river, does, however need to be pretty much bankful to bring it into condition, presenting its own problems. Should I have been on that river with my ability in those conditions, absolutely not. Why was I then? I trusted others to select a river within the group’s ability. The carnage that ensued has been the subject of many a good humoured conversation. Thankfully it can be referred to as good humoured, it could so easily have been very different. I know this now, only after years of paddling experience allows me to reflect and question! I am not alone in those thoughts either I know two other people with me that day have the same feelings. We were let down not by the grading system but by the people interpreting it and we got away with it, just.

For me at least I think the issue lies around the world of Grade 5 or Class 5 as some will call it.

The steps through grade, 1,2,3, and 4 are relatively easy and straight forward to recognise. If something is harder than 3 then it must be a 4, if it isn’t a 5. Defined as “extremely difficult rapids with precise and technically demanding routes to be followed

I think that the grading system is, by a large, good. It’s internationally recognised by paddlers worldwide. I know of only two rivers that operate a different grading system, The Nile and the Colorado, both operating 1 to 10. Grade 6 is used by some to describe water were there must be no doubt, no hesitation and no mistake. They use this were in their mind grade 5 does not do justice to a section of river. I would regard something in that grade as unpaddelable, they do not, on a given day with all the pieces of the jigsaw in place.

We have to accept that a grade in one country is different to grade in another. With our experience we may recognise that and factor that into our considerations. The Tees is a very different prospect to the Lower Guisanne yet would be considered similar in grade if not difficulty.

The problem with grade 5 water is covers such a huge span. If it is harder than grade 4 then it is a 5. If it has been paddled then it’s a 5. Site Z on the Stikine has just been paddled for the first time by Ben Marr. He saw the line and sought and gained the agreement of his group before putting on, both important parts of the process that allowed him to paddle a rapid walked by every other world class boater that has descended that river. Does that make Site Z grade 5. I don’t think so.

Marr paddled a previously unrun rapid. A rapid on a river termed as one of the most difficult committing sections of water that is paddled. The Stikine has seen many descents but many of those descents have been undertaken by the same group of people. I believe that Eric Boomer has just completed yet another descent, taking him into double figures. Of all the descents that have been undertaken only around 50 or so people are responsible for them. Lesser, Ammons, Grace, Hillike, Boomer all walked Site Z, but its been paddled now, so it’s grade 5. It isn’t. Marr saw the line and paddled it.

I have been lucky enough to stand above the minus rapids on the Zambezi on a couple of occasions. Truly a magical place. Far beyond my ability, I have paddled grade 5 but am not what I would term a grade 5 boater. These rapids are padded regularly so that falls into the parameters of grade 5 just not my grade 5.

Have the rapids got any easier, not at all, have my skills increased, certainly. What used to hold fear for me no longer does.

One of my favourite river descriptions is of the Egua in Italy, by Dr Robin posting on UK Rivers.
River: Egua. Section from road bridge to Molino.
Grade: 5
Description: Insanely steep low volume creek with mind-blowing slabs and drops. A gem.
Advice: A lot of inspection required. Also, it’s quite cold this high up the valley.

For me, the perfect description. More details would be pointless, there is just too much to detail. You go, you look and you ask a couple of questions of yourself, Can I do that? Do I want to do that, you choose in which order to ask yourself, each question has its own merit and before you commit the answer should be yes to both.

There is purposely little data about the Stikine, if you need to read a guidebook you have no purpose in being there.

My last swim was in Costa Rica on the grade 4, Bobito rapid on the Lower Pacuare. Grade 4, yep, I paddle that all the time, was this rapid any harder than I am used to paddling, no, not really. The hole had tickled the paddler before me, seconds later I was taking the biggest beating I have ever had in a boat, then out of it too.

Was it actually harder than the Upper Tees in good water, my generic Sunday morning run, probably not, although it felt it. In a jungle gorge corridor boxed in by sheer canyon walls covered in thick green vegetation full of all sorts of unfamiliar creatures, most of which I wouldn’t want working their way into my clothing if I had to walk out. Walk out? An option? No. I didn’t know where the road was, river right, left, how far, where any form of habitation was, lack of planning or local knowledge, you bet. Thankfully my team got my kit back and we continued downstream, shook me up though, good and proper! I don’t mind admitting it either.

I know a few people I would class as grade 5 boaters, not one of them “hangs their hat on a grade”. All that matters to them is can I see the line.

I would suggest that we leave a proven system alone. It there as a bench mark for some and that is no bad thing. We are bench marked through our entire lives, whether it be a school through the examination system or late in life through work and an appraisal system.

The grading system is there to protect us all to some degree. As the newbie boater we want to read the guide book to make sure there is nothing dangerous on the stretch of water we intend to paddle. As a river lead the same would be true. No point taking a group of inexperienced paddlers down a stretch of river of unsuitable grade.

That said it does happen, you can never fully account for the stupidity of the human race, that includes you and me. Never done anything stupid? You’re a liar. I have, I do and I will again, although hopefully not making the same mistake twice!

Just because you can make the moves required easily in a given situation to place your boat in the correct position on a river does not make the river easier, it makes you a better boater. I continually see people on rivers who shouldn’t be. How much is it my responsibility or others to intervene and suggest that people should get off the river? A number of the serious incidents that I am aware of over the years, could have been avoided. By making the decision to not get on the river.

Do we really want to dumb the grade of the Swale to 3/4. The Treweryn is grade as a 3, with Bala Mill as a 4. Do we really want to give people the impression that these rivers offer the same degree of difficulty and danger? Would it be appropriate to downgrade the Trweryn to 2(3). I don’t think so, I have seen more blood and injuries at the Treweryn than any other river. That maybe due to the number of people you can find on that river, it being dam release. In being dam release it is as a controlled a river environment as you are likely to encounter, predictable, yet its still catches people out causing swims and injuries, why? The difficulty? Perhaps.

The Middle Conwy is graded as a 3 to Rhydlanfair Bridge with a lower section to Penmachno Bridge being harder. Is it important to differentiate between these two section. Certainly.

It is the lower of the two this sections that has been the scene of many a rescue. After the second grade 5, it’s a short paddle to the get out. If you see the obvious road bridge (Penmachno) then you have gone too far. Many a person has been stranded on the rocks directly below the bridge requiring mountain rescue. The dangers of this get out are well documented and known within paddling circles, yet year after year it still catches people out. Is this get out grade 5? Of course not. Late afternoon, failing light, sound like a recipe for disaster?

This has been a bad year for canoeing and kayaking in general, only recently an open boat accident led to the deaths of one adult and three children. I, along with others have lost two good friends this year to our sport. One on a grade 3 stretch of water, so don’t be telling me that terrible things don’t happen on what many may term easier water. This isn’t supposed to happen on grade 3, the parameters of which include, waves, stoppers and technical difficulties are more sever. The main distinguishing factor of grade 3 is that the paddler will have to follow a recognisable route to avoid obstacles and hazards. It happened and deprived the world of an exceptional person, a friend, a mother, a wife and a daughter.

More recently, another, lost to the river, to our sport, another so young that he barely had time to make his mark in the world, yet he did to those that were lucky enough to have met him. This time in a hard section of water in high flows within his ability. The section that lies below became the issue, should the grade of that lower section affect the grade of that above?

A good boater makes hard moves appear easy and will make easy moves harder for themselves, training themselves for that occasion when they need to “pull it out of the bag” I regularly paddle with someone I consider to be a much better boater than I. The first time I paddled with him at the Treweryn it was like paddling a different river, he saw moves I hadn’t considered and pushed me to explore, experiment. Sure I can make that eddy, ok, make it with one paddle stroke, make it via that spot on the river, close your eyes, setting little challenges, becoming more practised, for when it does matter. Practising harder on easier water.

As a river lead you need to be able to paddle for yourself with little thought of your paddling process, your strokes should be second nature, your thoughts with the group thinking can person x or person y execute that move or do we all walk round this rapid. What are the consequences to them if it goes wrong, me as the lead, the group as a whole.

People lie to you on the river, you ask “are you warm enough” they reply in the affirmative after a swim because sometimes they think that is what you want to hear. The reality is they are cold, getting colder and the situation is going downhill rapidly. The river may not be grade 4 for you but it sure is for them. You have years of experience all wrapped up in your dry suite, you rarely roll, you know the problem spots on this river because you paddled it dozens of times. Does familiarity reduce the grade of a river?

Too many times I have been in a bunkhouse on a Saturday morning watching people nibbling a crust on a piece of toast either because they just don’t do breakfast or are too hungover to keep anything down. Have you witnessed the same? Is this really the way to set yourself up for a day on a river? It will be fine, you are paddling a stretch well within your ability, that you have paddled many times before, sure its been raining all night so you could be in for an interesting fun day on the water. That day can quickly turn sour when someone in the group swims, is trapped, pinned, scared, boatless, bladeless, injured, refusing to move, hypothermic. Then where is your fuel to keep you going, your energy to pull you and others through the day.

Does that affect the grade of the river, no. Could it be considered a factor in a subsequent drama on the river, yes.

When people become familiar with a river at normal flows they often seek to paddle it at higher flows for the different challenges it presents. I have paddled the Orchy at 3 on the gauge a number of times and I really want to paddle it with more water. It’s a blast of a run and I want to do it higher. That said I don’t want to paddle it so high that I scare myself witless. If I ever get the opportunity I’ll takes other factors into consideration. Weather conditions, the group I am with, how I am feeling on the day. Do any of those factors affect the grade of the river. No. Should I consider them and let them influence my decision, no doubt, without question. Not to would be to demonstrate the stupidity I have already referred to.

So this means that we do not look at the grade of a river in a book in isolation. We use it as a guide and we are back to where this article started. No one scheme will ever encompass all that we can encounter. It’s up to us to use our knowledge to make a judgement and accept that some things, whatever the number you choose to place on it will always be beyond us. Wherever your skill levels lies.

I do not offer this up as a definitive work, merely my observations, today, they may change tomorrow. I ask a number of questions and answer only some of them. For some of the questions there are different answers, depending on who you are. For some questions, perhaps there is no answer.