I have been on and around rivers my whole life. I have been chasing surfable river waves for almost 10 years. I have also operated two fully adjustable whitewater parks over the past 7 years. Whether it is a natural river in the middle of pristine wilderness or a controlled, concrete-laden whitewater park, one thing is certain — rivers have unique properties that no other body of water shares. Unlike the tranquil stillness of a mountain lake or the ebb and flow of an ocean’s coast, a river’s perpetual flow and constant flux of its surroundings makes for many special characteristics.
Before I get too excited about the recreational opportunities that rivers offer, I want to share details about what makes a river wild, including potential risks and how to be aware of them. If you’re considering a first river adventure this weekend or you are an experienced whitewater user, inform yourself of the natural factors that impact your experience on a river.
The flow and speed of a river can vary from nearly still to raging, cascading whitewater. It depends on the volume of water, the gradient or drop, the constriction of the water, and the underwater topography. Generally, increased speed of flow will produce more frequent and consequential risks. Extreme whitewater enthusiasts must go to great lengths to ensure safety when recreating in big waters, relying on specialized life jackets, helmets, cold water gear and more’
For the less experienced river user, it is important to consider what you don’t see. Even gentle and relatively slow river sections can pose hazards. Currents on the surface may appear to be or are in fact gentle, but strong undercurrents can be present. Risks may be miscalculated, and unnecessary hazards/consequences may arise. For this reason, it is always best to avoid going into moving water if at all uncertain.
A river’s constant flow also means that objects and debris on the bottom are always being agitated, moved and eroded. A rock that wasn’t there yesterday could be there today. Sometimes, the shifting of rocks along the bottom form underwater cavities that can entrap arms and legs. If a limb becomes entrapped, the constant push of the river can ‘flatten’ someone to the bottom, making it impossible to get free. Because it is often difficult to visually recognize foot hazards on the bottom, it is crucial to never try to stand in swift moving water. This is also why proper footwear is essential to river recreation.
As river water levels rise and fall with seasonal changes and irrigation controls, rivers can ‘pull’ debris from the banks into the water such as a floating log or tree. High flows can also form new collections of debris/snags that can result in a ‘strainer’ hazard. Imagine a large screen with water rushing through that will ‘catch’ anything passing by. People can become entangled in these strainers and held down by the constant push of the river, unable to overcome its continuous power. Because of a river’s constant variability, it is always best to keep a keen eye out for hazards such as floating debris and strainers, even if they weren’t there last time you enjoyed a particular spot.
Temperature is another important variable inherent in the safety of a river. Even in the midst of a hot summer, the Upper Deschutes rarely gets much warmer than 65 degrees. Cold conditions will cause exposure risks like hypothermia, quicker than you may think. Along with checking the air and water temperatures, always consider the duration/length of your river experience, the location of available access points to enter/exit the water, and the proximity of additional help should an emergency occur.
If a river float or paddle is part of your weekend plan, remember the hazards, the natural environment and the science that create them.