Pro Tips: Scouting a Complex Rapid
Updated: Nov 28, 2022
When to Scout: Horizon lines, blind drops, wood, continuous rapids with no safety eddy in sight, unknown rapids on exploratory runs. Rapids beyond your read and run skills, rapids with boats pinned or rescue scenarios unfolding, rapids with obvious manmade features in play like rebar, low head dams, or habitat logs cabled in place. Scout rapids that you are familiar with but that have different route options depending on flow.
Where to scout: Eddies immediately above the horizon line; look for the side of the river where most of the current is entering the rapid or the lowest point on the horizon line. This will typically be the side to be run, therefore is the best side to scout from. Choose an eddy which is high up enough that it does not commit you to enter on one side or the other. Choose a scout eddy which gives you access to a high bluff, cliff, or rock for a better vantage point. Can your entire group fit in the scout eddy? If not, eddy out above and proceed in pods, or give space and catch people as they come in. Do not leave to go scout until the entire group has caught the scout eddy, be ready for the lead boaters to chase if someone misses the eddy. Your less skilled boaters (who just missed the scout eddy) should not be allowed to continue downstream without support.
Who: if only one or a few boaters in the group would like to scout, the group can accommodate this by running in pods. It is not advised to push someone to run something blind, even if following experienced boaters. Each boater knows their own comfort level and barring a risk to the group like running out of daylight…when in doubt, scout! An experienced boater should attend the scout with the less experienced scouter(s) if resources allow in order to advise and be backup in the event of a throw rope rescue, and watch the others run through. Always take a throw rope to the scout.
What: Always take a throw rope and possibly a paddle to aid in rescue. Do not remove safety gear like helmet or PFD when scouting. The entire group should be rescue ready before anyone or any pod runs the rapid, i.e. nobody is taking a pee or getting in and out of dry bags as people start running.
Pods: A lead boat should have a pod of two at a minimum if resources allow and the pod remaining at the scout is responsible for setting shore safety with a rope or paddle reach. The second pod needs to be ready to give chase in the event of incident.
How: Exit, Crux, Entry. Walk to a point where you can see the entire rapid and evaluate the exit first. If unable to identify the exit because it is further downstream, continue to walk down the bank until you can see either the end of the rapid or an eddy you feel confident in catching before re-evaluating the next obstacles.
If you can identify a clean exit to the rapid, then visually work your way back upstream, identifying any obstacles to the current that would keep you from riding the current down to the exit cleanly. If there are multiple obstacles, decide which one is the Crux, or most difficult move. Evaluate your entrance to the rapid based on the crux and choose an entrance that will set you up to be in control of your boat as you make the crux move. Sometimes a partial portage of the entry is advisable to set up for the crux. Sometimes the crux is the entry and it could be portaged to avoid the potential of swimming the entire rapid. Usually if the crux is the last move, boaters are more willing to risk running the entire rapid and recovering below if needed.
Before committing to a difficult and complex rapid, evaluate all must-hit- holes from river level if possible. When scouting holes, determine how retentive or flushy it is based on shape, identify how far downstream of a hole the current begins flushing again, and determine any soft spots or Vs that enter the hole. Take note of how aerated the water is and for how far downstream the aeration continues. Evaluate the lip of holes and pour overs for steepness, lateral waves and current, and shallow rocks. Look for shallow hidden rocks backing up the hole or in the aerated water; boils and dark spots can indicate an underwater protruding rock.
After scouting each major feature of the rapid, as you walk back upstream, check for markers for each of your must make moves from river level. When entering, the horizon line will appear blind until you are close and you will rely on your marker rocks/trees/waves/bubbles to identify your location in the river. Markers look substantially different from above than they do from river level, so scouting from both is ideal. Don’t forget to check the entry from the river level vantage point!
Scale: When scouting, looking down on the features from above provides the best overall understanding of the configuration of the rapid. The view from above will help you determine how hard the current pushes into obstacles relative to the overall rapid and river bank. It is easier to tell where the majority of the current goes from above. However, the feature that looks friendly from above often looks monstrous from river level. Scouting from river level with help you determine if your boat will actually fit through a slot or if the hole is steeper in cross section than it appeared from above. Ideally, a difficult rapid can be scouted from above on a high point or the road, and a second time from the bank at river level for the best outcome.
Where would you go in this rapid on the Chetco River, Oregon?