2011 The Learning Curve

October 15, 2011 at 1:00 PM

The Learning Curve: The Many Ways To Go Down a River

By Dave Graf

A couple of years ago I was conspiring with Dave Cross about doing a canoe trip on the John Day River.  After some discussion he came right out and said that he would actually prefer to raft this river than canoe it.  When I asked why he said that on the raft you could float lazily down the river and actually enjoy the view, rather than always having to pay attention just to the river as you tend to do in a canoe.  This notion interested me, but it didn’t do me any good because at that time I didn’t have a raft. 

Many of you have heard the Dave and Lora story of our first misadventure canoe trip on the John Day River years ago, so I won’t go into that here, but the idea of paddling a loaded canoe through a Class III drop does not excite or intrigue Lora one bit anymore (maybe it never did).  When I told Lora that Dave wanted to do the trip in a raft she said “hell, if you go in a raft, I will go with you.”  Wow I thought to myself, this is an interesting opportunity!  A couple of days passed and I did some research, asked a bunch of questions and then went shopping, first by myself to get an idea of what new equipment would cost. I then spent a bunch of time looking at used equipment all over the West that would suit our needs, which we thought at the time was primarily multi-day adventures.  As you may have learned yourself, you never know all the things you could or should know when you start these kinds of quests, but you just have to start somewhere.

Armed with just a little bit of information, I took Lora with me to a local shop that has a basement full of these floaty things called rafts.  It is always nice to talk to knowledgeable sales people and this shop had them. They steered us toward a 16’ cataraft.  A cat this size would be good for multi-day and still be row-able and maneuverable.  Back home, I wandered the net looking for boats similar to what they had on the showroom floor and simply didn’t see anything similar and decided that since this was going to be a long term investment we should buy new and get the equipment we liked and wanted.  So the new 16’ cat got packed into the back of the truck and another Learning Curve began.

I’ve come to find out there are a bunch of canoeists that are also rafters!  There are also a ton of IK’ers that are canoeists and/or rafters too.  Who knew?  The amazing Mike Keating offered his services as trainer and guide on several of my first forays onto the river with the raft.  This was extremely useful since the way you deal with a hazard in a raft is completely different than in a canoe and that takes some time to get used to.  The next thing you notice is how much slower you go down the river, followed by the sense of awe as you slide through a Class III rapid and barely get splashed. Class III is suddenly no big deal.

After many day trips we finally set off to conquer the mighty John Day River in our raft. This John Day River trip proved the raft a major success.  We ran Clarno at something at or above 5,000 CFS and ended the trip with the river running around 20,000 CFS.  Far as we were concerned it was a simple few days on the river and no big deal in terms of river difficulty.

One of the things I quickly figured out about the raft was that it was more fun for me because I was doing all the rowing.  Lora got to go for a nice ride and she really is good with that to a point, but it occurred to me that if we had an IK she could paddle that when she wanted to and then ride the raft through the more fun and challenging stuff.  So an IK ended up at our house and then a second one a short while later.

Several more day trips with the raft came and went, and we started noticing how much bigger a deal it is to get the raft going somewhere than it is the canoes or the IKs.  So the IKs started coming out more often for the fast water runs.  The IKs are simple to load up and take essentially the same gear as the canoe.  They are much easier to manage through Class II sections than our tandem whitewater canoe and far more forgiving of mistakes, of which we make many.  So they have gotten used on runs that we would have been stressing out about in the canoe.  While I am not looking to go play in Class III rivers per se with IKs, I wouldn’t avoid a run now that had a Class III drop in it.  My skill in the canoe is not adequate for Class III, but with an IK it is.  With the raft I have now managed Class IV drops successfully and am comfortable with the challenge they create.

So now we have the ability to go where only a few other humans have gone and we can go there several ways.  We can canoe and enjoy the speed and grace of these boats and their ability to cover a substantial amount of river or lake.  We can take the IKs on fast water rivers.  Or we can load up the raft and float for days, slowly watching the scenery go by the way knowing that even a Class IV isn’t an obstacle or a particularly big deal. 

So we keep learning about small boats and the incredible rivers in our region and that one type of boat does not fit all. Truth is, there are many ways to go down a river and they are all good.  The main thing is to go down the river sunny side up (most of the time).  You will also find all kinds of interesting people that want to go down those rivers with you in all kinds of different floaty things.  So let the river float your boat, and your friend’s boats, whatever kind(s) of boat that may be.

Don’t tell anyone, but we are already thinking about adding a smaller raft that might be more fun for day tripping and one of the IKs just got traded for a hardshell kayak. The Learning Curve continues!

Tags: John Day River Canoe
Category: Trip Report

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