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Thirteen River Rookie Mistakes to Avoid

Posted: 09/16/2021
By: Teresa Gryder

Safety Editor’s Note: Teresa Gryder is a former river guide and a whitewater paddler with decades of experience. For the past few years, she's been writing and creating safety-focused events for the Lower Columbia Canoe Club. Her work is so impressive that I invited her to share her ideas in a regular column for the American Whitewater Journal. Welcome, Teresa; AW readers, enjoy. You are in for a treat!


-Charlie Walbridge, AW Safety Editor


When you’re good at something you can look at a new participant and know if they have a clue—or not. When you ARE that new participant, especially in whitewater boating, you need all the help you can get. So to keep your rookie status out of the spotlight, here’s a list. Everybody makes these mistakes sometimes, but guard against them. Mistakes don’t make you a bad person. They just mean you should slow down and get more systematic about your approach.


  1. Boat lacks full floatation. Is your boat a floater or a sinker?  Canoeists lash giant float bags into both ends of the boat. Kayakers can fail to have floatation inside their boats without anyone else seeing. Bow floatation is worth having if you want your boat rescued when you swim.  Repair or replace old leaky airbags and attach them to the boat.
  2. Forgot an essential piece of gear. Make a list and check it twice: life jacket, helmet, sprayskirt (if decked boat), paddle, boat, drysuit/other immersion wear and river boots. If you’re lucky someone has spares, but if not, you won’t get to boat when you forget something. Don’t be tempted to launch without anything essential!
  3. No dry clothes at the take-out. This is super common and not overly dangerous, but it does reveal that you are a noob. When your group drops off cars at the take-out, your dry clothes and shoes should stay there. Wearing wet river booties while running shuttle stinks!
  4. Don’t know the water level. It’s easy to let someone else pick the river and run. But sometimes the people who are picking don’t do the best job. The sooner you get curious about water levels, the fewer disastrous paddling experiences you will have due to water that is either way too high or stupid low. Learn how and where to look up gauges for rivers in your region, then get in the habit of finding out what the flows are before you make plans about your day on the river.
  5. Went to the wrong place. When you’re meeting folks at a new location, get the details ahead of time. Smart phones and GPS navigation are useful, but looking at a map or asking for directions can prevent the errors that occur when two places have the same name, or your online map is wrong. Keep investigating until you know where you’re going. Bring a paper map and plan to get there early just in case.
  6. Didn’t close drybag properly. Rookies can be so proud when they have a drybag, but they often don’t know how to close it to make it waterproof, and their stuff gets wet. Get tips on how to seal your drybag to avoid this mistake.
  7. Lifejacket or helmet not attached and adjusted. You can HAVE the right gear and not wear it correctly, or undo it partway down the river. There’s no excuse for this. Work on your suntan some other time. Adjust your gear until it is comfortable and functional, and leave it on all day, including when you are scouting or portaging. It will save you from injuries and it will make you look like a pro.
  8. Drainplug out. Modern kayaks have this delightful feature that allows you to empty the boat by standing it on end. If you forget to put the plug back in, it can get lost or, even if it’s left dangling out of the hole, your boat can fill with water while you are paddling. Get in the habit of checking your drainplug and that of your friends, too.
  9. Drysuit not completely zipped. Often it’s the pee zipper that gets forgotten. When you go for a swim and cold water pours in, it’s a shock. Drowning because your suit filled with water would be a tragedy. Double check your drysuit zippers, and look out for your buddies too.
  10. Failed to secure stuff. If you swim and your water bottle and throwbag float away, you blew it. If you get pounded in a big hole and your floatation comes out and your shoes come off, that’s worse. Secure everything and you will have less flotsam to chase and less lost gear when things go sideways.
  11. No emergency gear. A whistle is cheap and can summon help when you need it. Get one, keep it handy, and learn whistle signals. While you’re at it, get a rope and a knife. River rescue almost always calls for a rope. If you carry a rope, you should also have a knife in case you need to cut the rope. A first aid kit that you know how to use is another great addition to your kit.
  12. No repair kit. For a roadside day run this isn’t crucial, but in the wilderness it matters. Inflatables become trash if you can’t patch them. Hardshell repair is relatively easy, using tape for cracks and cord for backbands. Figure out how to fix your boat and bring the materials you might need.
  13. Shuttle car keys in wrong place. It’s a mistake to leave the keys to the take-out car in the put-in car. It’s miserable when your electrical remote gets wet. You’ll cry when you have the wrong keys and must break a window in your own car. Do your best to have the right keys in hand when you need them.

Bruce Bleakman

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