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Posted by Al Agnew on September 27th, 2011
One of the most common hazards, or at least aggravations, in floating Ozark streams is when you come to a curving riffle, or where a riffle comes into slower water at an angle. Anytime fast water is curving, the fastest water is always to the outside, and the inside has much slower water or even a back-eddy where the current reverses direction. And faster flowing water is more powerful and erosive, which is why there are often sweeper downed trees or driftwood piles on the outsides of bends where the current is fastest. Those are the most dangerous obstacles in Ozark streams, and you don’t want to get into one, but the current will always be pushing you toward it.
But even if the river is wide enough to avoid the sweepers on the outside bank, or if the outside bank is clear, the way most people run the rivers, they turn their kayak or canoe away from the outside. Which means the back end of the boat is in faster water and the front end is in slower water, and the faster water turns the back end of the boat around. You get stuck in the eddy on the inside with the boat often turning around backwards. You might be able to convince another neophyte that you meant to do that, and maybe sometimes you really WANT to do that, but most of the time it’s really goofy looking and makes you have to work to turn your boat back around and get it lined out pointing the right direction again.
I don’t remember if the new MDC float book still gives the same advice, but the old ones, written by Oz Hawksley, have probably been the ruination of many generations of Ozark paddlers, and he wasn’t the only one to give the same advice. He said you must always be paddling faster than the current to have control over your boat in riffles.
Wrong. Paddling forward faster than the current usually just gets you into trouble quicker!
Which is where ferrying comes in. I gave this same advice not long ago, but decided to produce a couple diagrams to show it a little better. Ferrying is basically pointing the canoe or kayak toward where you DON’T want to go, and then back-paddling AWAY from the obstacle or fastest water. First, though, here’s what happens when you try to use the advice of paddling forward faster than the current:
In the diagram, the river is flowing toward the top and then curving to the right. The blue lines with arrows are the current and the direction it’s flowing. You can see that it’s flowing faster (lines closer together) on the outside of the bend, and slower with a back eddy on the inside.
The boat is shown in black, with the front end filled in solid black. The red arrows are the direction of the power paddle strokes…forward strokes in this case like ol’ Oz told you to.
In number one, you’re coming down the center of the riffle, and you’re paddling to get momentum coming into the curve.
In number two, you’re hitting it hard on the left side to turn the boat to the right to avoid that outside bank, with fast water and possible sweepers.
At point number three, you’re probably still paddling hard on the left, still trying to turn that boat away from those outside sweepers. Why are you doing that? Look at the way the current is hitting the boat. It’s hitting it on the right side, pushing it left, directly toward the outside of the bend. At this point, if you’re a really strong paddler and the current isn’t too fast, you might be able to push the boat on around the bend and past any obstacles, even though the current is continually pushing you to the left and into them. But more likely, you run out of room on the left before you clear the obstacles. Which means that you crash into them sideways and flip the boat. Or…
You reach point number four. Now look at the current. It’s not only hitting the right side of your boat, but the back end of the boat is in much faster water at this point than the front end is. Which means that you are now realizing you have to start paddling like heck on the right side to turn that front end back to the left. But the current is usually stronger than you are, which means that…
Number 5 and number 6 is the result. The current pushes the back end on around, the front end gets into the back-eddy on the inside and helps it along, and you’re now backwards in the eddy.
Now, here’s the correct way to do it:
In number one, you’re going down the middle of the riffle like before, but this time you are back-paddling to slow yourself down.
In position number two, as you start to enter the bend or just before you enter it, you hit the back-paddle hard on the left, to turn the back end of your boat to the right. The front end starts to swing to the left and point TOWARD that outside bend and those nasty sweepers.
Position number three, you’re continuing to back-paddle and hold your angle to the current, keeping the front end pointed toward the outside and pushing the back end into the slower water of the inside of the bend.
Position number four…look at how the current is hitting your craft. It’s hitting it on the LEFT side of the boat. It’s not hitting it on the right and pushing you toward that outside bend. And, the stronger current is hitting the FRONT end of the canoe and naturally wanting to push it to the right, exactly the way you want to go. You can now switch to a forward paddle stroke on the left to help the canoe along, or back-paddle on the right as shown to do the same thing.
By position number five and six, you can often just put the paddle down and pick up your rod, because the current will probably straighten you out perfectly. Alternatively, you can do a couple back-paddles and get yourself all the way into the back-eddy, stopping the boat with it pointed downstream, while you make some casts. Just keep in mind that if you do that, the back-current will eventually push the back end of the canoe to where the back-eddy meets the stronger main current, in which case you’ll then suddenly be in the same situation you would have been had you done everything wrong initially. So if you’re in the back-eddy, you’ll need to do a forward stroke or two on the right BEFORE that happens, to keep the front end of the canoe on the current seam where the back-eddy and forward current meet, and then hit it hard on the right to push the front end of the boat into the main current BEFORE the back end of the boat enters it. Then the main current will pull you forward into it.
Another tip…use the ferry technique to avoid midstream obstacles as well. Say you’re in fast water and bearing down on a big boulder sticking up out of the water, or even worse, a rootwad or snag. If you are going faster than the current the way Oz told you to, you’re already out of control, and if you want to go to the right of the obstacle you have to paddle hard on the left to turn the boat to the right. But when you turn the boat to the right, the current is now hitting the right side of the boat and pushing you on down into the obstacle while all you’re doing is turning the boat so that you’ll hit the obstacle sideways…and flip again.
So instead, if you want to miss the obstacle on the right, backpaddle on the left to turn the boat so that the front end is pointing to the left, toward the obstacle. Now the current will be hitting the left side of your boat, wanting to naturally push it to the right and away from the obstacle. Continue to backpaddle, maintaining your angle, slowing the boat down, and moving it to the right the way you want to go. Even if you don’t do it hard enough and fast enough, the worst that happens is that you hit the obstacle head on, in which case you’re less likely to flip and swamp the boat than you would be if you hit it sideways.
Or, say you see a nice big eddy in fast water where you want to park the boat to fish for a bit. I do that all the time, because some of the best fish, and least fished-for fish, are in pockets in the faster water where most floaters don’t fish because they are barreling past too fast. If you try to turn the front end of the boat into the eddy, it catches the slower water while the back end is still in fast water, which means you’ll then rotate around and into the eddy backwards at best, at worst the differential between the slow water on one end and the fast water on the other means you’ll probably…flip again.
Instead, this time you backpaddle on the opposite side as the eddy where you want to go, turning the BACK end of the boat toward the eddy this time. For instance, say the eddy is on your left. Again, you’re pointing the front end where you DON’T want to go, which is to the right, away from that eddy. You have to be careful not to push the back end of the canoe too far left too fast or it’ll hit whatever obstacle is making that eddy, but if you do it right, your back end clears the obstacle, and then a couple hard backpaddles on the right will push that back end gradually into the eddy, while the faster current is hitting the front end on the right and pushing it left into the eddy as well. No flip, and you’re pointing downstream as you enter the eddy.
Hopefully, you can master this technique and never look like a novice paddler again!