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The mountains are calling and I must go, and I will work on while I can, studying incessantly.

- John Muir

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Travel

Sep 19, 2018

The Top 5 Whitewater Kayaking Destinations in North America

The five whitewater kayaking destinations in North America, that every paddler should have on their list.

WRITTEN BY

Brooke Hess

As a member of the U.S. Freestyle Kayak Team, I have been fortunate to paddle rivers all over the world. I have paddled in Europe, Africa, South America, New Zealand, and all over North America. Some of my favorite paddling destinations have been the White Nile River in Uganda, and the Kaituna River in New Zealand. If you get a chance to visit either of those places (especially before the White Nile is dammed next month), I highly recommend it. However, if you are on a budget and can’t afford flights out of North America, or if you live elsewhere and are planning your first paddling trip to North America, here are five destinations that should be on your list!

OTTAWA RIVER, ONTARIO

Big waves, warm water, low consequence.

Brooke Hess kayaks Minibus Wave. High water on the Ottawa. Photo: Andrea Polgar.

Whether you are a beginner, an elite freestyle kayaker, or just looking to run some big volume whitewater and surf some fun waves, you can always find something fun to do on the Ottawa.

Spring melt on the Ottawa provides massive rapids and big waves. Buseater and Coliseum rapids are perfect for elite freestyle kayakers looking to step up their game and test themselves in big water. And with the Gatineau and Rouge Rivers close by, there is plenty to choose from in terms of both river running and freestyle. Be aware though, spring in Ontario and Quebec is cold, and the whitewater isn’t easy. Only go at this time of year if you are 100% confident you won’t swim. And, in case mistakes happen (which they do… we are only human), make sure your drysuit is in good shape and you are fit enough to hold on if you are getting beatdown!

In case cold water, icy banks, and big volume grade 5 rapids aren’t your idea of a perfect kayaking vacation, just wait until summer! August on the Ottawa is the perfect combination of exciting (yet low-consequence) whitewater, big surf waves, small surf waves, warm water, and good weather. Imagine surfing on the world-famous Garburator Wave in a t-shirt, then paddling 50 meters downstream to a perfect sandy beach for a mid-day picnic with your friends, and capping off the day with a beautiful river run straight to your campsite!

SLAVE RIVER, NORTHWEST TERRITORIES 

Like the Ottawa, but bigger.

Leif Anderson going big on Rockem’ Sockem Wave, Slave River. Photo: Natalie Anderson

Located in Fort Smith, Northwest Territories, the Slave River is not often listed as a world-class paddling destination due to the amount of driving required to get there. But don’t let this deter you, the Slave River is epic!

The river is three kilometers wide, hosting four different sets of rapids. Due to the massive width of the river, each set of rapids has multiple (more than 5) different channels. Each channel within a set of rapids is the length of a full-day river run. This means, (if I did my math correct), there are at least twenty different river runs to explore on the Slave River. All within ten minutes driving distance of each other. And this number doesn’t even include the smaller side channels, or runs where you combine multiple different channels in one run! This allows any paddler, no matter their skill level, numerous options to choose from. There are grade 1 floats, perfect for canoeists. There are grade 2 options, perfect for beginner kayakers. There are grade 3 rapids with world-class surf waves. And there are grade 4 and 5 rapids that have the potential to intimidate even the world’s most elite kayakers. In addition to the amazing river running, the Slave River offers epic surf waves for anyone from beginner to elite freestyle kayakers.

WHITE SALMON, WASHINGTON

If you love beautiful places.

Darr Soli paddles the Little White Salmon River. Photo: Leif Anderson.

If you are a whitewater kayaker of any sort, I am sure you have heard of the Little White Salmon River. It is a classic grade 5 creek that professional kayakers travel from all over the world to paddle. It is also potentially the most videoed section of whitewater in the world. I have never paddled the Little White Salmon River, but I have seen so much GoPro footage of it on the internet, I am pretty sure I know most of the lines.

What I bet you don’t know, is that in White Salmon, Washington, where the Little White Salmon River is located, there are also numerous other grade 2, 3, and 4 rivers. In fact, the White Salmon River alone has a grade 2 stretch, a grade 3 stretch, a grade 4 stretch, and a grade 5 stretch. Whether you are a beginner kayaker, an intermediate kayaker, an advanced kayaker, or a professional kayaker, there are multiple beautiful, moss-covered, basalt-laden rivers for any skill level in and around White Salmon.

IDAHO

Wilderness, hot springs, big water.

The Lochsa River, designated as a National Wild and Scenic River, flows through the Clearwater National Forest. U.S. Forest Service Northern Region photo.

I don’t have the words to describe how wonderful Idaho is. I grew up two hours from the Lochsa River, spending weekends camping in the woods without cell service. It was my first ever taste of big water and I was hooked from the very start. If you like big water river runs in remote locations without cell service, Idaho is where you should go. If you like multi-day kayak trips through remote wilderness, with sandy beach campsites and hot springs, Idaho is your place. Basically, if you like whitewater and are not a complete weirdo, you will love Idaho.

You have the Selway River, the Lochsa River, the Clearwater River, the South Fork Payette, the North Fork Payette, the Middle Fork Salmon, the Main Salmon, the South Salmon… I could go on. So many remote rivers with beautiful surroundings, I don’t even think I need to say more.

SKOOKUMCHUCK, BRITISH COLUMBIA

Starfish, seals, sea lions, salty water.

Emily Lussin kayaking at her home wave, Skookumchuck. Photo: Brooke Hess.

Skookumchuck is different. It is unlike any other kayaking destination. Skookumchuck is located on the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia, in the Sechelt Inlet. Yes, Inlet… not river. Skookumchuck is a tidal rapid, formed by the tides as ocean water moves in and out of the Inlet over a rock shelf. The salty water flows over the rock shelf and forms a picture-perfect, glassy, green surf wave. If there was a contest for smoothest kayaking wave in the world, Skook would win.

Despite how epic the kayaking wave is at Skook, I don’t think that is what makes the place so special. To access the wave, you hike four kilometers through a dense rainforest, with green moss and vines hanging everywhere. It feels as if you are hiking through a magic forest with fairies and unicorns. Something you would see in a Disney movie. Sitting in the eddy waiting for your turn on the wave, you will be mesmerized by the purple and orange starfish scattered all over the rocks. Not to mention the sea urchins, barnacles, sea anemones, and seals everywhere!

On my most recent Skook trip, I watched two sea lions play in the whirlpools behind the wave for thirty minutes. I then proceeded to make excuses for why I didn’t want to get back in my kayak until the sea lions were gone (I was scared)… but nonetheless it was one of the best days of kayaking I have ever had. I have even heard of people seeing whales breaching on the other side of the Inlet while someone is kayaking on the wave. The entire setting of Skookumchuck is magical. Even if you consider yourself more of a river runner than a freestyle kayaker, a trip to Skook should still be on your list.

 

Cover Photo: Leif Anderson.

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Travel

Mar 19, 2019

Is ‘Sidecountry’ a Four-Letter Word?

A team of Avalanche experts define the word, and discuss how to deal with the phenomena. Do we attempt to stop the sidecountry locomotive, or shape the definition and attempt to harness its power?

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This article originally appeared in The Avalanche Review, a trade and scientific journal serving the American Avalanche Association Membership. It was written by Scott Savage, Simon Trautman, Ethan Greene, and Doug Chabot.

Riding in the sidecountry is fun, and it is marketable. Google ‘sidecountry’ and you get 438,000 search results. As more people recreate in the sidecountry, ski areas promote it, equipment manufacturers capitalize on it, riders benefit through new technology and increased availability, the media eats it up, more people want the experience and WHAM! – we are lost somewhere in a very successful feedback loop. Ski area avalanche professionals and backcountry avalanche forecasters, however, are scratching their heads about how to deal with the phenomena; do we attempt to stop the sidecountry locomotive in its tracks or do we embrace the term, shape the definition to benefit our mission, and attempt to harness its branding power to educate the various user groups that recreate in terrain adjacent to ski areas?

One of the great slopes on Gornergrat with plenty of sidecountry opportunities, near the top, with the ever-distracting Matterhorn in the distance. Location: Zermatt. By Doc Searls Santa Barbara, USA

Currently, defining sidecountry is similar to defining pornography; people disagree on a formal definition but you know it when you see it. In our opinion, sidecountry is very useful term for describing a certain combination of human behavior and geography. It is intuitive because most people understand that sidecountry refers to the terrain adjacent to ski area boundaries. This terrain is easily accessed, easily “lapped”, and in many cases highly visible. Observing this reality and thinking about the term in a geographical and behavioral sense is important because it showcases the idea that sidecountry terrain is used differently than backcountry terrain, and as such, suggests that sidecountry users may have different needs than those traditionally addressed in avalanche education. We believe that using the term benefits avalanche professionals by allowing them to relate to audiences and be succinct when speaking, writing, or educating on sidecountry topics.

“Sidecountry is backcountry”

“Sidecountry is backcountry” is a recently coined phrase that is also highly descriptive and accurate regarding particular aspects of sidecountry. Sidecountry avalanche rescue is effectively a backcountry rescue – regardless of the proximity to a ski area, organized rescue may not arrive in time. Since ski areas do not perform avalanche hazard mitigation work in sidecountry terrain, the phrase is probably an effective tool to communicate avalanche danger, especially to novice and casual sidecountry users. “Sidecountry is backcountry” is a simple message that is easy to understand. There is power in this: power to educate, power to simplify, power to feel that one is addressing the problem. Unfortunately, we are not dealing with a simple problem or a singular, simple user group.

Ski areas do not perform avalanche hazard mitigation work in sidecountry terrain.

Novice, casual, and experienced sidecountry users have different levels of expertise, attitudes, decision-making techniques, and educational needs. In addition, novice and casual users are highly influenced by experienced users. A cursory look at recent sidecountry accident and near-miss reports reveals that experienced sidecountry users appear to be involved more frequently than the less experienced individuals. The experienced group generally visits the same sidecountry terrain frequently enough to become familiar with terrain features, may actively manage or mitigate avalanche hazard (slope cuts, cornice drops, etc.), and at times may have more intimate knowledge of the slope-scale snowpack structure and stability than local avalanche professionals. Most importantly, an “I’m going there because it’s there and I want to ski” attitude seems to be common; experienced users access the terrain and then decide whether to mitigate or avoid hazard or just forge ahead. Will telling these more risk tolerant individuals that “sidecountry is backcountry” reduce their risk? Will it help us communicate with them? Sidecountry may be the same as backcountry in some ways, but routine sidecountry users and backcountry users are disparate user groups.

Skilled, experienced professional avalanche educators can create effective sidecountry-specific educational programs and presentations. As we have learned while reaching out to snowmobilers, relevancy is everything. Just as force-feeding traditional avalanche education to someone who never gets off their sled is ineffective, so too is drawing a “backcountry box” around someone who skis out-of-bounds 50 days a year, but rarely or never uses skins or established backcountry stability evaluation and decision-making techniques. Sidecountry is a growth market for snow sports equipment and clothing manufacturers, and these companies may be interested in supporting educational and outreach efforts to sidecountry users (their customers). Instead of abandoning or over-simplifying the term, maybe the ski and avalanche community would be well served to take advantage of the strong, established sidecountry brand by partnering with the media and outdoor gear retail industry to accomplish the following:

  1. Define sidecountry as the unique geographical and behavioral issue that it is, focusing on the specific dangers associated with sidecountry recreation
  2. Identify and define specific user groups
  3. Tailor, market, and promote user group specific educational programs

The term ‘sidecountry’ is descriptive, intuitive, and useful. We agree with the recent NSAA Journal Editorial “There’s No Such Thing as ‘Sidecountry’ ” that the avalanche and snowsports communities must better communicate that riders are on their own when they leave ski area boundaries. Our common goals are to educate the public on the inherent risk of avalanches outside that boundary and to help users reduce their risk in this terrain. In our opinion, we can enhance communication by acknowledging the difference in behavior and risk tolerance between user groups, by identifying and targeting the needs of those groups, and by partnering with those that have the marketing and promotional power to deliver the message.

Read Next: Charge Hard, Stay Smart: Guidebook Guru, Fritz Sperry, on Safety in Avy-Prone Backcountry.

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