Getting comfortable in harder rapids
We all have a comfort level of rapids that is exciting and where we can still think clearly. It is natural to feel some butterflies. A fundamental respect for the river is a very good thing. What we don’t want is to have emotion overwhelm our ability to make clear decisions.
So how can we expand our comfort envelope?
Harder rapids tend to be bigger, faster or just have more at stake so the pressure is on. One way to prepare for this is to get on the water and play a lot where the pressure is off—in easier rapids.
Find ways to make easy rapids challenging. Don’t just run the obvious lines, or the easiest lines. Run the small holes. Try to hit every chute your boat can fit through. If there is a rock in the river make a move around it, trying to just miss it by a foot or two when you row past. This is practicing being precise, not over rowing or under rowing. Catch all the eddies you can. Catch them next to fast moving water and in the middle of the river behind boulders. Playing will sharpen rowing skills without the pressure. Also the more you row, the physically stronger you will get.
Ultimately, running easy or harder rapids depends on really seeing the water. Picking out the main flows in a rapid is easy. Seeing all the complicated little bits of current takes focus and attention, but once you start seeing the details, you will know where the water is going to take you before you get to it. This is what will make the moves easier, and once you understand this, harder rapids will not seem as hard and your comfort envelope with naturally expand.
Finally, if you play where the pressure is off and start really seeing the water, you can begin to understand how important it is to get just the right angles. You learn that a 10 or 15 degree adjustment of angle can make all the difference. Seeing the water and taking precise angles is where the level of control you have over the raft really takes off. A light comes on and suddenly everything on the river starts making more sense. You will stop fighting the water and start making every stroke count.
Everybody is different. Not everyone enjoys hard rapids. Being in over your head is the worst feeling on the river. All your instincts are screaming at you. Getting to a level that is challenging enough to be exciting and right for you can come naturally if you play hard to understand the water in situations that are easy and fun.