That is a question that we get asked quite often. And the answer really depends on what you’re looking for. There are lots of lakes and slow-moving streams in the Central PA area that are perfect for recreational kayaks and canoes looking for a nice, relaxing float. If you’re feeling a bit more adventurous, you can get connected with the local whitewater boaters to learn some river kayaking skills and have them show you down some of the more exciting river sections in our area.
When looking at any section of water for paddling, kayakers and canoeists typically categorize them using the following:
River and stream difficulty utilizes the International Scale of River Difficulty. This is used nearly worldwide to classify bodies of moving water according to difficulty. However, these classifications can vary greatly depending on the skill level and experience of people who rated the rivers, water levels, weather conditions, hazards, downed trees, geological disturbances, etc. Additionally, rivers vary in difficulty throughout the run, but are typically rated by their most difficulty sections. Just because a river doesn’t look difficulty at the put-in, doesn’t mean things don’t pick up down around the bend.
The most important thing to know is that if you are not properly prepared, you risk injury or loss of life on any river section, regardless of its difficulty rating. Also note that whitewater rafting down a river with a guide is very, very different than kayaking or canoeing a river section on your own.
Still, calm water.
Fast moving water with riffles and small waves. Few obstructions, all obvious and easily missed with little training. Risk to swimmers is slight; self-rescue is easy.
Straightforward rapids with wide, clear channels which are evident without scouting. Occasional maneuvering may be required, but rocks and medium-sized waves are easily missed by trained paddlers. Swimmers are seldom injured and group assistance, while helpful, is seldom needed. Rapids that are at the upper end of this difficulty range are designated “Class II+”.
Rapids with moderate, irregular waves which may be difficult to avoid and which can swamp an open canoe. Complex maneuvers in fast current and good boat control in tight passages or around ledges are often required; large waves or strainers may be present but are easily avoided. Strong eddies and powerful current effects can be found, particularly on large-volume rivers. scouting is advisable for inexperienced parties. Injuries while swimming are rare; self-rescue is usually easy but group assistance may be required to avoid long swims. Rapids that are at the lower or upper end of this difficulty range are designated “Class III-” or “Class III+” respectively.
Intense, powerful but predictable rapids requiring precise boat handling in turbulent water. Depending on the character of the river, it may feature large, unavoidable waves and holes or constricted passages demanding fast maneuvers under pressure. A fast, reliable eddy turn may be needed to initiate maneuvers, scout rapids, or rest. Rapids may require “must” moves above dangerous hazards. Scouting may be necessary the first time down. Risk of injury to swimmers is moderate to high, and water conditions may make self-rescue difficult. Group assistance for rescue is often essential but requires practiced skills. A strong eskimo roll is highly recommended. Rapids that are at the lower or upper end of this difficulty range are designated “Class IV-” or “Class IV+” respectively.
Extremely long, obstructed, or very violent rapids which expose a paddler to added risk. Drops may contain** large, unavoidable waves and holes or steep, congested chutes with complex, demanding routes. Rapids may continue for long distances between pools, demanding a high level of fitness. What eddies exist may be small, turbulent, or difficult to reach. At the high end of the scale, several of these factors may be combined. Scouting is recommended but may be difficult. Swims are dangerous, and rescue is often difficult even for experts. A very reliable eskimo roll, proper equipment, extensive experience, and practiced rescue skills are essential. Because of the large range of difficulty that exists beyond Class IV, Class 5 is an open-ended, multiple-level scale designated by class 5.0, 5.1, 5.2, etc… each of these levels is an order of magnitude more difficult than the last. Example: increasing difficulty from Class 5.0 to Class 5.1 is a similar order of magnitude as increasing from Class IV to Class 5.0.
These runs have almost never been attempted and often exemplify the extremes of difficulty, unpredictability and danger. The consequences of errors are very severe and rescue may be impossible. For teams of experts only, at favorable water levels, after close personal inspection and taking all precautions. After a Class VI rapids has been run many times, its rating may be changed to an appropriate Class 5.x rating.
This is expressed in miles and represents the distance from the beginning of the stream segment to the end. Sometimes distance does not tell the whole picture, as it can sometimes take shorter or longer based on water conditions, weather conditions, hazards, portages.
Usually expressed in hours, this represents the total time for paddling and portaging only. This does not include time related to setting or running shuttle. Note that this time can vary greatly based on water levels, group ability and size, hazards, scouting, rapids, rescues, weather, etc. Make sure to add in extra time if you have a large group, if you are inexperienced, or if conditions necessitate it.
Generally the more remote and wild, the better. We usually paddle to get away from civilization, highways, people, trash.
Usually expressed in feet per mile (fpm), this describes the rate at which it loses elevation along its course. This loss determines the river’s slope, and to a large extent its rate of flow. Shallow gradients usually produce gentle, slow rivers while steep gradients are associated with raging torrents. However, there are exceptions to this! Uneven distributions of drops or rapids can make low gradient rivers very difficult, and high gradient rivers with continuous and gradual loss can sometimes become rather easy. Therefore, it is sometimes good to also look at maximum gradient for a run.
Hazards may include rapids, downed trees, man-made dams, logs, strainers, sweepers, sieves, undercut rocks, hydraulics, entrapments, and many more. While some obvious and non-changing hazards are listed here and on other stream guides, it is impossible to list all current hazards due to the continuously changing nature of rivers. Therefore, it is best to get connected with the local boating community and ask them about any recent info on new or existing hazards.
Water levels play an important role in determining how boatable or floatable a river may be. Too low, and you might be out dragging your boat on rocks. Too high, and you risk many hazards such as strainers, debris, flood waters, rapids, boils, and fast-moving water. You should know what the current water level is of any body of water that you are putting on, what the normal boatable levels are, and if the stream is rising or falling. To determine water level, a gauge is usually placed somewhere on the river (often on or near bridges) to measure the height of the water at that level. Theses gauges are sometimes simply markers painted onto a bridge pillar that require physical inspection, or they may be electronic gauges installed by the USGS that measure and record near-real time readings, and transmit them to the internet. The river level may be listed in gauge height (inches or feet), and it may also be listed in water flow (cubic feet per second or cfs). You should be familiar with both, and how they correlate for a particular stream. Water level measurements are usually stream-dependent, and do not necessarily translate from river to river. For example, Stream A might be runnable at 1000 cfs, whereas Stream B might be at above floodstage at 1000 cfs because it is much smaller.
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