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Poll: How Whitewater Skilled are You in an Open Canoe?

How would you rate your open canoe whitewater skills?

  • Don't ever paddle whitewater

    Votes: 8 21.6%
  • Novice - Confident in class 1 and can make it through some class 2

    Votes: 7 18.9%
  • Intermediate - Can dominate and play class 2 and get through some class 3

    Votes: 17 45.9%
  • Advanced - Can dominate and play class 3 and handle most class 4

    Votes: 5 13.5%
  • Expert - Can confidently handle all class 4 and get through some class 5

    Votes: 0 0.0%

  • Total voters

Glenn MacGrady

Staff member
Oct 24, 2012
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The purpose of this poll is to try to get a rough idea of our whitewater skills and experience in an open canoe. 15-35 years ago I would have called myself an advanced whitewater canoeist, and was so rated (a "class 4" paddler) by several whitewater clubs. Now, I realistically should demote myself to an intermediate, mainly for decreased mental confidence, but I'll still claim advanced status just for posterity.

So, given there are many other geezers here, feel free to rate yourself at your peak.
I will pick Advanced as well but I'm not sure it's accurate (for me), using your critera descriptions maybe I'm an Advanced Minus

I generally describe my skill level as "comfortable in Class III and good skills at sneaking class IV"

I'm still improving my ww skills but my rating isn't going to get any higher than advanced. Another complicating factor, all my rapid running is in a fully loaded remote tripping situation, hard to "dominate" under those conditions.
This is very subjective...ie running a class 3-4 with a loaded canoe while boat scouting on a remote river or running a class 4-5 at a local park and play spot. I would say the first would be a more skilled paddler. Ie you can be an advanced paddler and not run class 4.
This is very subjective...ie running a class 3-4 with a loaded canoe while boat scouting on a remote river or running a class 4-5 at a local park and play spot. I would say the first would be a more skilled paddler. Ie you can be an advanced paddler and not run class 4.
Yes, it is subjective, as are the ratings of rapids.

When I say "dominate and play" a class X rapid, I mean you can catch every catcheable eddy in that rapid, peel out from that eddy, surf waves and holes in the middle of the rapid, and ferry across it at will. Someone who can do that in a loaded or unloaded canoe is far more skilled in my book that someone who can just survive relatively straight line shots through the given rapid.

Also in my book, there are only a few handfuls of what I call "expert" open canoeists in North America. In my day, of those I've paddled with, there was Nolan Whitesell, Bob Foote, Harold Deal, Jim Michaud, Jon Kazimierczyk, Dave Paton, and a few others. None of them is a member here.
Interesting poll. Scored myself intermediate but that was many moons ago. For the second half of my paddling life I would score higher in one about flatwater skill…pretty fair there. 😉
I consider myself novice. I was invited on a trip down the Colorado river. We entered at Lees Ferry and exited at lake Mead. I paddled a solo canoe. Prior to the trip I had paddled on a lake with the boy scouts but was in no way a skilled paddler and had no white water canoeing experience . It was a memorable experience involving a lot of " on the job training " . This is the only white water canoe trip I have taken.
There's a big step between your intermediate ("get through some class 3") and advanced ("handle most class 4"). I'd daresay than any open canoeist that can "handle most class 4" is an exceptional paddler, and one well on his/her way to being an expert. Nolan Whitesell and Bob Foote I'd say are beyond expert, as they were the best in the world at the time. For most sports, "expert" level is one that can be achieved by mere mortals.
Was intermediate now on the old age slide.. Slides go one way.

A story: I learned some whitewater skills from an AMC paddler in CT who was expert. 15 years passed he had a stroke and Alzheimers. He came up to paddle the Saco starting above Bartlett. I was stern in the boat and a little nervous and awed too that I had him as my bow paddler. We had to eddy out into a class 2 with a bridge about 100 feet down river. With an abutment in midstream. He failed to do the required cross bow draw and we were lucky to just glance off that piece of concrete. There were many rootwads downstream and he had trouble with recognizing the correct direction to pull his end of the boat. We wound up dry and OK .

Still it was a good lesson. Nothing is forever. I have arrived at that point now.

I still will run Five Finger Rapids. I spent six days obsessing over that one on the Yukon.
By the descriptions provided I chose “Novice”. I don’t feel I can dominate class II, and certainly never dominated class III. But “Can make it through some class II” is a low bar.

Some of that selection has to do with my canoes of choice; I haven’t owned a WW canoe in 25 years.

In a canoe tripping sense I have never attempted to run anything above a class II with a loaded boat.
a confounding factor is what we will run on a day trip, with a group, or with a road nearby.

The bar falls considerably if the only options are save thyself cause no one else will and lose your boat you walk out.
I think the word "dominate" leans toward a type of whitewater paddling that is far removed from wilderness tripping, which is the type of canoeing I do. When we trip with loaded canoes, we seldom "dominate", it is more of a cautious reading and running of the obstacles ahead. I have played in white water, but never on a trip. I know people who really enjoy whitewater paddling, and seek out bigger and more challenging runs all the time. However, for me, and the folks I paddle with, rapids are part of an overall experience, and if we think there is a chance they could be dodgy, we will usually port.

Having said all that, I routinely run class 2 and 3, and have probably accidentally run a four a few times, but the idea is to get through alive and in one piece, without dumping.
Having said all that, I routinely run class 2 and 3, and have probably accidentally run a four a few times, but the idea is to get through alive and in one piece, without dumping.
This is exactly the same for Kathleen and me when we are on wilderness trips. We commonly run Class III in a loaded boat. Have also run what some guide books claim are Class IV rapids, which I think were exaggerated. What does that make us? Almost Advanced?
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I don't know how my White water skills level stacks up ?
I'm pretty good at recognizing hazardous things to avoid in moving water, not always able to avoid them though.
In my younger day, I was a lot better. Now I work at avoiding " Hairy Water ". Instead, I look for a portage ! ;)
My goal in this topic was mainly to get a discussion going of whitewater experience among the members, whatever it has been and however you want to characterize it, because we haven't often discussed the subject, per se, in any detail. Plus, the Whitewater forum is one of new ones I added as part of the site migration.

I fully agree that defining whitewater skill/experience levels is rather subjective and ambiguous. I also agree that one does not paddle whitewater (or not) on a wilderness trip with loaded boats the same way one does on a whitewater day play trip. The hulls used are usually even different.

I was a very competent whitewater paddler before I became a competent flatwater paddler. I was running class 3 and 4 whitewater on day trips in California and the northeast before I finally perfected my flatwater correction stroke in 1984, shortly after purchasing and using my first dedicated flatwater solo canoe from Mike Galt that year.

I attribute my "reverse development" to the fact that, in the early '80's, I took formal and informal whitewater instruction in specialized whitewater kayaks and canoes from masters in California and the northeast -- such as as Bob Foote, John Berry, Keech LeClair, and instructors in the Sierra Club and Appalachian Mountain club -- but never took any formal flatwater instruction in my life until some freestyle instructionals in 2009 and 2010. Until then, I was entirely (and slowly) self-taught in flatwater techniques, which was helped quite a bit by my serious whitewater play instruction and experiences beginning around 1980.
Kathleen and I have not altered what we run on wilderness trips compared to day trips on whitewater. Although a loaded boat is less maneuverable, it is more stable. We have often run Class III rapids extending a mile (1.5 km) or more in length. During our descents we often eddy out behind mid-channel rocks to catch our breath and calm our nerves. We often eddy-hop/ferry from one side of the river to the other to gain better views, particularly around a bend. I would not say that we “dominated,” but we were mostly in control. At our peak, I would have said that we were very good, but never among the elite (Advanced?).
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I guess I'm probably an intermediate+. That said, I'm old enough that I enjoy Class I and II more than III and IV. I don't think my skill level has necessarily decreased, but my willingness to risk a swim definitely has.
I think I fall in the intermediate category. I've only done ww tandem, so with my wife we'd be intermediate+ with someone with no experience not so much. I wouldn't say that we were ww play boaters. We spent two summers practicing on the Lehigh River in Pa. in an OT Tripper before moving to Alaska. Since our goal was to learn ww for future tripping we ran rapids with a conservative approach. That was over 30 years ago and I'd like to get back to it again. I think that with all of the general paddling experience I've had over that time and the addition of a dedicated ww boat we would have a much easier time of it.
I voted intermediate. But with the "at your peak", and the "dominate" phrasing, I am voting perhaps more conservative than my ego.
Living in Louisiana, whitewater always required travel and planning. The Cossatot River in Arkansas was our closest ww. The 16' BlueHole was rigged with a massive chunk of styrofoam held in by the center thwart. Always tandem, as none of us had solo canoes. We would group up with 2 to 6 boats. Mostly to gain the experience from others. Was too dangerous to attempt without others.

Watching the weather forecasts, and the river gauges, we had to time when the river was running. Six to 8 trips a year was a good season for us.
Cat III, IV, and V was the usual after a good rain, but might not last more than a few days. The river is about 89 miles long, but only about a 14 mile stretch is considered ww above a class II. There is a section that drops 40 feet in less than 1/8 mile.
Never got to the skill level to be able to be defined as being able to "dominate" in above class III. Smiles and grins, yes. But the pucker factor rarely diminished. I learned the value of a good PFD.

But that was in the early 70's, through the 90's. We eventually became the "older guys" with the experience. The foam has been long removed from the Blue Hole, and my ability is, I am sure, better in my mind than actuality. I have not had the desire to get bruised of late. Good memories will have to suffice.