Predicting Whitewater

Each year we spend a lot of time developing our communication with our guests in regards to how to explain the conditions. The most truthful answer to the question “so how will the river be looking that day?” is an almost cheeky sounding “we have absolutely no idea”. The even more honest retort would be “we have no idea, the government has no idea, and all we do is watch the weather and river flow predictions to go to the river and find out that they are incorrect most of the time”. That’s the truth of it….


It’s not all bad news though. The unpredictability of nature is one of its greatest allures and no doubt one of the most distinct contrasts from a day spent in the city at work or otherwise in the world of synthetic design. Nature has a plan that seems to escape our ability to understand it… a place where instead of being the master we are constantly designated the student. Instead of enforcing our will upon it, we must surrender to it while controlling only the course which we will take, in order to proceed safely by the good graces of our old friend the river, allowing us passage so long as our previous experience and knowledge of her is being showcased.


In 2015 the snowpack reports out of Seattle (Puget Sound area on the SNOTEL map) showed 4% snowpack at the start of the season. In 2017 it showed over 100% at the same time… still, having 25 times more snow didn’t give us 25 times the whitewater. Nature is tricky, and our hydrographs, advanced weather forecasting, and (for us) listening to old river guides and reading farmers almanacs are only going to tell us so much. At the end of the day we have to be ready to adapt… and in reality, that’s our job as professional river guides; we are students of nature, and we are the leaders of expeditions, which improvise tactics in order to find success and safety by the end.


Nature has a plan that seems to escape our ability to understand it… a place where instead of being the master we are constantly designated the student.

Nature has a plan that seems to escape our ability to understand it… a place where instead of being the master we are constantly designated the student.

It’s an analogy, for us at least, that can be equated to the Zen phrase of “living in the moment”. We recognize fully that it is in the best interests of our profession, our company, and our whitewater rafting clientele, if we try our best to predict the conditions on a certain day. Failure to do so to the best of our ability could result in someone running a river at a high flow when they are only beginners, or someone looking for a rough ride ending up with a river as low as a trickle. We try our best, but it’s tough to make guarantees. What we have found through experience is that the best way to prepare is to be ready for anything, and to make our systems malleable by our people. Our professional whitewater river guides are just that; guides. They are there to guide an expedition down a river and see what happens next. That’s what separates nature from a trip to a theme park or the movie theatre. It’s unpredictable, completely spontaneous, and at any given moment, on any day, it can provide you with something unexpected, or for a veteran guide of even 20 or more years, something they have never seen before; even on a river they have ran hundreds of times.


Rivers are the exemplification of the laws of nature; they flow to the lowest points and they abide completely and totally by the principles and laws that define their structure. A river is made of water, rocks, trees, plants, moss, fish,  et al. The dynamism of this system is something that’s so beyond our human ability to comprehend that simply being surrounded by it (or perhaps swimming literally in it) puts someone into a state of mind reminiscent of being a child. We recognize our limits almost immediately and intuitively… we can see so clearly that we are not the power…with all of our technology, our intellect, education, money, and experience, we are here at the rivers edge, once again, like a child; watching, wondering, absorbed in our own sense of awe at just how immediately vulnerable we are once we begin our descent of the rivers current. Rivers provide us a gateway to this unmistakable truth; that there is always more to life than it appears.


Whitewater obeys the same laws, like clockwork, every time. It is perfectly efficient in it’s own way; following the course through canyons carved for the river itself, it does exactly as it is supposed to do every day. It is predictable only in that it will always provide you with a window into the truth. Even the most arrogant river guide would never look back on an incident on the river and say “the river decided to all of a sudden change”… for we know that if we make a mistake on the river it is always ourselves that are the cause. Perhaps that removal of agency is something else we need in order to be truly honest with ourselves. As we like to say on the river “you’re always in between swims”, generally that means that as long as you’re running whitewater, you’re going to eventually end up out of your raft or kayak. The same thing could be said another way; as long as we are human, the river will have something to teach us. And each year, the river, it’s simple, non-authoritarian way, brings us closer to what we truly are; students… all equally attempting the same thing. On the river there is no one who is exempt from it’s laws… sure, our guides may know the path, they may know their relationship with the river, and our equipment may be proven, but when we are on the river we are always equals. On the river we are all just people.

Read more:

Why You Should Abandon Seattle for the River This Weekend

Risk, Whitewater Safety and Wilderness Medicine: Why Professionalism Matters on the River