How Deep is the Water?
More often than you might imagine, prospective rafting customers ask me: “How deep is the water?”. Many people suppose that water depth is the only measure by which to assess the risk of drowning. “Is it over my head?”, is the implicit question. Of course, you can drown in shallow water, if you are unlucky enough. But most people know that, besides containing water, rivers are not like lakes. And lakes and oceans are where most people drown. Many people who drown in natural water settings are involved in recreational motorized boating accidents, are NOT wearing life jackets (Personal Flotation Devices aka pfds) and don’t know how to swim.
Rivers are similar to lakes in that the water near shore is usually not as deep as far from shore, but that can vary tremendously. Otherwise, there are many differences. Most river recreationists wear PFDs, and ALL commercial rafting participants wear PFDs, and often helmets. Rivers have current, while lakes do not. Current can get you in trouble, if you either fall out of a boat or the boat is overturned, because you must take action on your own behalf to return to the boat, go to shore or grab and hold onto a rope thrown to you. If the flow in the river is high, the current is correspondingly faster and more powerful, making you work harder to save yourself. Failing to get out of the river promptly exposes you to hazards, such as submerging you in certain river features or against obstacles found in the river, like tree limbs, and hypothermia (being dangerously cooled). This is why prospective rafting participants should ask whether the flow is high or not – not how “deep” it is. Another question a prospective rafter should ask is how shallow the river is. At low water, more rocks in the riverbed will be exposed, making it difficult to navigate. You might ask: “Is portaging (carrying) the raft required?” Otherwise, rivers have both deep and shallow spots. Rivers are generally deeper where the current is slow, and shallower where the current is fast, such as in rapids. So, in rivers, the deeper places are the safer places. Rapids occur where the river channel is narrower, and/or where rocks are scattered throughout, and/or where the riverbed drops more quickly. Rapids are rated on a 1-6 scale, with Class 3 being moderate difficulty/moderate danger, and 4 being more difficult/more dangerous. Most commercial raft trips take place on Class 3 water. Class 4 is for those wanting a greater challenge, and who are ready to accept the greater risks of the raft flipping over or being thrown from the raft, and the requirement to deal with turbulent water while getting to safety.
Final Drop Rapid – Class 3. Racecourse, Rio Grande
Buzzsaw Rapid – Class 3. Taos Box, Rio Grande
Dead Car Rapid – Class 4. Taos Box, Rio Grande. Photo by Britt Runyon
Commercial rafting choices on most rivers usually include “float” trips – either on Class 1 (no waves) or Class 2 (small waves/little danger) water.
Class 1. The Bosque, Rio Grande. Photo by Britt Runyon
Class 2. Racecourse, Rio Grande
When I’m asked: “How deep is the water” and/or told that the prospective participant can’t swim, you can guess what kind of trip I recommend.