River Water Levels


It’s important to know the water level of the river you’re paddling before you float your kayak. Water levels have a profound effect on the dynamics of a river, and Class II rapids can suddenly become dangerous Class IV rapids in high water. On the other hand, challenging Class IV rapids that you’d normally never attempt can become more reasonable Class III rapids when water levels drop.

Several factors can affect water levels, principal among them spring runoff and excess water from heavy storms. If you paddle in the spring or early summer, you can expect high water, so be prepared.  And in mid to late summer, expect the water levels to be down (except, of course, during or after a large storm, when levels can reach flood stage). And never attempt even normally-tame stretches of a river when the water is at flood stage–the currents are just too strong, and every rock and obstruction is a potential hazard.

Just as with rapids, and international rating systems has been devised to classify various water levels. Just be advised that the rating of a particular river can change from season.

The classifications are as follows:

· L, or Low. This designates below-normal water levels for a river. This low water can be difficult to paddle, and expect more exposed sandbars and dry banks.

· M, or Medium. This is considered normal river flow. There should be plenty of water depth for passage on most if not all of the river in question.

· MH, or Medium High. This designates higher than normal water levels. Expect faster water flows. This higher than normal water is an advantage when paddling through rock gardens and other difficult passages.

· H, or High. This is high water at a level well above normal stage for this river. Make sure your paddling skills and equipment are in order if you plan on running high water.

· HH, or High-High. This is very high water that’s best left to experts. Expect a lot of debris in the water, and complex hydraulics that can flip your kayak in an instant.

· F, or Flood. Exceptionally high water, or flood stage. Don’t even think about floating your boat in a river at this stage, unless you want to end up on the wrong end of an expensive and dangerous rescue mission.

If you can, talk to someone who’s paddled the river that day about the conditions. And always check the current weather reports for forecasts of heavy storms in your area.