25 chapters, 100,000 words, 120 illustrations
 Table of Contents
On $25 a Day or Less
Art of Travel - European and World Backpacking

Hydraulic Currents and General Lessons

Photo: I practice with a twenty-pound weight. Alternate caption: He was a nice guy. Horizontal banding is from moisture damage.

IF THIS RIVER had been flowing I would have been instantly swept to a stupid death, these words would never have been typed, and my lunch would have gone to the fish. Luckily for the moment there is only a slight upriver current as I'm crossing at high tide where it meets the sea. I've also just observed several natives cross ahead of me. While they assured me it was safe, I wasn't entirely convinced. The tide could have reversed at any moment, and what is the meaning of "safe" to a developing-world villager surrounded by daily tragedy?

Never underestimate the power of water. Unless you've been in a current, however, it's a good bet you will severely underestimate the effect of flowing water on the surface area of a body, and overestimate your strength as a swimmer. Never cross a river or stream with your pack buckled on.

My brother and I used to canoe the Guadeloupe river in Central Texas. On one of our last runs it was higher than we were accustomed, so we made several intelligent decisions--after debate--to portage the rapids and falls that looked beyond our skills.

It's hard to portage. The canoe and gear weigh seventy pounds or more, it's awkward work, and it takes a lot of time. The easy, jackass thing to do is to barrel on through and hope for the best. (We've all done some of that.) While scouting we observed others testing their fates. Most would spill, as we predicted we would, but none were sucked into hydraulic currents, as we predicted we might.

One young couple careened through a fork we had rejected as much too dangerous. They instantly slammed into a tree, the young woman in front was thrown head-first into same tree, bloodying her nose. Canoe, gear, and boyfriend were swept downstream.

We were eventually able to assist, but it could have been disastrous. They thought a four-mile-per-hour current through a closely-spaced series of obstacles was no big deal. Not twenty feet away was an abandoned canoe wrapped around a tree.

And it's true, to the inexperienced it may not have looked like much. But from our perspective they were ramming themselves into a brick wall at full throttle. Everything happened so fast they never had a chance to steer. Their entire whitewater experience was limited to the hour it took to get to this first minor rapid. They were naÔvely thinking, like it is so easy to do, that things would take care of themselves.

About this time a lone female canoeist arrived on the scene. She scouted, chose the safer route, and expertly negotiated it by using an advanced maneuver my brother and I had never before witnessed or contemplated. Soon she was out of sight, and for the rest of our run we considered her a Goddess with perhaps thousands of hours of whitewater experience. We both wanted to be her close friend.

Several hours later we observed commotion at a low-water bridge just beyond. There were signs warning that everyone must take-out here, that the bridge ahead was extremely dangerous.

We took-out and went to the bridge, where to our great surprise we learned the Goddess had missed or ignored the take-out point, had spilled, and her canoe had pinned her against the low-water bridge. Fortunately her head had remained just above the water. It had taken five or six people struggling with all their might, and not without danger to themselves, to free her.

The common sense act of checking what lies ahead.
The difficult but necessary act of carrying a canoe around a potentially deadly obstacle in the river. If one member of the party is significantly stronger than the other, place heavier gear nearer his or her end.
Hydraulic current
When water flows over an obstacle or fall it accelerates and creates a partial flow back towards the obstacle or fall. Small ones can be fun to sit in or ride on in a canoe, but powerful ones kill as they spin victims around and around. Don't fight a hydraulic current, but dive down near the river bottom, ride the outward current there, and surface several yards downstream, let's hope.

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