Paddling Road Trips: Stepping Out of the Day-Trip Rut


LelandPaddling road trips are a key part of the boating experience. Sometimes you just have to load up the rig, stock up on supplies and hit the road with friends.


The boats are finally tied onto the roof racks, and the gear is piled high in the back of the rig. Last-minute supplies have been bought, the gas tank is full, and there’s nothing left to do but go. The crew is settling into their seats, the stereo is blaring your favorite motivational tunes, and the road stretches out before you like a yellow-striped wormhole into a mythical, riparian alternate dimension even as your day-to-day life fades in the rearview mirror. It’s paddling road trip time!

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There’s a special kind of magic that comes from getting away to the river for several days.

Bleary hours later, you wriggle into your cozy nylon cocoon on the river’s bank and gratefully close your eyes. As you settle in, the roaring of the nearby whitewater suddenly seems overly loud in the darkness, its insistent rumble drowning out all thoughts and lulling you into a deep but restless sleep. The stream’s feral noise haunts your dreams, bringing occasional nervous tingles and excited flittering images of the coming morning’s nascent adventures. Although you haven’t seen it yet, you sleep fitfully with the knowledge that you’ll wake up in a different, enchanted, and startlingly real world.

So often, many of us who live within an easy day’s round-trip drive from whitewater rivers lose sight of many of the fundamental joys of being a paddler. We plan and scheme to fit our paddling time into the cracks in our ‘normal’ lives, rushing to and from the river in a mad dash to quickly get in a run and then return to whatever work or social activities we’re involved in at home. It’s an amazing privilege to have such easy access to whitewater, one which allows many of us to crank out considerably increased numbers of paddling days and keep our skills honed to the sharpest possible edge. However, some of the most profound and rewarding parts of the paddling experience can get lost in the shuffle.

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There’s a special kind of magic that comes from getting away to the river for several days. Part of it is the bonding time you spend with your paddling buddies off the river, creating the kind of transcendent friendships that can only be forged through deep common adventures. When you’re sitting around telling river tales years in the future, these are the stories that will consistently float to the surface – the ones that stand out, etched indelibly in your memory. It’s no coincidence that many of the tightest-knit paddling communities are located in places where at least weekend-long road trips are necessary to get to most of the good whitewater runs. The long rides and time spent around the campfire allow you to share a breadth of different experiences and get to know many things about your companions that simply can’t be gleaned from the seat of your boat or on a quick drive to the put-in.

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Another important part of paddling road trips is simply getting away and leaving the worries and cares of your ‘normal’ life back at your house – letting go of everything else for a while and setting your internal clock to “river time” for a few days. It’s one of the greatest time zones you can visit, where the world is distilled into a pure essence of food, sleep, shuttle, and paddling – then relaxing with friends to relive the day and decide what adventures you’ll attempt tomorrow. There’s a flow to this simple kind of life, a current as compelling as any that you can dance with in your boat. But you’ll never feel that flow unless you load up the shuttle rig with your buddies and your camping gear and peel out onto the open road.

Another important component of the paddling road trip experience is staying and simply being in the river environment for a while, enjoying the familiar landscape while you’re not caught up in the river’s flow. There is an inherent rush of movement to paddling, and it’s easy to forget to seek balance by also sitting still near the river for a while. It gives you time to look around and interact in a different and intimate way with a place that you otherwise would have flowed quickly through. Some of the most amazing river moments actually happen on the bank – on a beach, in the woods, or on the rocks along the water’s edge – in the hours that you’re not navigating downstream. Don’t miss them. All you have to do is stop for a while and look around.

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For those of us who live in locations that don’t require the types of trips that force us to stop and soak up these added aspects of paddling, there are several ways to make sure we don’t miss out. These aspects are some of the reasons that overnighters have become so popular – they force us to have a longer, deeper interaction with the river and our companions. The truth is, however, that you don’t have to go to great logistical lengths and learn to live out of your kayak to have those experiences; all you have to do is take on a different mindset every now and then when you plan a weekend of boating.

One of my favorite whitewater runs is less than two hours from my house. I take day trips there all the time, whenever rains grace it with sufficient flow. But for the last five years or so, I’ve also been sure to plan at least one trip per year where I camp out on the river’s bank and paddle it two or three days in a row. It’s become one of my favorite weekends of the year. Of course, there are some logistics required – but the driving time I save by staying at the river and paddling the next day more than makes up for the additional time spent packing for the camping trip. And which would you rather be doing – driving, or hanging out by the river? At my local getaway run there’s no cell service and no internet – just the rushing roar of the river whose song carries me away to a beautiful parallel universe where life is simple. If you go to the river and lie down for a night or two on the bank, you’ll probably hear that song too.

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