Knowing When to Walk: Balancing Kayaking Risk and Reward


LelandLeland Davis discusses the virtues of balancing kayaking risk and reward, knowing when to walk and when to fire it up.


I leaned out over the edge, craning my neck to catch a glimpse of the landing zone forty feet below my perch. At full extension I could see the spray exploding outward where the rightmost portion of the flow impacted a rock, but I couldn’t make out the size or configuration of the obstacle. I resisted the urge to lean farther forward lest I tumble over the precipice and research the extent of the rock up-close at high velocity.

The view of my desired line was even more troubling. The lip of the drop was chunky, with the potential to kick my bow up. There would be no smooth roll from horizontal to vertical on this one; I would have to carefully dictate the boat angle with my body positioning. What’s more, there was a curl of water that would surely envelop me as I dropped, preventing any possibility of spotting the landing in order to set my boat angle or avoid the rock. At more than thirty feet of freefall, a flat landing could spell disaster for my spine even if I landed in deep water. I tried not to think about the two excellent boaters that I knew had broken their backs on this falls, and instead focused on what I was trying to accomplish. I had wanted to run this “Big Boy” for more than a decade.

Leland scouting Big Boy. ©Chris Stafford
Leland scouting Big Boy. ©Chris Stafford

My first venture back to the fabled Raven Fork in several years had been a great day so far. I was boating confidently and well, styling more than a half-dozen solid class V rapids that had pushed me – at least my mental stamina, if not my technical skills – on a few past trips. This day my heart rate was steady, my mind cool and clear. I was focused on keeping myself in a positive and relaxed frame of mind for this challenge. All of the conditions were right – my mindset, the water level, the safety crew, the weather – everything had converged to bring me to this horizon line with the perfect circumstances for success. My desire to huck was at a fever pitch; this was the moment I had been waiting for.

After watching another member of my party run the drop, I looked at the lip again for a couple of tense moments, wishing for something to materialize that would give me the confidence that I could nail the line. The more I looked, the less I liked what I saw—or more accurately, what I couldn’t see: the line. It wasn’t the height of the drop that bothered me; I’ve run plenty of taller ones. Taken by themselves, the rocks around the landing zone weren’t a huge worry either; I was confident that I could miss them. The shape of the lip was of some concern, but I felt I had enough experience to get my bow down.

The curl of water bothered me, though. It would obscure my view as I fell, meaning I would have to set my angle and miss the rock without any visual cues. It would be a leap of faith: faith in my ability to read the line, to be in the right place, and to set the correct angle over a difficult lip, all completely blind. I took all of those variables and plugged them into an equation that contained my skillset plus my desire to run the falls on one side, and on the other side the difficulty plus the possible negative outcomes from a mistake: a flat landing, rock impact—the very real possibility of a broken back. Desire was obviously running high. So were the consequences. The drop was also very heavy on the difficulty. I have a lot of skills—certainly enough to nail the line, miss the rocks, and set my boat angle. Unfortunately, I wasn’t absolutely secure in my ability to do all of those things simultaneously and blind 100% of the time. I just didn’t see the line.

The scales teetered, then tipped. I looked down at my crew who were poised below for safety and gave them the finger across the throat sign, followed quickly by the walking fingers. Today was not the day. I reluctantly shouldered my boat.


Assuming proper safety and conditions,

IF (Skills + Desire) < (Difficulty + Consequences) THEN Portage


Knowing when to run a rapid and when to walk around is one of the most difficult things to master in whitewater. Erring on the conservative side can impose false limits on where you can paddle and cause stagnation of your skills, interest, and growth as a boater. Erring in the bolder direction can cause discouragement, injury, or even death. For some, this decision-making process is part of the core of why they paddle; for others, having to frequently make this difficult choice can interfere with their fun.

In the beginning of your paddling career, you make this choice all the time, because all rivers and rapids are new to you. However, the stakes are usually fairly low, which tends to compensate for the lack of skills on the other side of the equation. Desire is generally high at this stage—you’re eager to gain the skills to get to that next river or rapid. Your ability to identify the hazards is also low, which tends to skew the equation in favor of going for it.

The more you paddle and the harder the rapids that you attempt, the more the “don’t go” side of the equation stacks up. Experience has taught you to see the dangers and know the consequences. Eventually, there’s a lot more than just your pride, your gear, and the indignity of chugging a sandy bootie beer at stake. It becomes a life and death game. Any discussion of how best to play that game should start with the question of whether this is even a game you want to play. Enter the wild-card variable—the random coefficient that makes everyone’s equation unique: fun.

Styling Mortal Kombat. ©Nick Murphy
Styling Mortal Kombat. ©Nick Murphy

The first question to ask yourself is, “do I derive fun or some deeper value from making life-and-death decisions on the river?” It’s perfectly OK if your answer is, “no.” Simply choose rivers that you know well, where the decisions of what to walk and what to run have already been made, or spend your exploratory days on easier, unfamiliar rivers. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, and it’s what I choose much of the time.

If that decision-making challenge is fun for you or if your passion is running new and different rivers, I suggest you also plug fun into the run/walk equation. When all else is close to equal and your mind is whipping back and forth on a seesaw between “I should walk this beast,” and “I know I can do it,” fun can be the deciding factor that pushes you one way or the other. Thinking back to my decision at Big Boy, I have to say that fun played a significant part. I could have run the rapid and would most likely have stuck the line; and if presented with the same circumstances earlier in my boating career, I probably would have tried it. In the past, walking away from a drop that I knew I could run has left me with regrets. However, on this day sticking that line felt more like work than fun, and I was content with my decision to walk away.

The good news is that Big Boy will still be there when I run the Raven Fork in the future, and one day the stars might align and the equation will work out in favor of me running it. In the meantime, I can work on adding skills to the positive side of the equation – perhaps by running some easier/smaller drops with my eyes closed to practice setting my angle blind. Perhaps next time I will have enough confidence in that part of my abilities that the line will become obvious to me, and the execution fun. I will have grown as a boater. And that’s part of the secret to progressing: when you walk away from a rapid that you have a large desire to run, think of it not as a failure to perform, but as an opportunity to identify what skills you need to gain to make a rapid not only runnable, but fun for you. We can sometimes learn more from walking away than we do from running a rapid – it’s all part of the game.