Leland Davis, long-time paddler and guidebook author explores the qualities that make his favorite rivers stand out. From chasing rainstorms at home to hitting the road to find elusive whitewater, Davis embarks on a physically and mentally epic journey to discover his favorite runs.
As a long-time paddler and guidebook author, I’m often asked the question, “What’s your favorite river?” What fascinates me more than which particular river holds my current top spot, is how the answer to that question has evolved over time. What we can learn not only from identifying our favorite river(s), but from exploring which qualities make them our favorites is an important part of our evolution as paddlers.
In my early paddling days, I didn’t have many rivers on my résumé to choose from. I always identified my favorite river as whichever was the most exciting or challenging one that I had run up to that point. This is a common phenomenon—there is an entire category of boaters who identify their favorite river as being the most difficult one they’ve run. This kind of thinking is relatively easy for a developing paddler to fall into as they gain skills and more difficult runs become possible for them. The river they’ve been working toward, and finally gotten on, invariably seems like the coolest thing they’ve paddled.
After honing my skills and getting a few more years of experience—mostly paddling around my home area—different criteria began to emerge. Some difficult rivers that I frequently ran became commonplace, and I started to assign more value to rivers based on their newness, or even their elusiveness, rather than their difficulty. I branched out and dove deeply into the arcane fluvial mysteries of my home region, seeking out every possible stream while creating a guidebook for the area. Runs that were rare treats, only runnable after heavy rains, were ascribed more value than rivers that I had paddled dozens of times. There was an inherent specialness to the occasion of being on those runs.
At the same time, the standard rivers of my home area became more crowded, and rivers that were secluded and harder to access also climbed my list—their remoteness contributing to their perceived value. This is also a common phenomenon—after all, many people pursue paddling for the solitude that being in a remote gorge affords. For some, solitude is a paramount quality of a “favorite river,” but it often comes with a high cost of admission. In many areas where there are lots of paddlers, achieving solitude on the river is hard work.
After spending several years chasing heavy rains and sneaking around the backwoods of the Southeast, a curious thing happened: I experienced local burnout. After so much time on my home rivers, most of them didn’t feel as special as they once did, and the work required to keep them special was taking away from the fun. I needed to expand my horizons. I began to travel in search of new runs, and quickly realized that the newness and rareness criteria didn’t work any more. On the road, everything was new! When asked what my favorite run was from my travels, I had to create a different way to determine which rivers I liked best.
I needed a new metric that could distill a flood of new streams into some qualitative order. I decided to reexamine the list of my well-known rivers near home to see which ones stood out as excellent just on the merits of their whitewater. I could then determine which ones were my favorites, and why, and apply those criteria to the new runs that I paddled. This is also a common way of thinking—paddlers who are new to traveling will often compare rivers to their home runs, and choose as favorites the ones that most remind them of home. But what if there’s more to it than that?
This was the point in my paddling career when I really began to explore the broader idea of “quality” rivers—when all of the other criteria started blending together into some sort of deeper riparian meaning beyond whether a run was a positive reminder of something I had done before. What were the qualities that I liked? What benefits did new streams have that my favorites at home didn’t? And how do all of these assets come together? Does the run have really fun rapids and good moves that challenge me? Does it limit the amount of portaging or unnecessary danger? The amount of boring flats? Is the water clean? The scenery breathtaking? Does it feel remote, but without a grueling hike or a lake paddle to access it? How is the play? Does it have tons of epic waves? A perfect play hole? Does it have a “trophy drop” that stands out as such an amazing rapid that you would travel to the river just for that?
I became obsessed with the idea of “quality whitewater,” and with finding it wherever I went. My wife and I hatched a new project to create a guidebook to all of the highest quality rivers. What could be more fun than crisscrossing North America, seeking out all of the best runs? The River Gypsies’ Guide to North America was born, and we set out on a whitewater odyssey.
Once the guidebook transitioned from idea to work-in-progress, it quickly became obvious that we would have to interact with local paddlers in each area in order to get the information we needed. There were certain runs so famous that they had to be classics, but there were more obscure ones that would require diving deeper and immersing ourselves into each paddling community to find. The most fascinating thing we learned by talking to locals everywhere, however, was that there are a host of reasons why runs become classics—some that we had never considered—and some that have nothing to do with the whitewater.
One of the first new classic criteria that became apparent is convenience. Convenience is an underrated characteristic of classic whitewater. It’s one of the main qualities some of the best-known rivers have going for them. There’s something special about runs that can be integrated into everyday life that allow you to form a more intimate relationship than you can have with an esoteric or irregularly flowing stream. There’s a lot to be said for runs that offer good whitewater and can be accessed from a metropolitan area before or after a workday; and the more chances people have to run a river, the more likely that river is to appear in photos and videos and enter the consciousness of the wider paddling public.
Convenience isn’t only determined by proximity, though. Reliable flows, whether through consistent rain, snowmelt seasons, or dam releases, can promote a river to classic status. In fact, some of the most recognized classic runs in the United States weren’t classics at all until American Whitewater negotiated releases. Knowing that there will be water in a river weeks, or months, ahead of time allows more paddlers to plan to travel to that river. The more people that run a river, the more classic it becomes. The riverbed hasn’t changed, but the community around it has. The river has become not only a setting for athletic recreation or aesthetic retreat, but also a meeting place for friends.
The surrounding river community isn’t the only comfort food that familiar or convenient rivers feed us. Familiar rivers also serve up a feeling of security because we know all of the beta—the dangers, the lines, and the ins and outs of reading the gauges and finding the shuttles. Sometimes, familiarity can be the greatest value of a river. While many folks love the thrill of discovery the first time they run something, an equal number say that they have more fun the second or third time they do a run. Quality can mean that too—knowing the stream well enough that you can focus your energy on the joys of paddling instead of the puzzle of figuring out logistics or lines. Familiarity can make a run your favorite.
So, what can we learn from examining all of the qualities these rivers offer? Of course, those who are into quantifying a river’s objective worth can use all of these metrics to their advantage. Whether you want to seek out the most perfect runs in your neighborhood or in the entire world, figuring out what you value is an important first step. It’s also good to think about the differences between what you want at home and what you look for when you travel. Perhaps the convenience you prefer in day-to-day life in your own backyard takes a back seat to wilderness exploration when you’re on vacation. What if you miss out on a whole world of experience by spending your travel time seeking out runs that remind you of home, only to find that your tastes are totally different on the other side of the continent or globe?
There are hometown reasons to continually reassess what we look for in our favorite rivers as well. Perhaps you’re passing up higher quality runs by always focusing on running the hardest possible thing. Maybe you’re missing out on some amazing obscure destination because you always gravitate to runs that you’ve heard of, runs whose value stems more from convenience or community than from their riverbed or their seclusion. Maybe there’s an awesome run right in your backyard that you’ve overlooked because last time you ran it you were seeking other attributes besides the ones that were right in front of your nose, or because you wrote it off long ago due to criteria that aren’t as important to you now. Maybe your new favorite run is right in front of you, if you just take the time to look.
My Top Ten Favorite Day Runs (in no particular order).
What are yours? Why?
Little White Salmon, WA
Callaghan Creek, BC
49 to Bridgeport, South Yuba River, CA
Watauga River Gorge, NC & TN
Rio Oyacachi, Ecuador
Lochsa River, ID
Upper Gauley River, WV
Rio Futaleufu, Chile