Best Available: Tips on Choosing the Optimal Destination for Any Paddling Vacation


Leland DavisThree day weekend? Ten-day vacation? Whatever the circumstances, when the #1 must-paddle destination isn’t an option, guidebook author and ultimate paddler, Leland Davis, offers his professional insight into planning the best paddling vacation.

After many years of adulthood and itinerant kayaking, my wife returned to school last year. Amidst the lifestyle changes and turmoil of registering for classes, buying books, adjusting to a new schedule, and the return of homework to her life, there surfaced one bright point:

“I get spring break!” she told me excitedly.

The planning began immediately. Where did we want to spend the last week of March? Remember that time we went to West Virginia in March? Everything was running, and it was shorts weather out—perfect! What could be better than a getaway to one of the best kayaking destinations in the world? We had to re-live that one. Our plan was set.

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West Virginia in March of 2007 when we found ourselves in perfect conditions: sunshine and pumping whitewater.

One week before the trip, things were looking good in WV. The water had been so high it had recently blown out the gauge on the Big Sandy. The Blackwater had been running for weeks, and more rain was on the way. What’s more, the weather was warmer than usual. Everything was looking great for a repeat of one of our favorite trips. We would leave next Friday. It was going to be epic.

Fast-forward to Wednesday, two days before our departure. I was driving around in my truck, surfing water levels and weather sites, and seeing our vacation plans crash and burn right before my eyes. Things were looking grim. The water had dropped out in WV, and a wave of snow was preparing to beset the area. We’d held onto hope throughout the week that the forecast would change, but time was running out and we were faced with some tough choices.

Option 1 was to persevere and drive straight into the teeth of the oncoming weather. We could get some hotel rooms instead of camping out, and maybe bundle up in drysuits and do low water runs on the Gauley and Cheat. We would paddle, but that didn’t sound like much of a vacation.

Option 2 was to bag the trip and have a staycation, maybe get a few laps on the Green and hope for a rainfall miracle. That didn’t sound like the getaway we needed either.

So in desperation I searched for option 3, thumbing my phone’s browser to the River Gypsies’s flow page to see what was running around the entire continent. The answer: not much. There was one spot, however, that caught my eye. In a bizarre twist, an early season rain-on-snow event had shaken loose some snowmelt from the southern end of the Rockies. Unseasonably warm weather was in the forecast. The Taos Box sections on the Rio Grande were already flowing, and it looked like the fabled Embudo might make an early appearance this year. Hmmm…

I fired off a one-word text to Andria: “Embudo?”
Of course, she was in.

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A chance to run the Embudo in New Mexico was too irresistible to pass up. Here’s Andria running Long Rapid.

The next step was to assess the challenges. The first and most obvious was that New Mexico is 1500 miles away. Gas was down below $2.50, though, and I have no problem with long drives. The distance wasn’t a deal breaker. The next issue was finding people to paddle with in the middle of the week, a month before the usual season. That one would be tougher. To be sure of having a shuttle, we would have to round up a trailer and bring my motorcycle along—which actually sounded like a lot of fun.

We decided to sleep on it, watch the water levels, and make a decision in a couple of days. Friday morning came and we reassessed. New Mexico was the best available whitewater travel option. I bought a trailer that afternoon, loaded up our gear, and off we went that evening.

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As the author of a whitewater travel guidebook, I receive a mass of emails and Facebook messages every year as winter winds to a close:

“I’m planning to go to California this summer. When should I go?”
“Will BC be good in August this year?”
“I have ten days off in July, and I’m planning a trip to Colorado. Will there be water?”

Half of the time, I’m able to help folks fine-tune their plans to maximize the quality and number of paddling days on their trip. The other half of the time, I’m left shaking my head. How do I tell this person that the water will be so low there will be no rivers to run on their paddling trip? They’ve often already taken vacation days from work, or even purchased their plane tickets. It’s astonishing to me how many people become enthralled with a paddling destination they want to visit and then plan a trip based only on when they have vacation days, or when they have seen people enjoying that area in past years.

The truth is it’s almost impossible to plan a paddling vacation very far in advance. Water levels and weather can vary wildly, especially in this era of unpredictable climate. All is not lost, though. There are two great methods for making sure you get the most out of your paddling vacation.

The first method is one that Andria and I used for many years as traveling paddlers. We stayed flexible with regard to dates and waited for the water levels and weather to look right in the areas we were targeting. It’s the perfect method for a paddler that has been obsessing on hitting a particular river or region, because it allows you to choose the destination that you’re dying to hit and then wait for the perfect conditions. While this is a great solution if you are self-employed or have a flexible schedule, it’s not workable for most folks with regular jobs and/or families.

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Leland dropping into a big rapid on New Mexico’s Lower Taos Box, a section he’d never run before this trip.

The method for those of us with more rigid schedules wanting the greatest possible whitewater yield from our vacations is the concept of ‘best available.’ This is what we used for our spring break trip to New Mexico. You set your dates and then stay flexible about your destination, willing to travel to whatever area has the best combination of water levels and weather when the time arrives. This is the best way to insure that you have good water and/or weather and maximize paddling days on your trip.

This method can be disconcerting for compulsive planners like me. For best results, make a list of possible areas that you could get to during your time off. Rate them in order of most desired option, then choose an alternate destination for each of your top three so you know where you will look next if conditions aren’t right in your chosen area. Maybe you’d like to go to California, but Washington would be a good backup if flows aren’t right in CA. Cruise the message boards or Facebook groups for all of your target regions, asking local paddlers when levels might be right this year and who will be around to paddle. If the areas you’re looking at are too far to drive, choose an airline or even an airport in advance that services multiple possible target areas. For example, you could fly into Salt Lake City and hit either Idaho or Colorado, or fly into Seattle to hit anything from Oregon up to British Columbia.

Successful paddling trips to new and different areas are one of the most thrilling parts of the sport, providing you with experiences and memories that last a lifetime. A swing and miss that leaves you spending your precious vacation days camping out in foul weather and driving around looking at rivers that are either flooded or bone dry, however, can be a heartbreaking disappointment. By keeping an open mind and staying flexible, you can give yourself the best possible shot at the ultimate kayaking getaway.