Paddle Wild and Scenic Rivers for a wild, scenic summer

By : 
Lisa Brainard
Journey vs. Destination

It’s time to get out on your favorite river before summer passes you by – perhaps a federally designated Wild and Scenic River? After the recent tragic drowning in the Upper Iowa River northwest of Decorah, Iowa, let’s review how to plan for as safe a trip as possible.

I’m sharing tidbits from the U.S. Department of Interior’s (DOI’s) July 24 blog post. It’s full of great information for river trips. You can read the entire post – and I would encourage you to do so – at, and look for the link.

This edited-to-fit-the-column version – keeping roughly just one-third of the content – follows.

Join outdoor and river enthusiasts in a national celebration of rivers! Whether you’re floating down a lazy river, fishing in a clear eddy or charging through churning whitewater, river trips are fun and fascinating. So, plan an adventure on a wild and scenic river.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, a historic landmark in river conservation. Since 1968, over 12,700 miles of some of the nation’s most impressive rivers have been protected in their free-flowing state.

Picking a river

Like any trip, it’s important to plan beforehand. Trip preparation reduces risks and helps everyone in your group have a safer and more enjoyable experience.

River trips come in many different flavors. Kayaks, canoes, and rafts are great for both quiet and rapid water. Or, may pilot yourself, like a kayak. For teamwork check out canoes and rafts. Inner tubes and stand-up paddle boards (SUPs) are fun for calmer stretches.

Check out the National Rivers Project and the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Map to find a designated river near you.

Read river currents

You will literally go with the flow. Understand the river’s fast and slow currents – and where they may take you.

Whitewater has currents that bounce off boulders to form frothy waves – lots of fun in a raft or boat. But you should have the skills to safely navigate rapids before attempting whitewater sections of river. International standard levels of whitewater difficulty range from Class I with fast moving water with riffles, small waves, and few or no obstacles to easily maneuver around. Levels go up to Class V, expert, which is extremely difficult, obstructed or very violent rapids. There is a significant hazard to life in the event of mishap. This is the upper limit of what’s possible in a commercial raft.

Trip prep

Commercial trip or do it yourself? – You have many options to get out on the water. The choice depends on your expertise level, type of river trip and preference.

If new to a river, seek a commercial outfitter, or go with friends who are experienced paddlers. The latter may choose to plan their own trips, which allow more flexibility for the group to enjoy the river at its own pace. Remember, you’re responsible for planning the trip, securing appropriate permits and ensuring everyone in the group has a safe and enjoyable time. Luckily, there are plenty of resources to help you get started.

Additionally, at least one person in your group should know first aid and what to do in the event of an emergency.

Know your limits – When choosing a trip, understand that there is a chance you could end up in the river. It happens to the best of us. You must be a competent swimmer. Be honest about your own swimming and paddling abilities when picking a stretch of river.

The same goes for a group trip on the river. Design it for the most inexperienced members in your group. Have a buddy system. Stay together as a team.

If you’re with a commercial group, listen to your guide and follow instructions. And remember, sometimes the best option for getting down a section of river may be to portage around the rapids.

Know the logistics – Some rivers – especially wild and scenic rivers – are popular and require permits you secure in advance to launch.

Just like any trip outdoors, the weather and other conditions (like streamflow) are subject to change. Check weather forecasts and river gauge levels. If on a dam-controlled river, search how releases of water affect levels while you’re on the water. Plan your arrival time and estimate your trip duration with time to spare. Talking to rangers and other boaters when you arrive is great to learn current conditions.

Get geared up!

Is your trip an overnight fishing trip, or is it a splashy afternoon? Knowing will help you plan out how much food, water and other gear you will need.

Things to consider: life jacket – This simple item, if worn properly, could save your life. Also include your watercraft and paddling gear; dry bag(s); rope/throw bag; good first aid kit; proper clothing; food and plenty of water; hat, sunglasses and leash, and sunscreen.

On the water

Make sure you and everyone in your group live by the three H’s of outdoor recreation: stay “happy, humble and hydrated.” A safe trip is a happy trip!

Also, remember to “leave no trace;” be respectful to guests and landowners, and ALWAYS wear your life jacket.

At the end of the day, you’re responsible for your own safety. Make decisions early in the trip planning process to prevent accidents and ultimately have a good time on the water.

For more information about boating safety, go to the National Park Service’s boating safety website,

And be sure to check the link I provided earlier for the full details given in this article. Then, get on the water!

Lisa Brainard still enjoys lifelong pursuits of the outdoors, history and travel as able following a serious accident and stroke in September 2012. She’s written this column weekly for about 15 years.