Whitewater Kayaking - What to know to get started

As the name suggests, Extreme Whitewater Kayaking is a push towards the extremes. Extreme kayaking is very popular among adventure-lovers as it tests their endurance, stamina and willpower. It gets the adrenaline rushing at a furious pace. This daredevil task is, but the exhilarating feeling that it gives has no equal. This sport is not meant for faint hearted people.

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Considering the difficulty level and the risk involved in extreme kayaking, certain precautions have to be taken. First and the foremost, being in good physical health is mandatory. Extreme whitewater kayaking demands a lot of energy, which is spent in a very short span of time. Regular cardiovascular exercises like cycling, swimming and running help to prepare for the thrill. While kayaking, the upper part of the body exerts maximum energy since kayakers have to paddle continuously and rigorously. A paddler needs to retain his strength until the end of a kayaking adventure, and only a cardiovascular fitness regimen can guarantee it.

Similarly, different kayaks are designed to meet the needs of extreme whitewater kayaking. To absorb the impact of freefalls and bumpy water rides, kayaks are made of durable and sturdy materials like fibreglass and Kevlar. Nowadays, flat-bottomed kayaks are available which allow the kayakers to bounce off the rocks and ride the waves easily. They also help in an effective and safe landing during a plunge.

The International Scale of River Difficulty has a rating system for Whitewater Rivers and classifies them according to their difficulty level. The rivers have been given grades ranging from Class I to Class VI. Class I grade is calm and the smoothest type of stream. Higher the grade, more difficult is it to tame the river. Class VI rivers are highly untamable, having rapid currents and maximum swirls. Generally, Class III and Class IV rivers are considered the best for extreme whitewater kayaking. These rivers have waves rising to four feet high and manoeuvring the kayak needs expertise.

Whitewater kayaking is an exciting adventure sport that every paddler would love to experience, once in their life. Although, one must realise that whitewater kayaking is often a sport for hardcore kayakers, and beginners have to gain sufficient expertise and experience to live the thrill.

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Whitewater kayaking requires meticulous planning and accurate execution of the plan. The first step in whitewater kayaking is analysing the river. Rivers are classified according to their speed of flow, waves and the course they follow. The International Scale of River Difficulty is a scale that classifies streams into different grades depending upon their level of difficulty. The classes range from Grade I to Grade VI. Following are the Grade-wise classification of the river characteristics.

Grade I - Rivers that fall under Grade I category are calm and relaxed to paddle through. They are virtually free of any obstacles and have a clear passage.

Grade II - Rivers flow moderately fast but are free of obstacles. To attempt kayaking in these rivers would require a fairly experienced kayaker.

Grade III - Rivers flow faster with many, irregular waves. Only an experienced paddler can manoeuvre through the narrow passages.

Grade IV - High, irregular waves coupled with the narrow and rocky passage, reserve Grade IV rivers only for paddlers with excellent skills to manoeuvre their kayaks. Good quality equipment and powerful paddling skills are necessary to tame Grade IV rivers.

Grade V - Grade V Rivers are challenging. Violent currents, steep gradients, a dangerous passage with rocky obstacles, high waves, boiling eddies are the river characteristics.

Grade VI - Rivers are highly untamable and pose a severe threat to life.

These numerical grades are often followed by a plus (+) or a minus (-) to indicate if a river is inclined towards the higher or lower end of difficulty.

There are specific grading systems in USA, India, Australia and New Zealand. They are more or less based on the International Scale of River Difficulty.

Rivers are very unpredictable. Thus, even though the streams are classified into these Grades, it is essential to study the river before kayaking. River conditions are likely to change seasonally, so it is better to check with the locals, in advance. Increase in the water level makes rapids more difficult. In case of floods, even Grade II rivers can be fatal. Similarly, massive tides can cause a river to flow uphill.

For whitewater kayaking, selecting the right path helps in averting difficulties. Reading a river or studying river patterns take time and years of experience. Beginner paddlers often learn to read the streams from other experienced paddlers.

Advanced kayakers with a good experience prefer to take a plunge down the waterfall into the rough waters. These plunges can be as steep as 45 feet to well above 100 feet. While attempting to ride a waterfall, kayakers are known to 'boof' - a technique to raise the nose of the kayak, using the legs during the fall, to avoid getting submerged or capsized. Meanwhile, it is not necessary to plummet off the cliff; kayakers are known to conquer the raging rapids with knotty twists and jagged rocks. Extreme kayakers also try 'creaking' where they ride the creeks and ledges, and tame smaller falls. Seasoned kayakers are now exploring new waters that were previously deemed unattainable.

Though there are very few cases of death while extreme kayaking, it can prove to be hazardous for inexperienced, amateur kayakers. Extreme kayaking is not recommended for beginners. It requires a great deal of experience and expertise.