Think twice before trying rapids

Running Kenai River whitewater requires skill, personal floatation device

Posted: Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Contending with whitewater can be risky, especially if you're in a canoe or a kayak. But even an inexperienced canoeist may survive a capsize if he or she is wearing a life jacket.

"In most cases the person didn't have a (personal flotation device) on them when we've had fatalities," said Jack Sinclair, acting area superintendent for Alaska State Parks. "I don't know of any (fatalities) that we didn't have that situation occur."

The third boat in less than two weeks overturned at Naptowne Rapids on the Kenai River on Sunday, dumping two occupants into the water. Last Tuesday, park rangers fished the body of California canoeist Stephen Boyer out of the water moments after rescuing a kayaker who also overturned at the rapids. Boyer went missing for a week after his canoe capsized at Naptowne Rapids on June 26; he wasn't wearing a PFD.

"Canoes and kayaks, they're very tippy," Sinclair said. "If anyone's been out on a canoe on a lake even, you can see people struggling to keep their boat steady on flat water."

Max Finch, owner of Alaska Canoe and Campground in Sterling, said a canoe design is based on the water it floats on. For example, on a lake or another body with flat water, the canoe is designed to move straight across the water.

"They have a keel line that runs almost the full length of the canoe until it starts to turn up," Finch said, adding that the bottom of the canoe is flat. "The keel line runs down the center, it will have a ridge that runs down the length that keeps the canoe going straight."

A canoe with a keel is fine on a lake, but isn't much good in moving water like a river, Finch said. On a river a canoeist would need a boat he or she can easily maneuver and turn.

"Each canoe is designed differently for different purposes," Finch said. "Some are wide and flat, and some are narrow and skinny. A whitewater canoe has a lot of rocker with them so you can lean into the turn and grab a hold and turn your canoe out of a wave."

Even with the right canoe, Finch wouldn't recommend anyone go down Naptowne Rapids.

"They really have to know what they're doing to be able to do that," he said.

At the very least it would take a canoeist with an intermediate skill level to think about attempting whitewater, Finch said. But anything above a Class IV, he tells his customers to leave to the experts.

"The waves are too tall at that level of difficulty," he said. "You'd have to be an expert to do a Class IV water."

Not only do you have to be an expert in order to tackle a Class IV rapid, Finch said your partner has to be experienced as well. The person in the stern of the boat has to be able to give direction, and the person up front has to be able to understand it.

"(He) has to respond to whatever the guy in the back of the boat tells him to do," Finch said, "whether it be switch sides or back paddle."

Even if a canoeist knows what he's doing, Finch won't rent to anyone unless they agree to wear a life jacket. He goes even further, making customers sign a float plan, letting him know where they're going to paddle. He also discusses whether the canoeists have enough experience to attempt their trip.

"In all my years I've never sent someone down Naptowne Rapids," he said. "I have no interest in test driving my insurance policy, you know?"

Although he himself hasn't attempted the rapids, Sinclair always advises people to scout them out before they try them. He also advises people to find out how cold Kenai River really is by spending a few seconds in it.

"We know water has the capacity to take heat away from your body 10 times faster than air if not more," he said. "Even on a hot day, legs go numb in seconds and you lose all the feeling in your hands. It's a very cold river."

Finch said a canoe rental at Alaska Canoe includes a PFD, a first aid kit and a U.S. Coast Guard approved emergency kit that includes an air horn and flashlight. In addition to the life jacket, each canoe is equipped with a throw cushion that can be used as a flotation device, but customers still have to sign an agreement to wear their PFDs.

"They don't have a choice," Finch said.

Jessica Cejnar can be reached at

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