How to Run a Big Waterfall in a Kayak
Whitewater kayaking, especially running waterfalls, is inherently dangerous. When you participate in the sport you assume many risks; however, there are many precautions you can take to dampen the risks you face.
Always use the necessary gear, which includes a helmet and life jacket. Paddle with friends, and make sure everyone carries a throw rope with them.
Before running a waterfall, or any rapid, you should examine all the river features that exhibit threats and take safety precautions to avoid the dangers. When running a large waterfall you should have a friend waiting below the waterfall in his or her kayak to rescue you in case you swim or are unconscious. You should also position someone on shore with a throw rope.
A little precaution and planning goes a long way to avoid disasters.
Choosing the Right Waterfall
The ideal waterfall has plenty of volume, an aerated landing, and a gradual transition at the lip. Higher flows create more aeration at the base of falls, which provides more cushion for your landing. Waterfalls landing in 'green water' (un-aerated water) will be painful!
Gradual drop-offs make it much easier to control you angle over the falls. If a waterfall has a very sharp drop at the lip, it will be very easy to over-rotate and land upside down. You want a gradual lip that will let your boat make a smooth transition from horizontal to vertical.
Fortunately, higher flows usually go hand in hand with gradual lips, so as a general rule look for waterfalls with plenty of water!
Choosing the Right Boat
The ride will be smoothest if you're in the right type of kayak. You should be paddling a modern 'creek boat', which will be about 8 feet long, and will have a round displacement hull. It is important to use a boat with a round bottom as opposed to one with a flat 'planing hull', as the round hull will lessen the impact upon landing.
Approach the lip of the waterfall moving at about the same speed as the river. Focus only on making small strokes to keep your boat alligned straight downstream; you do not want to sprint towards the falls.
When your nose is reaching the lip your boat should be pointing straight over the falls or just a few degrees askew.
At the Lip
As the nose of your kayak begins to drop over the lip of the waterfall, hold your paddle steady in a vertical stroke. If you approached slightly askew, your paddle should be on the side that your boat was angled towards. Hold your blade in the water but do not pull on the paddle; you want the paddle to merely keep you stable and connected with the waterfall.
It is important not to take a big stroke at the lip, which could propel you out past the waterfall and send you to a flat landing. Landing flat is the worst case scenario, as this magnifies the impact of landing to a force that could break your back.
As you roll over the lip and begin to fall you should continue to hold your paddle perpendicular to the waterfall. You still don't want to pull on the stroke, but merely retain a connection with the current. There are multiple techniques people use at this point, but we'll cover the two most popular, the 'Oregon Tuck' and the 'Huck and Chuck'.
Once you are completely vertical and can spot your landing, slowly tuck your body forward and hug the deck of your kayak. You should hold your paddle straight along the side of your kayak as if you were setting up for a roll. This position is sometimes called the 'Oregon Tuck', which refers to the many large waterfalls in the northwestern United States.
It is important not to hold your paddle in front of your body or face. The impact of landing can break your paddle across your body or force it back into your face. Broken noses and facial lacerations from this mistake are the most common injuries suffered by waterfall runners. To further prevent such an occurrence it can be helpful to lock your helmet between your bicep and forearm; this 'braced for impact' position will prevent paddle-to-face collisions.
Huck and Chuck
For this technique you still roll over the lip in the same fashion, but once vertical and in view of your landing you throw your paddle away and tuck forwards. Doing this avoids the risk of breaking your paddle, so it is popular on very big drops into mellow pools. You'll want to know how to hands roll to use this method!
No matter how nicely you land a big waterfall, you're going to be thrown onto your backdeck from the impact. Ideally you want to 'pencil in' with your boat near vertical when it hits the water. Your boat will fully submerge after impact, then re-emerge, usually upside down. Roll up if necessary!
It is common to lose or break your paddle on impact, especially when the size of the waterfall is over 70 feet. It is also fairly common for your spray skirt to implode, forcing you to exit from your kayak and swim--this is most common when you land over-vertical (i.e. partially on your head).
For official waterfall records, the kayaker must paddle away in their kayak after landing a waterfall.