How dangerous is high water?

Hi alll,
Just received my Yak today, and would like to try it out soon. I live about a quarter mile from a good sized lake, so that will be my initial testing grounds. Then I would like to take it out on the local streams and rivers. I live in south central Missouri, in the Ozarks, and we have recently had a lot of rain and some flooding, causing streams and creeks to look like rivers, and rivers to look like lakes.

My question is this. Could those of you with much more experience than I, (everyone) expound upon how dangerous (or maybe not with a packraft) high water can be, and for what reasons. I read kyacking and canoeing books talking about the dangers of high water, but none goes into detail.
I am looking at rafting Bryant Creek, and the North Fork of the White River in MO, where both flow into Norfork lake just above the Arkansas border, in case you need details. I am considering attending the white water rescue course in Jackson later this month, also.
Thanks in advance for any advice.


“expound upon how dangerous (or maybe not with a packraft) high water can be, and for what reasons”.

That is kind of a subjective question that many might be hesitant to answer. High-water can be very dangerous. That said, high-water is often the best time, if only time, to float many smaller creeks and rivers. Variables that add to the level of danger include; the speed of the water, the grade or steepness, and possible snags, strainers, and other hazards.

High-water is often fast water. The faster the water the more limited your time to react to obstacles. High-water often lacks safe eddies or safe spots to hide in. It can be difficult to get out.

The steeper the creek the more dangerous. My rule of thumb; < 50 feet per mile no worries, 50-100 feet per mile will have some whitewater, 100-150 feet per mile serous whitewater but usually doable, 150-200 maybe doable, > 200 feet per mile probably un-runnable. The higher volume the river the more serous this is. Small creeks > 200 feet per mile have been packrafted, but at low flows. A high volume river < 50 feet per mile could contain dangerous hydraulics. I would never even consider doing a high volume river that exceeds 150 feet per mile.

Snags, strainers, and other hazards are more common at flood stages. As a river or creek exceeds its banks there are undoubtedly trees, fences, brush, etc, which the current is now running through, around, or over. Encountering such a hazard could be lethal. Add the fact that the water is fast you will have limited opportunity to avoid these hazards. The creek/river at high volume will have a powerful current, and in the event you are pinned, it will be difficult to deal with.

I recommend spending some time in known rivers and creeks at safe levels to develop skills and confidence. During high-water conditions start on some low volume flat creeks and build your way up. I recommend floating with other experienced paddlers and having throw ropes and the knowledge how to use them.

An old rule of thumb for packrafting is “if you wouldn’t swim it, don’t packraft it”. In recent years expert packrafters have entered waters that they would prefer not to swim. However, as a novice I would apply the old rule of thumb.



I think Forrest gave you a really useful and informative answer.

You should also hear the blunt and lawyerly answer:

High water is frequently fatal. Every year, numerous boaters are killed. Generally the inexperienced ones; sometimes just the unlucky ones.

If you have any doubts, don’t do it. If you are asking these questions, you have doubts.

If you do it, you’re on your own. No advice that you get on the internet can substitute for good judgement and caution.

A lot of the you-tube videos make it look like an easy-peasy fun day out to shoot ridiculous rapids in an alpacka.

Don’t let that fool you; some of the people in those videos have years and years of whitewater experience. Some have a lot of luck. And some have both.

Do us all a favor and take it easy out there. It’s just too damned easy to get creamed if you don’t know what you’re doing.

So go slow; when in doubt, doubt; get the basics thoroughly down before you try advanced stuff; and stay alive to keep improving another day.

I hate to be a downer, but if someone whose level of competence I know nothing about asks “how dangerous is high water?”, then I think the answer has got to be “more dangerous than you’re thinking it is”.

Also–have fun.

Thanks for the replies guys.
Sounds like good advice. While I have a little kayack and canoe experience on the local rivers and streams, It’s not enough to deal competently with the hazards you’ve described. I think I’ll wait till the water goes down and slows down.
fredthedog, I take no downers from your message. It sounds like an honest assesment of the skills needed to handle that kind of water. I appreciate it.
Time to learn those skills and put in some practice on safer water. Now lets see…where was that map of Wyoming again?

Thanks for taking it in the right spirit.
After I posted, I re-read it and thought “cripes, I sound like a pompous jerk!”
Whereas I’m actually just a worry-wart father.
Which is a totally different thing, unless you ask my kids.

Seriously–have a great time. I just had my dory out on the water yesterday–first time since the ice has melted.
I’m hoping for a long summer of messing about in boats, and I wish the same to you.

Well, I am about to find out myself about high water, me and a few others are hittig the Rio Chama this weekend. (April 18th and 19th if anybody wants to come with). All the waters near New Mexico/Colorado are high right now with record snowpack.

Keep in mind this is this is the rule of thumb of a very experienced boater. In my experience 50 feet a mile is often PR 3 (on the scale from Roman’s book) and over a 100 feet per mile usually seems like PR 4 or 5.

On the river slopes again…

Not to overwork this point, but it depends tremendously on the size of the river.

Erin and I are quite cautious about rapids, even after 8 years of packrafting rivers. For the sake of illustration, I’d compare the Aniakchak river to the Copper River:

Aniakchak River: Just big enough to be a little difficult walking across, drops about 75 feet per mile.
Copper River: Typically 1/2 to 1 mile wide and very deep… one of the larger rivers in southern Alaska. Through Wood Canyon it drops about 10 feet per mile.

Despite the fact that these two rivers are dramatically different in slope, I’m not sure which river is more difficult. We walked around Wood Canyon, fearing it’s large standing eddylines and deep whirlpools. We paddled a good bit of the Aniakchak River, but found it quite challenging.

Generally, water speed (one factor in the difficulty of a river) is a function of the river’s slope, the river’s depth, and the roughness of the river’s bottom… so bouldery rivers have slower water because the boulders create turbulence that slows the water down.

So… relating back to the original question posed, I would look to MUCH less steep rivers if I were going in when water was high. That said, I’ve always wanted to paddle through a flooded forest in an Alpacka, but have yet to have the opportunity. It would be good country for a packraft.

Come on down to southern MO to get your floating through flooded forest fix. Even though the rains have stopped, we still have quiet a lot of bottom land flooded. The water in many places is stagnant with no currant, but lots of logs, downed trees, household junk ect. that can hinder your progress. It makes for some interesting floating. Just bring plenty of mosquito repellent.