How 8 Famous Whitewater Rapids Got Their Names

5 Min. Read

Whitewater boaters know how to have fun, and they make no exception when it comes to naming rapids. An old adage has it that to have a rapid named after you, you have to be one of the area’s first explorers—or else very unlucky. Of course, there are plenty of exceptions to this rule; not every famous whitewater rapid is named for someone’s folly. Some of the best-known rapid names are clever plays on words, while others hint at the best way to run them. These are some of our favorites.

1) Ghost Rider (Class V) | Zambezi River, Zambia

This mind-boggling rapid on Zambia’s Zambezi River is one of the most notorious on the planet. The Zambezi is big water (a million cubic feet per second at high flows) and has no shortage of gnarly whitewater with equally intimidating names, but Ghost Rider might just be the most apt. The rapid consists of three gigantic waves, big enough to completely swallow expedition-sized rafts and their passengers—rendering them, for a few seconds at a time, ghostriders.

2) Evangelist (Class IV) | Tuolumne River, CA

The rapids of the Tuolumne River are filled with colorful history, and unlike those you’ll find on many rivers, some are named for folks who weren’t unlucky. Hackamack, named for a Sierra Club member who’s never gotten caught in his namesake hole, and India, which honors a 14-year-old girl who became the first woman to run the Tuolumne, rank among those. The cleverest name on the river, though, belongs to Evangelist—so named because at high water it’s holey, holey, holey.  

Sockdolager Rapid on a Grand Canyon rafting trip
3) Sockdolager (Grand Canyon Class 5–7) | Colorado River, AZ

Sockdolager is one of the best-known rapids on the upper section of Grand Canyon. A few miles above Phantom Ranch, the rapid packs a real punch—at least, John Wesley Powell and his party thought so. “Sockdolager” was common slang in the 19th century for a knockout punch. Powell definitely felt it on his historic 1869 run through Grand Canyon, when he described the rapid as having 15-foot waves. That may have been a slight exaggeration, but more than one boater has gotten a blow from Sockdolager in the century and a half since. 

4) Cat-in-the-Washing-Machine Rapid (Class III) | Tatshenshini River, AK

Sometimes, there’s no better way to name a rapid than simply by describing it. The ultra-remote Tatshenshini River gets most of its whitewater out of the way early. Boaters encounter the majority of its Class III rapids on the first day after putting in at Dalton Creek, named for a 19th-century gold prospector who set up a trading post there. Cat-in-the-Washing-Machine usually takes a little over a week to get to, and it’s a chilly surprise when you arrive. The river’s name itself its derived from a Tlingit phrase, which translates roughly to “river with stinking salmon at its headwaters.”

Famous Whitewater Rapids: Warms Springs on the Yampa
5) Warm Springs Rapid (Class IV) | Yampa River, CO

The “warm springs” part of this rapid’s name, assigned thanks to its location adjacent to the Warm Springs drainage, is less interesting than how it actually became a famous whitewater rapid—an event OARS founder George Wendt witnessed personally. While Wendt and his companions were on a summer boat trip on the Yampa in June 1965, they rode out a vicious storm. That storm unearthed literal tons of boulders and sediment, creating a landslide that turned the mellow Warm Springs area into a churning mess of whitewater that Wendt would later say he was grateful to have survived. 

6) Barking Dogs Honking Geese (Class II) | South Fork American River, CA

The South Fork American River was deeply affected by the 1848 California Gold Rush, and you can still see remnants of the miners’ claims on and around the river. It’s more noise pollution, however, that lends its name to this rapid, which comes just a tenth of a mile after Camp Lotus. Lotus is the busiest camping spot on the entire run, and most nights during the season, it’s packed with noisy boaters. Sometimes just called “Barking Dogs,” this small rapid doesn’t manage to drown out the noise of the campers just upstream. Another guide-provided story about the rapid’s name suggests that there was a small barking dog who lived at a house on the left bank of the river right before the rapid that would come out on the lawn and bark at the rafts. 

Grave Creek Falls Rapid on the Rogue | Photo: American Whitewater
7) Grave Creek Falls (Class III) | Rogue River, OR

Poor Martha Leland Cowey. In 1864, the 16-year-old pioneer was traveling across Oregon with her family when she died of natural causes. They hadn’t reached their final destination so the young woman was buried under an oak tree at these rapids’ namesake creek. Today, the Grave Creek Boat Ramp and two rapids created by the creek’s entrance into the Wild and Scenic Rogue River are a nod to Martha’s memory.

8) Last Wave is a Rock (Class IV) | Futaleufú River, Chile

This river’s name translates to “big river,” and it’s home to another one of the most notorious rapids on the planet—Terminator, so named because the river’s first known runners ended their expedition there. But Terminator shouldn’t get all the attention; the Futaleufú has other aptly-named famous whitewater rapids, too. One of its best names belongs to Last Wave is a Rock, which has a nasty surprise waiting at the bottom of the rapid. At higher water, this turns into an ugly hole.

Photos: Ghost Rider on the Zambezi – James Hitchens; Sockdolager in Grand Canyon – Jonathan Matthews; Warms Springs Rapid on the Yampa – Justin Bailie; Grave Creek Falls – Thomas O’Keefe/American Whitewater

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