The Joys of Paddling Flatwater

3 Min. Read
The Joys of Paddling Flatwater

I was twelve years old the first time I joined my friend Hannah’s family on a whitewater rafting trip. From the moment we slid our boats into the current of the Arkansas River at the put-in for Browns Canyon, I was fascinated by our confident, sturdy guide. As we entered the canyon proper, where the rapids really start to heat up, my stomach churned: how could we possibly make it through those enormous, boiling waves without dumping?

Our guide steered the big gray boat between rocks and holes, steadily calling out paddle strokes until we’d emerged from the canyon unscathed. I knew, right then, that I wanted to be a whitewater guide.

A little more than a decade later, on a sweltering late summer day, I stood on the banks of Clear Creek in Colorado, watching the boats dodge boulders in the narrow channel. I’d just finished a rookie season guiding on the Creek, and though I still felt the rush of excitement as I rounded the bend just before a familiar rapid, I felt myself longing for something different.

I wanted a float trip. I wanted to put my boat in the river and drift lazily from one campsite to the next, stopping only when I saw something worth exploring. And, at the end of a long season on a very cold river, if I ended up in the water, I wanted it to be intentional.

At the end of my rookie season, a few friends visited Colorado. They wanted to go rafting. No one had been before, so I picked my favorite run: from Pumphouse to Radium on the Upper Colorado. There are a couple of mellow Class II rapids, but for the most part, my friends could jump in to cool off, stop at the hot springs, sprawl out on the boat with a cold beer.

“If this is rafting, I could get used to it,” one friend told me as we hoisted the boat back onto the truck, taking advantage of the last golden rays of a long summer afternoon.

There’s always a certain magic to river tripping, but the pace of flatwater enhances it. There’s time for easy chatting and for silence—for really savoring each moment. On my honeymoon, a canoe trip down Labyrinth Canyon on the Green River, my new husband and I stopped almost hourly to explore side canyons and spots we’d heard there might be petroglyphs or signs of the Powell expedition.

The Joy of Paddling Flatwater

Without rapids to dictate our schedule (or to keep me awake at night, visualizing how I’d run them the following day), our time was our own. Despite that the water lacked even riffles, it still felt like work; the mid-September current had slowed enough that we had to paddle almost constantly to make much progress downriver. We moved slowly, watching bighorn sheep kneel to drink from the edge of the river and stopping whenever we needed to stretch our legs.

Often, when I tell people I’ve worked as a river guide, their eyes widen and they say some variation of, “You must be an adrenaline junkie, huh?” I’ll let you in on a secret: I like the rush of adrenaline, but I’m just as happy—maybe happier—meandering downriver without a care in the world.

Portrait of Emma Walker and her dog on the river

Emma Walker

Emma Walker is the author of the book "Dead Reckoning: Learning from Accidents in the Outdoors." She earned her M.S. in Outdoor and Environmental Education from Alaska Pacific University and has worked as a raft guide, avalanche educator, and backpacking instructor around the American West.

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