Finesse, Not Muscle

6 Min. Read

A Small Guide’s Guide to Rowing Big Boats

At 5’1” and 115 lbs sopping wet, I’m rarely what first comes to mind for someone when they think, “river guide.” An outdoor guide is often visioned as brawny and infallibly strong, regardless of gender – the type that could not only muscle themselves out of any situation, but take care of six guests at the same time. Countless river bosses have privately (or to my face) wondered if I was too small to do the job, to the point where I’ve sometimes wondered the same. But I’ve now built a decade-long, successful career on some of the biggest whitewater in the West, from the waves of the Salmon River to the big drops of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado. I’ve learned what all good guides know – it’s finesse, not muscle, that makes you a skilled boater.

Perhaps you’re wondering how your guide does it, or maybe you have a new raft sitting in the driveway that you’re itching to row. From beginner to expert and regardless of your stature, every boater can benefit from adding more finesse to their rowing. It just happens to be particularly important for us pint-sized river runners!

Ask (and Look) for Help

My first ever guiding job was running day trips on the Salmon River outside of Riggins. It was a notoriously hot, windy, and swirly section with ample flatwater. Running six-person paddle rafts from a stern frame, I did okay in the whitewater. It was generally forgiving Class III, and I had some boating experience growing up.

But the flatwater? The flatwater kicked my butt. As soon as we lost our momentum from the rapid my paddlers would stop moving us forward, and I was left to try to push the bulk of the boat from the less-than-ideal back seat of the boat. I cried with frustration more than once and I couldn’t figure out why I kept getting waylaid by the wind. Then, one day as our group of six guides took off from the boat ramp, I finally looked up. One of our senior guides, Rachel, was ahead of me. I noticed how she barely seemed to bend her arms, and instead pushed the boat forward with her core, doing a crunch-like motion. I saw how she braced her oars to find the thin line of downstream current between upstream-moving eddies. It still took me awhile to learn how to row efficiently, but watching the guides around me, especially those I respected as great boaters, started giving me clues.

And of course, beyond just plagiarizing other boater’s techniques…you can always ask for help. Ask someone of similar stature to you how they learned to row, or have them help you troubleshoot what doesn’t seem to be working for you. Asking for help, watching other guides, and scouting rapids while others run them have all been key in helping develop my skills as a boater.

Ergonomics Matter

What Rachel demonstrated that day on the Salmon River was that ergonomics matter. As I moved from guiding day trips to guiding multi-day rafting trips, the boats got heavier and the consequences of a flip, botched line, or windy section were amplified. Rowing, especially for small-statured people, should feel like a full body exercise. When I row, especially heavy boats, I am trying to use my big muscle groups, such as core and glutes, as much as possible.

To achieve this, I’m particular about my oars being at chest height, rather than near my knees (too low) or up near my ears (too high). Raising my seat a few inches, adjusting my oarlocks, or putting something in the footwell to push my feet against all make a world of difference when setting myself up for efficiency in my boat. Just like you’d adjust a bicycle, it’s important to have a boat that fits you. When I’m rowing, I brace my arms, tighten my core, and make sure my feet have something to brace against. I learned in those early days of boating to avoid the “chicken wing” row (bending your elbows back past the line of your body). It’s inefficient at best and damaging to your shoulders at worst.

I also try to make all of my movements during my day on the river efficient so I can save as much energy as possible for rowing. Whether it’s lifting a drybag with my legs or asking for help on the other side of a cooler, keeping my body in good shape starts well before I settle into the rower’s seat.

Work with the Water

I sometimes use the “point toward your danger and pull away” technique if I’m rowing a lightweight fishing boat, or if the river isn’t too high-volume. But the more volume and push a river has, the more important it becomes to work with the water instead of against it. If you need to move laterally in the river, a 45-degree downstream angle will get you there the easiest. In high volume whitewater such as the Main Salmon or Grand Canyon, I often rely on the “Powell Move” to break lateral waves or eddy lines – facing backwards (a stronger stroke for me) and angling downstream with momentum.

Being small in stature, part of working with the water is also planning ahead. I can’t make last minute moves the way some of the bigger boaters around me can, so I’m always looking downstream, reading the water, and setting my boat up to get where I want it to go. The hallmark of a great boater is that they barely look like they are working at all. It’s not magic, they’re just reading their line well in advance and setting up for success.

River Rowing Techniques - A Small Guide's Guide to Rowing Big Boats

Stair Step Your Risks and Embrace Messing Up

I’ve learned, again and again, that one of the main downsides to being a smaller boater is that when I mess up, it’s harder to muscle myself out of a sticky situation. But, that doesn’t mean never making mistakes. Whitewater boating is a gravity sport and at some point, you have to botch a line in order to get better. For me, I just try to stay clear on what is an acceptable risk and what isn’t (with my risk tolerance going way down when I have commercial guests on board). I’m always trying to find my growth edge, where I am pushing myself, but not putting myself (or anyone around me) in grave danger. I try to take some time after a less-than-ideal run through a rapid to ask, “What went wrong and what could I do better next time?” Often, this is a time when that river mentor can be especially helpful.

Rivers are dangerous and should always be approached with proper training, planning and success. A rowing clinic can be a great way to start learning rowing techniques with experts nearby and a Swiftwater Rescue course will teach you the groundwork of what to do when things go awry. But the risk of river running also comes with great rewards – exciting family adventures, connection with nature, and the confidence that comes from learning something new. I’m proof that with the right approach, rowing a boat can be for everyone. Grab the oars and let me know how it goes!

Photos: Emerald rowing a dory – Mark Evans, Scouting on the Main Salmon River – Sam Starr, Grand Canyon rafting – Josh Miller

Portrait of a woman fishing

Emerald LaFortune

Emerald LaFortune (she/her) is an outdoor writer, whitewater and fly fish guide, and community builder based in rural Idaho. Follow her adventures on Instagram at @emeraldlensmedia.

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