By Susan Munroe
For many people, going on a whitewater rafting trip means donning a helmet, picking up a paddle, and piling into a raft with seven other paddlers and a guide, working as a team to paddle the boat downstream. These are paddle boats, and they are most often used for one-day rafting trips on steep, swift sections of rivers, especially East Coast rivers. But out West, rivers—and river trips—are different.
The Colorado and Green Rivers, in particular, are wide, high-volume, desert rivers. They traverse magnificent landscapes and their whitewater is truly awesome. But in many cases, there are long stretches of calm water leading up to or in between the rapids, and a paddle boat simply isn’t the right tool for the job. This is the primary reason why Holiday generally does not use paddle boats on our trips. Instead, we use oar rafts. These are inflatable rafts with custom-built wooden frames that are operated by a single guide. The guide sits in the middle of the raft and propels it downstream with two 10-foot oars. These long oars have far better leverage against the water than paddles; in flat water, an oar raft is far more efficient than a paddle raft. Our passengers are free to lounge, swim, relax, read, converse, and watch the scenery go by.
There’s also the question of storage capacity. We run multi-day trips through canyons that span 20, 40, 80, 100 miles. We also carry all of the food, water, and gear that we’ll need for the entire trip. Oar rafts provide ample, efficient storage space, with plenty of room left over for passengers to sit back and enjoy the ride. The multi-day trip experience is about more than the simple exertion or teamwork of operating a paddle boat together. It’s about going with the flow, taking in the scenery, hiking, exploring, disconnecting from the modern world, and moving on “river time.”
In addition, oar rafts are generally more stable than paddle rafts. Passengers sit on wide tubes and use two handholds to keep themselves in the boat. In a paddle boat, your handhold is the paddle. The object is to lean over the side of the boat to dig that paddle deep into the waves. It’s much easier for someone to fall out of the boat in rapids. Involuntary swims are a possibility on any river trip, but they’re harder to accomplish in an oar raft.
But I wanted to get some exercise on this trip!
Fair enough! That’s why we also bring inflatable kayaks or stand-up paddleboards, or both, on most of our trips. These individual crafts are also better suited to running the calm water in between rapids than paddle boats. And they give you autonomy. You get to be the captain of your own vessel, explore where you choose, and go at your own pace. All we ask is you keep up with the group and not get so far ahead that you miss the pull-in for camp. And in the rapids, the kayaks (also known as “duckies”) are every bit as adrenaline-inducing and splashy as a paddle raft. Maybe even more so, because you sit even closer to the water.
But I really really really want to be in a paddle boat!
On some trips (private charter trips, especially!), if requested, we can sometimes bring along a paddle boat. The Yampa River, Westwater Canyon, Lodore Canyon, and the Salmon River are all trips with more consistent rapids. In these instances, a paddle boat can be a lot of fun. The key is having at least six to eight motivated, physically fit passengers who are willing to paddle every day of the trip. They also have to be willing to get wet! If that sounds like your group, definitely talk to your reservationist about booking a trip that’s appropriate for paddle rafting.
Whether you spend your river trip lounging under an umbrella on the Cleopatra seat (part of Holiday’s trademark oar raft design), doing yoga poses on a stand-up paddleboard, piloting an inflatable kayak along the riverbank, or smashing waves in the front of a paddle boat, we’re certain that the scenery, the solitude, and the service of our guides will make for an unforgettable and enjoyable experience, whatever the boat!
Susan Munroe is a reader, writer, traveler, and river guide. She moved to Utah from New Hampshire for the mountains, but it was the allure of the desert and its rivers that have truly kept her transfixed. More than eight years after she first came to work for Holiday River Expeditions, she still can’t get enough of life on the water. Susan spends her winters skiing and working in Salt Lake City, Utah, with frequent trips to southern Chile to run the Río Baker and support the work of the educational kayaking exchange program Ríos to Rivers. See more of Susan’s work here: www.susanmunroe.com