[DELETE] Concurrent with the new AW magazine, here is a tutorial on How to Scout Rapids... RiotAJ New
or read it here:
You are right. The fast down river thing applies more to high water advanced level boating. Backstrokes in big pushy water invite getting hung up in features. But...as John Mason said...
It is in the read of the water that you will get where you are going. There is usually always a seam of water going where you want to be. That is what people mean when they say "I see the line". The trick is to get your butt on top of the piece of water that will end up where you want to be.
Here's how you read the water: Look where you want to end up and trace the water there back to where you are with your eyes. Find the seam or combination of seams that will end up where you want to be. A foot left of right at the top will make a large difference forty feet downstream. If you are on the right piece of water to end up where you want to be, then the other big thing is to read the diagonal currents that interact along the way. Diagonal currents (waves, holes, eddy lines) to your piece of water will try to move you off of your piece of water. So, that's where boat angle comes in.
So, get on the right piece of water that ends up flowing to where you want to be, then adjust your angle left of right to counter any diagonal currents that will move you off of your piece of water.
This angle thing applies to holes too, since each hole has a "kick" left or right (nod to William Nealy's books). You get through holes and stay on line by allinging yourself perpendicular to the hole's kick so it does not deflect you left or right off of the water you want to be on.
So, after reading water to get on the piece of water that goes where you want to go, and continually readjusting where your boat is pointing as you flow along on that water to keep from getting blown laterally off of your water....then you end up where you wanted to go based on where you read the water to be going.
If you don't care about going faster than the water, then a combination of forward and backward strokes work just fine, but forward, pry, duffec, etc strokes should be favored over backstrokes when possible. Back strokes scrub momentum needed to run over river features like a truck. Try to never use a back stroke when a forward stroke or duffec will do the same thing. Rudders are good too, they are also called back pries. The important thing with them is torso rotation. If you rudder, your shoulders should be torso rotated so your rudder paddle and your shoulders are ligned up. A good rudder involves totally turning your torso and shoulders to the side and putting the blade in the water parallel to the boat. If you are ruddering without turning your upper body to the side, then something's up with the rudder, it's more of a back pry. Back pries are good, they are something between a rudder and a back stroke, They are awesome for turning a boat without losing to much speed.
If you do back stroke, try to keep your stern angle such that you are in a back surf/ferry mode relative to the downstream flow. When you apply back strokes, you don't want to alter your angle such that you ferry yourself laterally off of your piece of water that is taking you where you want to go. It's kind of like backsurfing on your line to keep you on the piece of water that you are using to get where you are going. You can use a set of back strokes to move laterally onto a new piece of water if you find yourself on the wrong line. Instead of turning your boat to the side and paddling forward laterally, you can backstroke and back ferry yourself laterally onto a new line and then end up facing downstream right on line ready to power forward.
Back strokes definitely have a place, and they buy you time while you read the water, but they can do two bad things: set a stern angle that ferrys you off of your line and second they can scrub the momentum that you may need to "bust" through holes/waves/seams/features/or over rocks that are in your way. The ticket is to use a back stroke to put you on the water that you want to be on and buy you time to think, but relize that they don't contribute to getting you where you want to go and they reduce your ability to hit features offensively with momentum.
This all assumes you are simply floating like a turd down the river adjusting your lateral position to get on the right seam of water, and adjusting where your bow is pointing to counter any diagonal waves or holes that will deflect you off of your pad of water.
The next step after you get a hold of floaing like this is to add forward speed. The concept is much the same as floating on your seam and adjusting your angles. You still read the water just the same as if you were just floating along, but you have to read the water faster since your are going faster than the speed of the water. When you paddle forward, you make your boat go faster than the water of that line or seam of water that you just read that is taking you where you want to go.
(Big concept here:!!!!!If you stop reading these seams while paddling forward and just aggressively paddle forward, you are jumping from seam to seam with no idea where each different seam of water is going to end up. Thus, the term hacking or paddling out of control.)
So, when paddling faster than the speed of the water, you read the lines just the same. But, the forward speed is used to paddle down these seams of water that are going where you are going. You still must read where the water is going. Think of those seams of water as your road to where you are going, and paddle forward down that road making angle adjustments to keep your boat on that road, and not jumping onto other roads that are going places you don't want to end up.
Think of the flow as a snake going where you want to go. You paddle forward down this snake moving left and right with the S turns of it's body but always staying on the part of it's body that's going where you want to end up. And, still adjusting your bow angle to counter any diagonal forces that want to move you laterally off of the snake's body.
So, I hope that you can visualize that paddling forward is not about bashing your way downstream with mad aggression. Floating with the same speed as the current and boofing when necessary as John talks of above regarding National Falls is exactly the same thing as adding forward speed. But with the forward speed, you have to read that seam and steer your boat like a car going down a road of a seam to get you where you want to go. Until you figure out more about reading water on the fly fast, you are totally, totally better off like he said, going the same speed as the current and ending up in the right place and hitting that one big stroke.
It all comes down to reading the lines or seams or flows or whatever they're called. The pieces of water that are going where you want to go.
The lower the water, the fewer features that will stop your boat and pound on you. So, at lower water, going the same speed as the current is just great. It is at higher water that it is important to read these seams and travel down them with momentum (ie paddling forward) so you have some authority when you hit a feature that wants to stop you.
The key (as was stated by another poster) is to learn what kind of river features will stop your boat and which ones will not. Some small features will just slow you a bit, and you don't need to bash into those. Conserve your energy for the bigger features. As you learn to read holes, you will learn just how hard you have to hit each kind or size to clear it. Then, you can float and adjust most of the time, until you see a feature that you need more speed (energy) to clear. Then you can read the seam going where you want to go, and paddle hard forward down it like it's a snake or road (staying on the right flow or piece of water that's going where you want to be) and hit that hole, etc. with mad authority. But, all the while, doing this with cool, calculated, reading of the water and always doing what is necessary to be on the piece of water that is going where you need to be.
After you learn to read the flow to get where you want to be, and learn to adjust your angle to counter diagonal forces that want to move you off of your flow, then you learn to paddle down those flows like they are your highway. After that, you learn to punch features. You can either go over or under a hole.
Most small holes in wave trains etc you can simply go through or under by paddling briefly forward and then tucking forward to load your weight forward on your bow. Then you take a dig stroke on the exit after the foam pile hits you in the chest. The strokes are a one two punch, one to hit the foam pile, then quickly snap to the next stroke to pull you out the back. This is where the air brace will fail you, if you boof and air brace, you are doing nothing to dig out of the exit and get on the next flow that will take you where you want to be.
Most all the bigger holes require you to go over them as they have too much energy going back upstream countering your downstream momentum. So, to go over a hole is usually called a boof. The concept is to get going slightly faster than the water going into the hole, but not your full speed. You need to save a bit of acceleration for the last stroke. If you're maxed before you boof in terms of strokes, then how can your boof stroke be any greater than the previous. Save a tad for the end stroke. So, go just a bit less fast than full tilt, or just coast. Going as fast as you can into a boof is a great way to just pencil in and get worked.
The concept to hole boofing is to lift your bow with that last stroke so that the white foam pile impacts the flat or nearly flat bottom of your boat somewhere under your legs. The boat will then skip or plane out over top of the foam pile. This keeps the water traveling upstream from impacting your body/boat and slowing you down or drawing you back into the hole.
After you impact the foam with a lifted bow boof stroke, the next step is to go immediately to the next stroke called the "dig". The dig is what pulls you away from the hole after you clear it so you don't get sucked back in. Again, it's that one two punch. Paddle moderately toward the hole, one stroke to boof(lift the bow and expose the bottom of the boat to the foam pile) and then the second stroke to dig out the back after you skip over the foam. One, two, stroke( boof!) stroke (dig!).
So, to summarize...you see a rapid, you read a seam of water that takes you where you want to go, then you get on that water. You apply angles to counter diagonal forces. You apply forward speed relative to the water (paddling forward) as is necessary to generage enough momentum to punch through or over the obstacles. As you impact a hole, read it's kick and hit is perpendicularly so you don't get deflected sideways and side surf. After you impact a hole, take the dig stroke to get out of the backwash.
Also, as you punch a hole, it's time to read the outflow. So, while you're boofing, your're reading the flows to see where the water that is leaving is going. You want to adjust your boofing angles to land on the water that is going where you want to end up. So, you can boof straight, left, or right, or boof then turn, or boof straight and turn in the air, or you can boof straingt, dig to clear the backwash, and then move laterally to get on the piece of water that's going your way. The important point is that when you boof a hole, you need to read the backwash so that dig stroke that takes you away from the backwash is taking you to a flow that's going your way. And, the process starts all over again where you read the water to find a piece of wather that's going where you need to end up. (creeking on the fly) Of course, you can always stall on slower water, back ferry/surf to scout, hit eddies, back surf to stall and wait for someone else to go...
I hope some of this may have answered your question from a philosophical point of view. The important thing is that forward speed relative to the water should be used wisely to get where you are going as if driving a car down a road or current that is going where you need to be. People who paddle hard forward without reading water do run over all kinds of stuff and it can be impressive, but without reading the water and using the flow to get where they need to be are sometimes called "hacks". (bad sentance structure, but I'm tired, :) )
Now, people that can both read the water and hit lines and ALSO run over stuff like a freight train, those people are the ones that I like to watch.
reprinted with permission :-)