Winter Rafting: Are You Insane Enough?

There’s a difference between hardcore and insane. Hardcore meets dangerous challenges, insane seeks them out. Hardcore is met with respect; insane is met with friends divvying up your CD collection.

White water rafting is one of those sports that is plenty extreme on its own. But rafting in the cold, unforgiving winter? Why crank the dial to 11 when your life and limb are already being risked at 8 or 9? Because you’re insane. Below are five things you’ll experience while rafting in the cold.

The wind
Rafting in the summer months sure is neat, isn’t it? The warmth of the sun, the mild winds, the comfortable temperatures–sounds like paradise on a Level IV. Toss yourself onto the same water in the winter however, and be prepared for a harsh dressing down by the elements. The wind is no longer your friend, slapping you about your face and neck with the bitterest of breezes. In this climate, you’ll have a hard time maintaining sensation in your lips long enough to scream for help. Assuming you survive your jaunt down the rapids, days later your face will be scarlet from the wind burns.

The water
Water may be cold at times even when rafting in-season, but it won’t match the icy sting of death you’ll feel after your first rapid. You could always escape this punishment by floating your pretty little behind down a Level I or II, but that’s not exactly insane, now is it? Nothing but a III or IV for you, which means a frozen lap by the time you reach take-out. The more winter water your raft sustains, the higher your chances of developing hypothermia shoot through the roof. This puts a ticking clock over your head that counts down to the beat of chattering teeth, shivering limbs, and the mumbling of slurred speech.

Being Warm vs. Dry. There Is No Middle
This is not to say, of course, that you can’t stay warm when rafting in the winter. A serene nature lovefest down a tranquil stream while wearing polypropylene is as close to the warm and dry combo you’re likely to get. On the other hand, if you want to headbutt the rapids (figuratively speaking; don’t actually try to headbutt the rapids) you must throw one of these ideals out the window. For safety’s sake, consider warmth more important than dryness. Not only will you stave off the deadly encroachment of hypothermia, but the pictures you’ll later show your friends of you standing sopping on the riverbanks will earn you major insanity points.

Streamflow That’s Ready To Kill You
If you happen to be rafting after a freeze when ice and snow have started melting, a river’s flow can catch you off-guard. This is common during mid-season warm patches and the transition into Spring. Failing to take the melt into account can quickly lead to an out-of-control trip downstream, even for experienced rafters. Because it is always difficult to measure the increase in streamflow, the smart rafter would be well-advised to gauge flow using a more scientific method. There are many ways to calculate flow, most of which will take a small chunk of time out of your trip. Ultimately, however, they may spare you the hassle of drowning.

Kicked Out Of Your Comfort Zone
Assuming you’re not on a river with snowmelt, you’ll more than likely be forced to upgrade to a more difficult river. This is because a lot of rapids are calmer during cold-temperature months when streamflow otherwise thins out and slows down. Thus, a Level II-experienced rafter may need to upgrade to a Level III, and a III to a IV, and so on. In fact, some rivers, such as the North Fork American, are so dangerous they can be navigated only in cold temperatures precisely because the flow is reduced and deemed safe enough. After braving a Level III disguised as a IV, you can brag to your friends about that time you survived those raging rapids in the unforgiving grip of winter. At least you can sound insane.