Running Waterfalls

Every waterfall is unique. Running falls with consistent success means tweaking your technique to suit the drop. The strategies outlined here have seen me safely through over 15 drops in excess of 70 feet.

The art of running waterfalls lies in an intimate communication between you and your kayak— having a poised sense of boat angle in freefall. Maintaining boat angle at the point where the waterfall’s lip becomes vertical and you enter freefall is crucial to a successful outcome.

I like to enter freefall with a neutral, nearly straight body position. Depending on how I left the lip, I will adapt my body position and the speed or delay of my tuck to maintain the right amount of boat angle. The sensation is of a balancing act. The goal is to make sure you’re tucked safely to your front deck when you land in the pool below, protecting your body against the force of impact.

The most straightforward drops are those with lips that gradually transition to vertical. Oregon’s 70-foot Metlako Falls is a perfect example of an easy, rolling lip. On falls like Metlako it is actually important to not do too much—the waterfall sets your angle perfectly. Ride down the lip with a neutral body position—using a stern rudder to control side-to-side angle as necessary—and slowly begin to tuck as the waterfall becomes vertical to maintain a good entry angle.

It is usually a very bad idea to run a waterfall when your boat might connect with a rock at the lip. My definition of a shallow lip waterfall is when the river goes over a shelf just deep enough for a kayak. Sahale Falls, another 70-footer in Oregon, extends over a 30-degree shelf for 15 feet then immediately drops to vertical. This waterfall is more difficult because you can’t simply tuck at the lip. To avoid boofing as you fly off the shelf, you must delay or slow your tuck and let the bow drop so you are reaching full tuck as the boat becomes vertical. A strong sense of your boat angle and knowing how your body’s position affects this angle is the crux to running waterfalls of this nature.

Waterfalls with tight lines demand more precise placement and concentration to put you on the correct spot at the lip. My descent of Washington’s 186-foot Palouse Falls had a tricky thread-the-needle line between a pitching hump on the left and a kicker into space on the right. The lip at Palouse was one of the most difficult I have ever run—I lined up with a rudder and held a stationary stern draw to stick the right to left orientation of the lip. Lining up the lip is the most intimidating part of running waterfalls—it is very important to have good points of reference at the lip so you know exactly where you are dropping over. I usually spend more time scouting the lead-in to the lip than the actual drop.

Whether the drop is categorized as deep or shallow lip, rolling or abrupt, your reaction as you begin freefall is critical. Visualization plays a very important role at this stage. Visualize sticking the line, then focus on this image until it is embedded in your mind. When you are running the waterfall there is no space for conscious thought about right or wrong reactions—they must simply happen in immediate response to the present situation.

Visualization is also invaluable when deciding which waterfalls to run. If I cannot visualize myself running a waterfall successfully, I won’t attempt it. My best advice is to start small and work up to larger drops—nothing can replace personal experience.

Tyler Bradt hails from Missoula, Montana, and began kayaking at age six. He enjoys long walks on the beach, wine by candlelight and watching sunsets. [He also holds two waterfall world records]. Learn more about his new film at

This article originally appeared in Rapid, Early Summer 2010. Download our free iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch App or Android App or read it here.


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