Making sense of whitewater rapid classifications

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Making sense of whitewater rapid classifications
Kayaker navigate a rapid on Deckers Creek near Morgantown, West Virginia (Photo courtesy Dan Friend)

With its many rivers coursing through many different kinds of terrain, West Virginia is a paradise for paddlers and rafters, especially where whitewater paddling is concerned.

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So familiarizing yourself with the International Scale of River Difficulty and understanding how whitewater rapids are classified could prove advisable if you're planning a visit to the mountainous regions of the state.

No matter your level of experience, you should never grab a raft, kayak, or paddleboard and head off to a river without getting an idea of what awaits you. The scale, which rates how difficult it is to navigate a river or rapid, was developed by the American Whitewater Association and is used internationally.

By checking how West Virginia’s rivers and their rapids are classified, you can make the most of what is available by planning paddling or rafting trips that are appropriate for your skill level.


Class I Rapids

Although the water tends to move fast at Class I rapids, you seldom will find more than small waves and riffles. There are few obstructions, and those that are there are relatively easy to miss. Even so, you should not attempt to paddle Class I rapids if you haven’t had any training. This class is popular with paddlers and rafters who want a bit of lazy time on a river so they can enjoy the view. The South Fork of the Shenandoah River between Inskeep Landing and Foster’s Landing is where you can find some of the state’s best rapids in this class.


Class II Rapids

Suitable for novice paddlers and rafters, Class II rapids are straightforward. There are medium-sized waves and rocks that you will need to navigate, but on the whole, the channels are wide and clear. Exercise caution if you plan to do some swimming along the way. You can find several Class II rapids on the Shenandoah River, the best of which are the Mad Dog rapids, which are just after the confluence with the Potomac River.

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Class III Rapids

Fast currents, powerful eddies, ledges, narrow passages, and moderate but irregular waves all are features of Class III rapids. They are suitable for paddlers and rafters with intermediate skills or higher, as successful navigation depends on solid boat control as well as executing challenging maneuvers in tricky spots. Scouting is a good idea. Some of West Virginia’s best Class III rapids are at Cheat Narrows on the Cheat River, and the Lower Staircase on the Lower Gauley River.


Class IV Rapids

As intensely powerful as they can be, Class IV rapids tend to be somewhat predictable. Even so, your boat handling needs to be precise because some of the dangerous hazards are unavoidable. You could face narrow passages as well as large waves and holes, so advanced skills are a must for rapids of this class.

Be warned that, if you go swimming in a Class IV rapid, self-rescue is considerably more challenging than if it happens at a class I, II, or III spot. You can find great Class IV rapids on the Cranberry River, the upper Big Sandy Creek, and Cheat Canyon. The Lower New River offers Class IV rapids and calm pools from July through March. That changes dramatically between April and June when rain and snowmelt increase the volume of the river.


Class V Rapids

Suitable for experts only, Class V rapids are risky. They tend to be long, with many obstructions, and they can be turbulent to the point of violence. Holes, large waves, and steep chutes are common features of rapids in this class. What’s more, the class has multiple levels of magnitude, which usually are numbered as 5.0, 5.1, 5.2, 5.3, etc.  Rescues are difficult, so you need to be physically fit, and you need to know what you are doing. Scouting is recommended where possible.

The upper and lower sections of the Blackwater River, as well as the Lower New River between April and June, offer challenging rapids in this class. The upper Gauley’s Big Five, namely the Iron Ring, Insignificant Rapid, Lost Paddle, Pillow Rock, and Sweet’s Falls, are some of the most famous Class V rapids in the state. If you’re looking for Class V+, head to Mann Creek.


Class VI Rapids

Dangerous, unpredictable, and in many cases, not yet attempted, Class VI rapids are best avoided unless you are a member of a team of experts. Some rapids in this class were attempted when river conditions allowed them to, and only after the teams inspected them thoroughly. In a few cases, Class VI spots were reclassified as Class V+.


Points To Remember

There are a few important points to remember about rivers, rapids, and the International Scale of River Difficulty. To summarize them in three words—things can change.

Like all rivers, those in West Virginia are changeable. Various conditions can affect the water level, which ultimately determines their navigability. A few days of heavy rain can turn rapids that in ordinary circumstances would be suitable for relatively inexperienced paddlers into whitewater that would make seasoned experts think twice.

Most, if not all rivers, have rapids of different classes, and those classes are somewhat flexible. For example, you can find Class II rapids that are difficult, and Class III rapids that are relatively easy. Levels of greater ease or increased difficulty are indicated by + and – symbols after the grading according to the scale.

What’s more, you cannot classify an entire river based on one or two rapids. Rivers flow faster and get wider the further downstream you go. Between that and changes in terrain, one river can have several different classes of rapids.

Before heading out to face rapids on any of the Mountain State’s rivers, check their classification according to the International Scale of River Difficulty, review current local conditions, and see if you can find recent first-hand accounts by paddlers or rafters who have navigated the water before.

Knowing the classification of rapids could save your life and understanding how they differ and what conditions they involve is essential for anyone keen on getting out on the water.

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