There’s a level for every river of any size, when water is getting close to filling the banks but is not yet in flood, when things get weird. Too much water tries to get downstream too fast, all at the same time, resulting in substantial and unpredictable vertical and horizontal movement within the current. Whirlpools appear at times, though not at places, which a paddler can only call random. Seams between currents and eddies fight for preeminence in something I imagine to be like continental drift sped up 1 million times.
Near flood can be a scary, and dangerous, time to be on the river. In high school a friend was upended by a log which rose out of the depths like Moby Dick; her kayak was recovered by a stranger two weeks later and 20 miles downstream. You can see phenomenon at work in the video below, in a much reduced scale.
I enjoy paddling rivers at near flood, but I usually stick to stretches I know, and always stay on easier waters. It’s good practice, for everyday paddling techniques, water awareness, and for more specific things like glacier rivers running at 12 mph.
The stretch of the Middle Fork of the Flathead shown here, namely the little canyon between McDonald Creek and Blankenship Bridge, is one I’ve paddled through many times. The canyon itself is usually placid, innocuous, and at certain times full of hungry trout. The small rapid after typically has a few waves curving around the corner, and a bit of bedrock to dodge at the end. At 12,000 cfs all of that is very different, and while I find it a little scary, it is also a fascinating change to witness.
Next time I’ll tilt the GoPro down just a hair.