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Learning Curve: Reading whitewater quickly and correctly won’t come overnight, but if you stick to class III (moderately technical) and mellower rivers, even beginners can paddle their own boats. The key: Use an inflatable kayak (ducky), which is slow-turning but much more stable than a hard-shell kayak, and doesn’t require learning how to roll (you swim if you flip).
Avoid high water when you’re learning. Beginners should go after—not during—the river’s peak flow, and hook up with a more experienced boater the first time out.
Scout big rapids before running them. “Run it only if you’re willing to swim it,” says 35-year paddling veteran Donnie Dove, owner/guide at Arizona’s Canyon Rio Rafting. Check the rapids’ length (100 or 500 yards?) and runout (do they spill into a broad, slow pool—or turn sharply around an obstacle?).
The easiest line is the rapid’s “tongue,” which looks like an inverted V. Aim for the middle of the tongue and paddle hard: The burst of speed pushes you faster than the current, which helps you maintain control.
The distance between your hands on the paddle should be the width of your shoulders, or slightly narrower. Don’t just pull on the shaft—push with the opposing hand.
To turn, use the sweep stroke: Dip the paddle’s blade in the water near your feet and sweep it in an arc toward the rear, rotating your torso to maintain power at the end of the arc.
If you do get launched, float on your back with your legs downstream. Swim to an eddy or shore. Stay with your boat unless holding onto it puts you in danger (like pulling you into a strainer).
Arizona: Get the best of everything—fun and numerous rapids, wild desert scenery, a long class III run—in the Upper Salt River. Put in at US 60 and paddle 10 miles of near-constant rapids to Salt Banks. Do it in a day or camp overnight. Contact: (602) 225-5200; permits required in spring
Arkansas: Hit the Upper Buffalo River. The 25-mile section between Ponca and Pruitt includes 220-foot-high limestone bluffs and 200-year-old homesteads. Contact: nps.gov/buff; turn-by-turn directions, backpacker.com/hikes/460034