Navigating Low Water on Backcountry Rivers

By Zach Lazzari | Photos by Ryan McSparran

As runoff subsides on many western rivers, there is still reason for caution. Many floaters associate high spring flows with danger on backcountry rivers but low water poses a significant risk as well. The lines are narrow, obstacles are more prominent and although the water isn’t quite as big, the risk of flipping a boat remains a very real possibility. If you’re planning a drop float trip later in the summer or fall, stay on your toes and follow these safety guidelines to navigate bony river conditions.

Scout Lines

Finding the best line is difficult in low water. High flows cover rocks while creating multiple routes on a run. Low flows expose danger and your best routes are often found by scouting first. Pull over, take a walk and plot your line in advance. It will save you the trouble of being pinned on a rock or flipping in a narrow chute.

Rope and Walk Through Tight Spots

Narrow runs and bony riffles are sometime impassable while you are inside the raft. You will stick to the bottom, have zero width for oar strokes and be at the mercy of the river. Hop out, lash a rope to a d-ring on the stern and guide the boat through the currents while you walk on dry ground or through shallow water. If you are rowing an angler, walking the boat is also a good way to set them up on fish. It’s a great alternative to grinding your oars through gravel and making a raucous. You can slow everything down and quietly guide them into position for a perfect presentation.

Lighten the Load

Consider packing less for a late season trip. This is counterintuitive as colder temps mean warmer and bulkier clothing and sleeping bags. You can shed weight with lightweight tents, dehydrated meals and backpacking equipment. A light boat will hang less in shallow riffles and is easier to portage if obstacles block your route. Although a big cooler full of meat and beer sounds nice, you will question the decision when you’re hauling it around log jams. Mountain house meals and whiskey bottles are much easier to move around.

Shallow Oar Strokes

Feather your oars and make rapid, shallow strokes when navigating tight lines. Big oar strokes risks jamming the blade under rocks. This is a leading cause of flipped rafts in low water. Keep your strokes tight and controlled, back row constantly to line up and set your direction. When you hit a wave train, push hard and drive right down the tongue.

For information on guided fly fishing adventures or drop float trips in the Bob Marshall Wilderness with Lazy J Bar O Outfitters, check out our Summer Pages. For more detail and specific availability, please contact us.