What would you rather drive: a Porsche or a school bus? For river runners choosing between a kayak and a raft, the choice is that simple. Kayaking whitewater is the ultimate river experience—playful, nimble and dynamic—it’s like a dance with the river. Rafting, on the other hand, is a lot like work.
A raft is a utilitarian craft, designed to haul tourists and piles of gear. Like a Greyhound bus easing a load of society’s miscreants across Kansas, there is no finer vessel for getting those jobs done. But if you were out for a Sunday drive you’d certainly fire up your midlife-crisis-red Ferrari before the big diesel coach. Sure, there are times when you want to stretch out, get a little sun on your legs, lean back and grab a beverage from the cooler, but let’s face it, you can do that stuff in a lawn chair in your back yard. If you’re going to go to all the trouble to get to the river, run shuttle and organize your gear, leave the pool party at home and experience the river’s hydrology: cartwheeling in holes, pirouetting down eddylines, launching off rocks. In a kayak that’s playtime. In a raft, that’s blundering. Kayaks provide the most dynamic whitewater experience available outside of swimming.
Speaking of swimming, if you’re a rafter, you’ll be doing plenty of it. When your raft flips there’s no avoiding the drink. Rafter, meet carp, meet rocks, and meet Mr. Strainer. If you flip in a kayak, simply roll back upright and paddle on your way…or perhaps lend a hand in hauling the swimming rafters to shore.
It’s a misconception that rafts are safer than kayaks. That more kayakers get into trouble is simply a numbers game: There’s more of them out there (because it’s more fun). Many are doing foolish things, but that’s a reflection of the operator, not the craft. In reality, in any given rapid, a skilled kayaker has an easier time than a skilled rafter. Kayaks are faster and easier to maneuver. Sure, beginners might do more swimming, but once through the learning curve, they’re inherently safer, especially when unknown rapids lurk downstream. If you encounter a portage, just toss the kayak up on your shoulder. Portaging a raft is a hernia-inducing ordeal as dangerous as the rapid being skirted.
Who ever heard of taking your self-bailer out for a quick spin on the ocean? Creeks? Many Middle Fork of the Salmon rafters vow they’d never do Marsh Creek again, while the kayakers are waiting in micro-eddies, anticipating lunch as the terrified rafters careen past, narrowly missing strainer after strainer.
Sure, the kayakers wouldn’t even be there if it weren’t for the support of those over-matched rafts. Who else is going to transport the tents, food and libations? But just because someone has to row the raft, why should it be you? Rafting is a thankless job. Like a school bus driver stalling on the train tracks, the only time a rafter gets noticed is when they screw up. Overshoot camp and the rest of the party curses you as they haul your overloaded behemoth back upstream through the bushes. Hit a hole broadside and the whole crew highsides, or else goes swimming. Kayakers simply brace. Flip and suddenly everyone spends the lay-over day drying macaroni on a tarp rather than day-hiking. Or your friends bitch when you lose their sleeping bag. To avoid that scenario you spend every morning weaving a tangled web of rigging around your boat while everyone else plays hacky sack on the beach. It’s all fine if you’re getting paid, but if you’re not…
Your cantankerousness ruins group dynamics because you’re always yelling at people to wipe their feet off before they climb onto your raft. Sure, you don’t want to spend more than the requisite hour washing out the grit at trip’s end, but your friends just think you’re grumpy. And you are. You’re doing all the work. You jigsaw puzzle your frame together at the put-in, dropping your wrench into the river while your friends decide whether the first night’s theme will be togas or cross-dressing. You top off your raft each morning while everyone else sips coffee. You have to buy a trailer or else ruin the springs in your pickup. Not to mention invest in a back brace so you don’t end up a cripple from manhandling the thing. Kayakers careen off rocks on purpose while you spend camp time patching abrasions on your $3,000 craft. They store their boats in a snowbank all winter while you meticulously clean, dry and apply talcum powder to the monster, rolling and unrolling the beast on the front lawn with only your 4-year-old daughter to help you. All this so you can carry the groover?
Let’s face it: If you aren’t getting paid to go rafting, or lounging on one on the flats after a hard day of kayaking, why bother? The logistics are horrible and the job thankless. As for fun, there’s no comparison. Chances are, if someone says they prefer rafting, it just means they can’t kayak, or are too timid to try.
Arthur G. Moore is a veteran paddler. He has over 10 years of whitewater kayaking experience in his kitty. When he was young, he used to love kayaking in rapid III and rapid IV but as time went on, he decided to concentrate mainly on covering long distances on a standard touring kayak. He is currently working as a senior editor for Kayak Manual.