How To: Read a River

By | August 1, 2013
From Xplor: August/September 2013

Floating an Ozark stream is tons of fun, but tipping your canoe can be a drag. Learn to read the water, and you’ll get dunked only when you want to go swimming. Here’s what to look for.

Upstream V

When rocks and stumps are submerged just below the surface, water flowing over and around them forms a V with the tip pointing upstream. If you see an upstream V, paddle around it!

Downstream V

When water flows between two obstacles, it forms a V with the tip pointing downstream. Aim your canoe toward the point of a downstream V, and you’ll find a clear path and smooth sailing.


The current cuts into the outer bends of rivers, washing away soil and causing trees to slide off the bank into the water. Avoid these trees! Their branches act like leafy spaghetti strainers that can swallow your canoe.

Horizon Line

A horizontal line on the water’s surface indicates a steep, sudden drop in the river. The drop could be a fun-to-run 3-foot ledge or a dangerous, canoe-crumpling waterfall. The only safe way to find out is to beach your canoe and hike downstream for a better look.

Washboard Ripples

These small, numerous waves indicate shallow water. They won’t cause you to flip, but you’ll often run aground and have to get out to pull your canoe downstream.

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This Issue's Staff

David Besenger
Les Fortenberry
Karen Hudson
Regina Knauer
Noppadol Paothong
Marci Porter
Mark Raithel
Laura Scheuler
Matt Seek
Tim Smith
David Stonner
Nichole LeClair Terrill
Stephanie Thurber
Cliff White