What dictates a class level of water?

Matt Burke

Active Member
So I’m no pro. Toon in dry falls for starters, years later I’ve floated the Sky, Klick, Hoh and the Calawah. Is there some literature or something online that lists class levels of rivers? Some thing that might include what class they would be at known CFS rates? What literature might be useful from the whitewater rafting books? I see you can get certifications for the big hydraulics. Is it worth it? Also, hiked into boulder drop on the Sky several weeks back. What class level is that and how the hell do you get through it?

Jerry Daschofsky

Staff member
There is a ton of info on the net if you want the answers. But in a nutshell, a classed run can change depending on the river level. There are a few books. I have an old riverbook (not sure if it's still made) that lists all the whitewater rivers in each state (you had to buy one for each state). Tells you which months are best, and at which river levels. Boulder drop is usually a class 4 or 5 depending on the river level. I'm a bit rusty on the run, but do believe it peels off to the left a bit and goes through the boulders. Been a decade since I last ran it, so a bit rusty. But it's a mixture of maneuverability, turbulence, pitch of the boat, river level, etc that makes the rating. I do believe most of the raft makers and guide pages should give you exacts. Try doing a search for the ACA (american canoe association), they may have it on their site.

Is it worth it? If you're an adrenaline junky, it is. Gives you a rush to run it, that's what makes it exciting (whereas some people do it and never want to go back on the river again). I love doing it. Just hoping my back and shoulder finally heal enough for me to actually do it again.
The classification system is usually one persons subjective view of the difficulty of the rapid at the levels they've seen it, or a compilation of opinions by a group of boaters based on their experience level. Some things I consider when reading or hearing about certain runs is the boat preference, oar boat vs. kayak vs paddle boat etc, and reputation of the writer. One who only rows will rate rapids that kayaks think are way underrated and vise versa. A drift boater should use a little more caution due to the limitations of his craft.

When running class V rapids, in my opinion, if there is any time during the run, when the out come of the runs success is determined by the river and not the expertise of a veteran oarsman, then it deserves a class V rating. Some water falls for example, or a very large hole that can flip and or hold you in the hole for extended periods of time that is unavoidable, can be class V.

Just remember that one mans class III is another mans V. In Boulder Drops case, the course changes quite a bit with different flows. From water levels between 1500cfs and 5000cfs its rated class III to IV+. From 5000cfs to 10,000cfs class IV to V.

If your looking to challenge your skills, you got a good start by asking questions about the area. The best thing you can do is to plan on a busy Saturday or Sunday when lots of boaters are on the water, and go find a place to watch the boats run through the drop. Get as close to the rapids as you can and change your view as the boats come through. Watch and memorize every move from top to bottom and determine if your skills are up to it. Be honest with yourself. If you only see it at one particular water level, make sure if you attempt it, your very close to the same water level you scouted the rapid at.

My recommendation would be to attempt the run in lower water, not lowest, and then work your way up to higher flows. Some rapids will wash out and become easier in high water. Some become very much less forgiving. Rapids that are in very remote areas deserve a higher rating based on the availability of help.

Be sure you are comfortable with class IV and carry ALL the recommended safety gear and know how to use it. Any boater should for any run regardless of difficulty, and I won't post a list. I do believe that Darwin's theory with take care of fools and stupid people on the river. It just too bad that the rest of us have to get involved to clean up the mess when it happens. If you decide to start running the big drops be willing to take the consequences. You may loose or brake gear. You may loose a friend.

The rewards are great. The camaraderie of a good team of boaters, accessing areas that have a price to pay, or the adrenalin filled day of running big drops is priceless. I've been lucky enough to have spent the last 30 years running boats of all kinds on whitewater rivers all over the west, commercially and private. Through the 90's we spent a good deal of time looking for areas that hadn't been run or were rarely accessed here in WA. For good information get a copy of Jeff Bennetts "A Guide to the Whitewater Rivers of Washington". Jeff has also written some How to guide books on rafting that has some exellent information for boaters.

Be sure to let me know when you go so I can come take pictures. I need some more carnage shots in my collection.

Float safe!
Capt. Tom

Matt Burke

Active Member
Thanks for the info. I don't have a death wish about boulder drop. My rational is if one can be prepared for that run, you could negotiate most rivers with little problem. Besides, there is some great water between index and big eddy. I was surprised to see that I have already negotiated class 2 and class 3 water and didn't know it. All I do on unfamiliar water is stop, pick a line, go back to the toon and hit it. I should have hit the Duc last week. No rule says I couldn’t have stopped to pick a line or just walk. It may be slower the first time through, but with each drift, I pick a better line or go for the white water. I am amazed at how quickly you can get the pucker factor going on water with a current that drifts sideways. After hitting a few sweepers and snags, it is a lot less stressful to line up a little higher in the drift. I'm pretty comfortable on the sticks now and I am finding limitations on my 10 footer. Got jammed up against a snag one time and the ass of my toon started to dip. Then hydraulics started pouring down on the diamond plate deck at the back and she started to lift the front up. Got to about 45 degrees, got myself lose and I was free. Going to get rid of that aft deck. I'm looking at whitewater raft vs. just a plain old toon. On occasion, I like to track the whitewater for kicks and giggles. Plenty to research now. Thanks


Purveyor of fine hackle, wine & cigars!
Matt, I took a quick look at your boat over at the OP and it looked pretty decent. I'm sure you wouldn't have trouble with a Class 3 rapid, assuming you're comfortable with running it.

I've always found Class 3's to be fun, just hit the wave train, avoid any rocks and get wet! Class 4's can be boring at times, since they're more technical but not always big waves like the 3's I've run out in MT.

I got a great whitewater shirt out at the OP this weekend! It say's "God Forgives, whitewater doesn't!" Classic!

If you do get a bigger boat, take me along, I miss the whitewater action and may do a float this spring up on the Sky around Index.

Bill :cool:
Bill what type of boat and what size do you have? I intend to do more river floating as John, an old friend, just bought a pontoon. I have very limited experience in rivers. I am not looking for great challenges, just some fishing. I have a PAC 800 and have used it mostly on lakes. With John getting a boat we will be able to shuttle. I live in the Marysville area and if you are familiar with some easy practice floats in my area I would appreciate some info. PM me or post here if you have any recommendations. Hope you are doing well, Jim.


Active Member
The four questions to ask before running any drop, entering into any business arrangement, relationship, etc:

1. What are the moves to get from point A to point B?

2. Do I have the ability to make the moves?

3. What are the consequences if I don't?

4. Am I willing to accept the consequences?

As you read, ratings are subjective. It has to do mainly with exposure to consequences. Ratings also differ with region & country. A class V in the East may have a few pushy waves and one or two hard moves (Upper Yough, Gauley, etc.). But what you don't see is that the line is two boat widths and if you are off line you will get shoved into an undercut and they will pull your body out at low water. A Class III in Patagonia, for example, is clean but had 10 - 15 foot waves. Many western river are rated for rafts. On the Middle Fork of the Salmon, a raft Class III - IV is an easy run for a kayak.

Just ask the four questions.


Active Member
using a pontoon boat, one designed to seat you low enough so you could use fins in still water, on any class rated moving water is an invitation to not seeing tomorrow. sounds like you have been extremely lucky so far but if i were in your boots, i'd get yourself a boat up to the task of actually getting you into and out of class water safely. i am assuming you have already bought yourself some worthy oars and ditched the aluminum junk that came with your pontoon. all the best in your white water exploration, but do yourself and family a favor and get some equipment designed for the task at hand.