Missouri may not be one of the first places that comes to mind when someone says “whitewater”, but Missouri waterways do have rapids to challenge the adventurous kayaker or rafter. These rapids range from Class 1 to Class 4+ on a scale that spans from 1 to 6.
An internationally accepted rating system is used to classify rapids. This uniform rating allows kayakers to gauge their ability to maneuver various rivers without underestimating the roughness of the water and consequently its danger. While rapid classification is not an exact science, it goes a long way toward making the sport safer.
Class 1 rapids are great for beginners. These rapids are simply moving water with small waves. If there are obstructions, there are few and far between. Beginners can enjoy the excitement and increased speed of paddling through riffles without having to rely too much on a still-developing skill set.
The next step up is that of Class 2 rapids. Water flows faster in Class 2 rapids, but the path is clear and easy to follow. There’s no scouting out for the best route to follow. Some maneuvering might be necessary, but most rafters or kayakers with some experience will be able to handle the challenge.
Class 3 rapids start to separate the beginners from the experienced. These rapids contain irregular waves that are higher than those seen in Class 1 or Class 2. The wide, open waterways of Classes 1 and 2 are gone. Narrow passages are the norm and the ability to maneuver a kayak or raft in tight spots is necessary.
Class 4 rapids are for the experienced paddler whether in a kayak or raft. The course through these rapids is hard to find and oftentimes, scouting out the area is required. The water is turbulent, shooting through narrow passages that require a certain amount of expertise to maneuver through. Another facet of Class 4 rapids is that they are much longer as well as more difficult. These rapids require both physical and mental endurance.
The next two classes of rapids are not typically found in Missouri. While Class 5 and 6 rapids exist from time to time when the state experiences excessive rainfall or snowmelt, it is not recommended that rivers be traveled during this time. In addition to the increased water flow which raises the difficulty level, the rivers are also filled with debris that ramps up the danger level to a degree that no experienced kayaker or rafter would attempt.
Class 5 rapids are the ultimate rapids for commercial white water rafting. These rapids are violent, long, and dangerous. Before attempting this class it’s necessary to scout them from the shore. It’s also important to know that rescue from this type of rapids is difficult, and drowning is a distinct possibility. Only an expert kayaker or rafter should attempt these and only after serious consideration.
The final classification is Class 6. These rapids are deadly. Traveling them is considered a life threatening risk. No commercial rafts are allowed on this class. Unless you have a personal death wish, do not venture into these waters.
Just because a rafter or kayaker traveled a Missouri waterway last year or last week, doesn’t mean that the river is the same as it was then. Missouri rivers are dynamic living entities. They change from year to year, week to week, even from hour to hour as anyone who has experienced a flash flood can attest.
Another consideration to factor into the whitewater equation is whether a paddler is using a raft or kayak. If you’ve traveled a waterway in one or the other, don’t assume it’s going to be the same. Changing from a kayak to a raft or vice-versa produces a whole new set of challenges even if it’s the same river.
As always, treat the water with respect. It can be a paddler’s friend or their worst nightmare.