WHITE-WATER RAFTING How do white-water rafters navigate the rapids?  David shoots the rapids  David shoots the rapids to learn the physics behind river rafting
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Getting Started
Begin the lesson by showing students how complicated currents can be. Mix one quart of white Ivory dishwashing liquid with five drops of food coloring. Place several small rocks in a shallow baking pan, then tilt the pan up at one end. Pour the liquid in and watch the pattern of currents flowing around the rocks. The more swirls, the more turbulent the water.

Which currents would push your raft back upstream? Where are the calm areas? How hard would it be to paddle a raft through the currents without hitting any rocks?


Few sights reveal nature's power as clearly as rapids in a fast-flowing river. Water pounds against rocks, sprays into the sky, and boils into white froth. The thought of rafting through such turbulence is scary-unless you are an experienced river runner.

Rapids look chaotic, but they are predictable. The volume of water, the steepness (or gradient) of the river, the width of the channel, and the obstacles in the water all have understandable effects on the rapids. Experts can read a stretch of rapids, spotting the hazards and seeing the safest way through.

Knowing the amount of water flowing in a river is important because the river's speed increases as more water flows through it. Double the water means double the speed, so a mild rapid becomes a dangerous one during the rainy season. Rafters also must know the flow because water is heavy, weighing 1,000 kilograms per cubic meter (62 pounds per cubic foot), and in rapids it exerts tremendous pressure on a raft.

Three basic states of flowing water exist: laminar, turbulent, and chaotic. Laminar describes the smooth-flowing currents in an unobstructed river. Even these currents can be complicated, for their speeds vary. Surface water is slowed by wind, while deep currents are slowed by friction with the riverbed. Water in the middle, a few feet below the surface, usually runs the fastest.

Turbulence occurs when obstacles, such as rocks or a sudden narrowing of the river channel, obstruct the current's flow. Obstacles force too much water into too little space, so the water runs faster and laminar sheets break into individual ribbons of current. Then things get really complicated. If water runs into a boulder, a turbulent zone is created where the water and rock collide. The current runs faster around the boulder's edges, but behind the rock, it forms an area of backward-flowing water called an eddy. Shear zones between the eddy and the fast water can be strong enough to keep a raft from reaching the calm water.

Water crashing over a submerged ledge or rock becomes chaotic and creates a hole. A hole creates a horizontal vortex underwater that actually rotates in an upstream direction. A rafter who falls into a hole is pushed back upstream against the ledge that created the hole, then driven down underwater. Often the only way out of a vortex is to dive to the bottom of the river, where some of the water crashing into the hole flows under the vortex. A rafter who gets into that deep current can follow it out of the hole and then resurface.


White-water rafters must understand fluid dynamics and physics to accurately "read" a rapids. How much and what kind of science must race car drivers know? What about other sports?

Student Activity
Float a boat down a model river



  • large aluminum baking pans or plastic storage boxes, approximately 2' long and 1' wide or larger
  • diatomaceous earth (can be found in a swimming pool supply store)
  • fine sand
  • food-service gloves
  • dust mask
  • tiny scraps of notebook paper or cardboard (enough to fill pan to a depth of approximately 3")
  • pitcher
  • bucket or other container to mix sand
  • bucket or other container to catch water
  • paper towels or sponges for cleanup
  • blocks of wood to set pans on
    (Note that these supplies may be available as part of earth-science activities that explore river erosion, or you can use a stream table apparatus.)

1. (May be done ahead of time) In a large bucket, mix approximately 3 parts diatomaceous earth with 1 part fine sand and enough water to make a firm mixture. It will take a few minutes of mixing for the material to absorb the water. If you have sensitive skin, wear disposable food-service gloves as you make this mixture. Also, pour the diatomacieous earth carefully, to avoid raising clouds of dust, as it may irritate your eyes and throat.

2. In one end of the plastic or aluminum pan, carefully cut a hole so water can drain out. Tilt the pan and position the drain hole over a bucket or other container to catch the water.

3. In the bottom of the pan, mold a river bed that is about 10 cm (4") wide at the higher end and then narrows to approximately 2 cm (1") at the bottom. You can also explore a curving river bed or a river that is deeper in some places than others, or place a pebble in the river bed so you can observe eddies forming around it. Draw a sketch of your riverbed in your journal.

4. Then, shoot the rapids! Begin with a small amount of water. Pour it carefully into the higher end of your river and watch it flow to the bottom. Make sure all of the water flows into your catch bucket. Then gradually add more water.

5. To see the effect on a raft, sprinkle some fine bits of paper or confetti on the water. Increase the amount of water to make your river run even faster. To see more detail of the turbulence in the water, add a few drops of food coloring into the water as you pour it. Try other materials as well, such as sawdust, and see how they travel.

6. Observe and note in your journal how fast your model "rafts" move at different points in your river.


1. What's the relationship between speed and the features of your river?

2. How much does the speed change when you pour more water? How do different kinds of model rafts behave in the water? What happens when the channel gets deeper? When it gets shallower?


Brian Show Number: 1501

Resources Books

Bangs, R. (1989)
Riding the dragon's back: The race to raft the Upper Yangtze.
New York: Laurel Expedition.

Bennett, J. (1992)
Class five chronicles: Things Mother never told you 'bout whitewater.
Portland, OR: Swiftwater Publishing Co.

Bennett, J. (1996)
The complete whitewater rafter.
Camden, ME: Ragged Mountain Press.


American Whitewater Affiliation
P.O. Box 85
Phoenicia, NY 12464


Canoe & Kayak
10526 NE 68th, Suite 3
Kirkland, WA 98033

P.O. Box 6847
Colorado Springs, CO 80934
Publication of the National Organization for River Sports

Web sites

Cyberwest Magazine

Try This:

Plan an imaginary white-water trip on a river you'd like to challenge. How would you find out the water level of the river? What kind of equipment would you need? Where would you go for training? How much would it cost?

Try This:

Call a local outfitting store that equips people for outdoor adventures. Ask if they can bring a small white-water raft to your class and demonstrate how it works. Ask if they can provide a white-water rafter or kayaker who could talk to your class about the joys and dangers of the sport.

Try This:

If you live near a lake, organize a field trip with an expert canoeist who can show you the different techniques in paddling that are needed to control a canoe. How much teamwork is needed to quickly turn, back and otherwise maneuver a canoe? How much harder would it be if it was a bulky raft running in rapids?

NEWTON'S APPLE video cassettes and educational materials provide further information about this and other topics. Call 1-800-588-NEWTON.

Copyright 1997,
Twin Cities Public Television

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