TO LEASH, OR NOT TO LEASH. A discourse on river SUP leash safety


A discourse on river SUP leash safety

Photo credit: Trinity Wall

That should be the question, but is it? Am I leashing because it’s an accepted practice amongst river paddlers? Am I leashing to protect my $1500 investment? Am I considering all the implications of wearing a leash on the river?


To open let me say that a leash on the river is a potential. It’s a potential help in certain situations, but it can be a potential hazard just as easily. You wouldn’t tie a string from your board to yourself, would you? Of course not. Most of us know never to use an ankle leash on the river, it is essentially the same thing. Yet many of us regularly do just that when we leash and I’ll tell you why.


There are many leashes on the market and I’m not going to promote, or knock any of them. I want to put some thoughts into your head so you can make your own decisions. Appropriate river leashes have some kind of release built into them. We’ve all seen them. They rely on us to pull a small, brightly colored ball and, viola! We’re no longer attached. In theory, that’s that. Have you ever taken a swim and remounted your board to find your leash wrapped around your foot? What if you also managed to put a twist in it as well? Not that farfetched given the types of whitewater we are paddling these days. Now for all intents and purposes, you’ve got a knot. It’s tied around your thigh let’s say. You pass on one side of a rock, tree, or bridge pylon and your board goes on the other. The current turns you head downstream and the leash knot slips to your ankle and tightens. You find your quick release and pull. The d-ring comes off your PFD, but you go nowhere. Now what. Well, you could grab your thigh with both hands and try to pull your way to your ankle so you can attempt to slip the knot off or cut at it. But that may not work. Let’s look at ways to avoid this.IMG_20160510_223621

Some leashes have Velcro overlaps at both ends. I like these leashes. When completely overlapped these would hold under extreme tension, which you may sometimes want. When you shorten the overlap, you reduce the amount of tension it takes to pull apart. You can test this on dry land by pulling on the leash. Find an amount of tension you are comfortable with for the run, or surf you are doing. Now, if you get in trouble both ends have the ability to release even if you don’t get to your quick release. Which is great because how often do you practice reaching for your quick release underwater while the river is stuffing however many CFS right up your nose? It’s also great because it works even if you’re unconscious, or managed to dislocate one or both shoulders.IMG_20170316_211555_677

A leash is to some degree a system of rigging. Those of you with Swiftwater Rescue under your belt know that you never use a non-locking carabiner in a system. The same goes when leashing. Imagine you have your leash clipped to the webbing of your type 3 (no quick release rescue belt) PFD with the non locking biner provided with the leash. You take a swim and somehow in the mayhem your biner gate comes in contact with the bungee or a d-ring on your board. It clips. You are now heading downstream clipped to your board with your head underwater trying to get yourself composed while you head straight into whatever terrible hazard is downstream. A bit unlikely, but not impossible and certainly something to consider.

Photo credit: Trinity Wall

There’s a lot to talk about when we talk about leashes. I’m sure there’s even more to consider than what I offer here. I’ll close by asking that we all promote talking about river leash safety amongst our paddling groups, and if you see someone about to launch with an ankle leash on, consider trying to stop them and offer some education.

Thanks for reading, and happy paddling!

Mission: Explore

Chapter one

Complacency is an easy trap in which to fall. I find it easy to return to a run I’m familiar with, and get to know it better. Though this is a worthy pursuit, nothing is more exhilarating than exploring a run that is new to you. It takes confidence in your river skills; eddy turns, peel outs, scouting, portaging and reading while running. This is the thinking behind my mission to explore more of the water of Colorado.

Plateau Creek

Running off of Grand Mesa, Plateau Creek makes it’s way through Collbran to the Colorado. As silty as the river it joins, but more discreet. Hiding between sandstone walls and riverside ranchland a whitewater run awaits intrepid paddlers. It begins with a rolling enjoyable pace but about a half mile before the takeout it shows its true potential and explodes over rocks and gradient.

South Platte

We first set out to run Waterton Canyon. By the time we arrived the water had nearly doubled. As we walked down the canyon and scouted, it became clear that none of us really wanted to commit to that run. So we ran up the South Platte a few miles and ran the chutes. A super fun run, and made our time getting there well worthwhile. We will be back for Waterton.

North Fork of the Gunnison

Industrial and stark surroundings have attempted to confine and control the river, and mother nature has revolted in continuous and furious whitewater. A gem of a run, plenty of action and energy to make you concentrate so hard on the water, you almost don’t notice the mining. Not that I really mind it, after all it created the whitewater on this run.


Fraser Canyon

I could find very little information on this run. Frankly, that made it all the more appealing. I’m not sure we found the real put in, but we got on the river. From the moment we got on the water, the Fraser was demanding our vigilance. We ran through braided channels, rock diversions, and low footbridges until we got to the canyon. It began as consistent engaging whitewater. The crux upped the ante with more gradient, ill placed boulders, constricted channels and occasional wood. Even the run out was littered with strainers and fencing in the river. The Fraser is an excellent whitewater canyon that I would gladly run again, but it will make you use every river skill you have.

So far so good, and it’s only May. Chapter two coming soon!


The Human Factor

When I first set out into the backcountry, I did everything wrong. I didn’t even know there were things I should know. That’s how clueless I was. I had been issued a beacon, probe, and shovel as part of my job as a liftie. I worked on a back bowl chairlift and had to ride down to the lift before routes, so we needed the equipment. I had it, and I understood it was for my safety. There is where my understanding stopped. I found out this was the same equipment you needed in the backcountry, so i figured I was ready for the backcountry.

I can remember my first outing. I had borrowed some extra equipment from another liftie, and a friend and I set out. I had heard people talk about one of the more popular trailheads so we found it and started climbing. I remember going straight up a creek bed with super steep banks that towered above us. At some point, we decided the creek wasn’t taking us where we wanted, and we wallowed straight up one of the banks bringing tons of snow down into the creek. We managed to continue to be lucky and get in a pretty fun (though short) run.


Of course I bragged to some of my friends about getting out into the backcountry (a term I still didn’t understand). One of them was very kind, and gently suggested I could have been hurt. He proceeded to write down a list of books I should read, and some names of people I could talk to. I wish I could remember his name, he probably saved my life.

The more I learned, the more mortified I became about my behavior and my skills. I began to do beacon drills with my fellow lifties. I read everything I could find. I sought out experienced touring partners, and apprenticed myself.IMG_20160121_164607

But some where along the line, I got the idea that my knowledge had gained me some kind of control over things that were quite beyond my influence. I began to get sloppy and overconfident. It took many years, two heavy rides that could’ve killed me, and dozens of close calls, but I woke up.


I realized that even though I hadn’t deserved it, I had lived to ski another day. That became my mantra. When I’m staring down a sick, steep, tempting line but the snowpack is against it, I tell that line “I’ll be back for you when the time is right”. When I’m on my way to a destination line and it starts snowing 3 inches an hour and the wind picks up,  I remind myself that some of the most fun I’ve had skiing has been low angle powder meadows.

Over and over in my career I keep coming across this diagram. I like to remind myself that I only truly have control over one of those factors, and it’s the most dangerous one.



I’ve been lucky to have some great outdoor winter jobs. For over a decade I spent 50-60 hours a week in ski boots. A few years ago My aching feet drove me to try a different approach. After being spoiled for so many years, the bar was high. My first attempt was in the right industry, but didn’t really afford me the ski time I needed. Recently, I was given the opportunity to work in the industry, alongside others who are passionate about getting out to ski, with the ability to just walk out of the shop and go hit the sidecountry. It’s been an amazing alternative to having to spend time in my boots, getting to spend time in my boots. Sure, I sit inside on a powder day a couple of times a year. But when my turn to ski comes up, I slip uninjured feet into perfectly fitting boots, and shred with the homies.

On Touring Partners



It’s not often mother nature backs off and gives us stability like this mid-winter in Colorado. It’s important to stay in touch and take advantage when the time is right. Not only was I impressed with the conditions and the terrain, but i realized at the bottom when Trinity told me how adrenelized she was from skiing it, that it had never crossed my mind that she couldn’t, or wouldn’t ski it.


Touring partners need to be at the same ability level. They need to look at risk vs. reward the same way. A good touring partner has chocolate and nuts on the day when you bring apples and cheese. A good touring partner makes you laugh when you are getting pissed as the wind constantly glues your skins back together each time you tear them apart. A good touring partner takes beacon training seriously. A good touring partner has medical training. A good touring partner has a great smile, and a great attitude.

The whole premise behind a good tour is to get the hell away from civilization and do something grand. It has to be done with someone you trust implicitly, so you can both relax and do what you came to do with confidence and a smile.

The Road Trip

The Conception

After a summer of working six days a week managing the river operations of Stand Up Paddle Colorado, creating water-based education programs for middle school and high school students, and teaching and guiding river SUP tours I realized it was time for some extended paddling time for Trinity and I. Some of us at SUPCO had already discussed finishing the season with a Westwater trip. Why stop there? I began to research water levels, rapid classes, charted paths in my atlas, checked driving miles, river miles, it was starting to come together.

The Plan

I adjusted the itinerary constantly as the dates approached. Planning the end of season Westwater trip, planning my own three week road trip, and wrapping up a grueling summer of work I love was beginning to wear on my ability to stay in the moment. My vacation was weeks away, yet I was already gone in my mind. A path began to become clear as I looked at the whitewater parks and river stretches I was interested in.

Westwater Canyon

A well regarded whitewater run at any level, Westwater is an excellent mix of breathtaking scenery and quality whitewater. Gorgeous sandstone and schist provide a dramatic backdrop to one of the runs I adored for years as a rafter, and consider some of the most fun I’ve ever had on a SUP.

Cascade Whitewater Park

A breath of fresh air amidst urban sprawl. The features are fairly well spread out, so we scouted them out, picked the one we liked the look of, and sessioned into the twilight. Enough fun that we returned the next morning to shred some more before heading further west.

The Grand Canyon Of The Snake

Already being familiar with this run’s reliability into the fall, it was an obvious candidate for inclusion in the trip. Even at fall water levels this canyon holds onto a big water feel, and can be run in just a few hours.

The Main Payette

I had hoped to run parts of the North Fork, the South Fork, and the Main Payette, but dropping water levels left us with only the third option. It was everything we hoped for. After the big water feel of Westwater and the Snake, some technical water was in order.

Kelly’s Whitewater ParkImage-1444451646341

The infamous location of the Payette River Games. A well designed whitewater park, and even though it was super late in the season, we had a blast surfing and swimming for hours.

The Alberton Gorge

An absolutely epic run. Stunning scenery and challenging whitewater. The intro rapids were super fun and the inner gorge delivered some excellent technical drops.

Yellowstone National ParkIMG_20151014_113350

We didn’t run any water in the park, but it was a perfect end to the trip. Watching the water steaming and bubbling out of the ground, and the Yellowstone river cascading over the Upper and Lower falls, served to connect us further to the resource that has changed our lives forever.