River Navigation: Having Fun Safely

Many anglers have purchased pontoon boats or similar crafts to access unfished waters on increasingly crowded rivers. Anglers that have drifted down rivers in pontoons have experienced one of the most peaceful ways of travel, with unobstructed views of the beautiful landscape, snow-capped mountains, and soaring eagles, and the opportunity to observe wildlife unaware of your presence as you quietly drift by. Some boaters have also experienced the exhilaration of navigating rapids. While rivers can be peaceful and fun, danger can lurk around the next corner, which some have had the misfortune of experiencing.


With 28 years of white water experience, including 11 years as a Commercial Raft Guide and 18 years of kayaking Class 4-5 rivers, I’ve accumulated close to 2000 river trips. I’m inspired to share this extensive river experience with anglers to help them gain the skills and knowledge they need to safely navigate rivers. This article will give you an overview of how to gear up safely for your next pontoon adventure.

Personal Gear

Via Jeff Allison


The most important piece of equipment required on rivers is a personal flotation device (PFD). 80 percent of fatalities could have been prevented by wearing a PFD.I recommend a Type III foam PFD that has a zipper for easy entry/exit, is comfortable and non-restrictive, and is Transport Canada approved. Generally, the leaner you are, the more flotation is required. Finally, body fat has its benefits! A medium profile PFD (16 to 18 lbs flotation) will work for most boaters, but if you’re drifting high-volume rivers like the Thompson, have a lean body type or are a poor swimmer, a high profile PFD (minimum of 22 lbs flotation) is recommended. A popular choice amongst anglers is the Stohlquist Fisherman (16 lbs flotation) (stohlquist.com), which has been specifically designed for pontoon fishing. I use the Stohlquist Kahuna (22 lbs flotation); because of my lean body type, I require the additional flotation. Both PFD’s are very comfortable to wear and have pockets for fishing tackle. I recommend attaching a quick release knife and a whistle to your PFD for rescue situations. Remember the international signal for an emergency/help is 3 repeated whistle blasts.



Rendering yourself unconscious in a river is not an option. Kayakers and rafters wear them for good reasons; there are many hard objects, including rocks and equipment on your boat. If you’re navigating rapids where there is a risk of capsizing, wear a helmet. You can always remove it again after the rapid, or if you cast like I do on a windy day, you might leave it on! Any whitewater style helmet will suffice.

Wading belts

I think we can all agree that having water in your waders will not submerge you, because water is neutral in water. The issue is swimming and extricating yourself onto shore, which is extremely difficult with water encompassing your legs. When boating on rivers, swimming is always a possibility and you need to maneuver quickly; using a wading belt will significantly reduce the amount of water entering your waders.


Drysuits and Drytops

In fall, winter and spring, extra effort is necessary to adequately protect ourselves against hypothermia.Drysuits are the golden standard for ultimate thermal protection when swimming rivers. The second best option is a drytop over your waders. Drytops will still allow minimal water penetration. Most drytops and drysuits use very bright material, and use latex gaskets around your neck and wrists, which can be very uncomfortable. Stohlquist’s EZ drysuit and Freeryde drytop use neoprene gaskets, which are far more comfortable than latex. The EZ drysuit comes in black, which is their most neutral colour available in a drysuit. The drysuit’s relief zipper is a convenient feature too. The fabric drysocks used on drysuits will deteriorate quickly with frequent wading; I use neoprene socks over mine to protect the fabric and aid in the proper fit of my wading boots.

Hypothermia and Rivers

Water draws heat from the body 25 times faster than air, and the effect of cold water increases when the current is fast. Sudden immersion in a cold river is extremely debilitating, causing loss of strength, judgment and coordination. Hypothermic boaters will have difficulties assisting in their own rescue. If you’re boating with a person who is shivering uncontrollably, and has loss of manual dexterity and slurred speech, immediate intervention is required. Get them to shore and warm them rapidly with extra clothes, exertion or campfire. Always carry extra clothes in a dry bag.


Pontoon boat
Via Jeff Allison

There are many options of fishing crafts on the market. The safest and most maneuverable fishing craft for rivers is a framed pontoon boat. Pontoon boats come in different lengths: generally eight to nine-foot boats for small to medium sized rivers with some smaller rapids, and 10 to11 foot boats for ultimate stability on most rivers, including rivers with more complex rapids. I highly recommend frames made from stainless steel or aluminum; both are resistant to corrosion. Consider purchasing a boat with multiple chambers, because sooner or later, with all the sharp rocks in rivers, you will have the misfortune of puncturing your boat. One of the best designs I’ve seen is the Bucks Bags Dual Chambered models (bucksbags.com) which feature two full-length air chambers per pontoon. If one bladder is punctured, the other bladder can be fully inflated so you can continue your trip. Urethane bladders are recommended for river use; they’re more durable than vinyl bladders.

Although I have rafted and kayaked Class 5 rapids, there is no way I would navigate these in any fishing craft. In my opinion, these boats are suitable for up to Class 3+ rivers, with commensurate navigation skills.


Oars are subjected to a lot of stress, and can be broken on rocks. Propulsion is obviously required to manoeuvre your boat, so it’s absolutely essential that you have adequate oars and oarlocks on your boat. The weakest point on most fishing crafts is their oars. Most are breakdown oars which are not as strong as a one-piece. For ultimate safety navigating rivers, I recommend upgrading to Cataract Oars Mini Magnum Composite Oar (cataractoars.com).Composite oars have over twice the breaking strength of aluminium, yet they’re 40% lighter. If space isn’t an issue, I recommend the one-piece oars. However, I use a breakdown as my spare for easier storage. Always carry a spare oar. I also recommend oar rights: they prevent spinning and lock your oar blade in position for the most effective stroke.


Every boat should be equipped with a rescue throwbag, the most important piece of rescue equipment. A throwbag contains 50 to 70 feet of ¼” or 3/8” rope stuffed into a compact bag. For pontoon boaters, a smaller throwbag with ¼” rope will be easiest to throw and is more compact. Throwbags are necessary for quick rescue, with currents affecting both the swimmer and the rescuer. When a throwbag is thrown, it’s unaffected by the current until it lands on the water, much like a fly line aimed at a target.

Throwbag basics:

  • Ensure there are no downstream hazards to which the rescuer has to manoeuvre.
  • Make eye contact with the swimmer: yell “ROPE” or blow your whistle.
  • Open the cord lock closure about halfway. Remember to hold onto the rope – I’ve had several people throw the whole bag!!!
  • If throwing from a pontoon craft, overhand or sidearm will be the most effective. Aim for the swimmer or slightly downstream of the swimmer (the swimmer will float downstream faster than the rope).
  • If you’re the swimmer being rescued, be prepared to swim to the rope if it’s off target. Grab the rope not the bag (as the bag can tear off), hold over your shoulder and turn onto your back, so your feet are facing downstream. Your body will plane to the surface and an air pocket will form around your head, so you can breathe. Never wrap the rope around any body part.
  • Rescuer pulls the swimmer to safety.

First Aid Kit

Use a Pelican case or Nalgene wide mouth water bottle to keep your supplies dry. Stock with band aids, gauze, roller gauze, waterproof tape, tensor bandage, Microshield mask, scissors, gloves, emergency blanket, waterproof matches and energy bar as a minimum. I recommend taking first aid and CPR courses.

Repair Kit

A Pelican case or drybag works well for storage. Carry any tools required for repairs to your frame, add an extra oarlock and straps, quick repair patches and duct tape. I’ve temporarily repaired several large tears on rafts using duct tape! For multi-day and remote trips add: extra valve and valve wrench, repair material, glue, brush and sandpaper.


Pumps are required to re-inflate your boat in case of repair or slow leaks. I recommend the K-pump(k-pump.com), which is compact and easy to use. Bring at least one pump per group.

Fishing Accessories

  • If you’re planning on fly fishing from your boat, a stripping apron is recommended. However, remove the apron when navigating through rapids because it’s a potential entrapment risk should you capsize.
  • Several boats come with anchors and motor mounts. Remove these items if possible to avoid the potential risk for injury should you capsize. Using an anchor on the river is a high risk activity, and in my opinion is not worth the risk.
  • Another accessory you’ll need is a rod holder. Scotty (scotty.com) makes great rod holders that attach to the frame (#242 adapter) or wrap around the boat tube (#266 adapter). I have a homemade rod holder made out of PVC tubing to protect my rod when navigating through rapids. If I flip, I’ll still have an intact rod!

Pontoon Set-up

When navigating rivers with strong currents or rapids, secure your frame so your seat is just slightly forward of the centre point of your pontoon. This will prevent your stern from becoming submerged when aggressively rowing backwards in a strong current or running holes and breaking waves. Always securely fasten your frame to the pontoons, so there’s zero movement between them.

Oars should be setup so your handles are a fist width apart from each other. Simply adjust the oar right or oar stop to obtain the correct distance. When rowing backwards, your hands should level with your mid chest. If your hands are above that level, you will have less power and become quickly fatigued. In that situation purchase longer oars (I have the 7 ½ foot oars from Cataract for this reason). The other advantage of longer oars is more power and improved maneuverability.

Secure your oars with tethers to prevent the loss of your oars in the event of a flip or a fractured oarlock. Oar tether can be purchased, or simply use a short piece of rope and tie one end to your frame, and the other to the oar using a bowline knot. Use a short oar tether to prevent an entrapment risk during a flip.

Secure all additional gear so it’s organized and easily accessible. Cargo bags are great for storage: in one cargo bag I store a K-pump, first aid and repair kits, and in another fishing gear, lunch and a water bottle. My spare oar and throwbag are strapped to the frame, where they’re easily reached.

River Hazard Terminology

When discussing the location of river features or hazards, the terms “River Left” and “River Right” are used. River Left and River Right ALWAYS refer to the side of the river when the boater is looking downstream. Here’s an example: a boater tells you there is a logjam on the right side, but he was looking upstream at it. You start floating downstream, rowing over to your left side to avoid the log jam. See the problem? The correct description of this hazard would be “there’s a logjam on River Left.”

Final Word

Drifting rivers require additional equipment, as well as knowledge of river features and hazards, and how to safely navigate them. It requires a different mindset compared to lakes: rivers are not moving lakes! A flat river with a tree partially across it can have serious consequences. The onus is on us to ensure that we are adequately prepared for a potential mishap. Unfortunately some that weren’t prepared have lost boats, needed a major rescue, or worse, have lost their lives. It’s time to change our culture with regards to safety. I recommend taking a Pontoon River course to gain the knowledge and skills required to navigate rivers safely and proficiently. Then your next drifting adventure will be much more relaxing and enjoyable, for you and your loved ones.

Recommended Courses and Books

Kumsheen’s Pontoon River Course Level 1 and Level 2

The next Level 1 course will be September 12/13, 2015

These are both two day courses, and have been designed for anglers, fishing guides and recreational river-runners.

Kumsheen Raft Resort


The Complete Whitewater Rafter by Jeff Bennett
River Rescue by Les Bechel and Slim Ray