How R2ing Can Spice up Ordinary Whitewater
By Chris Lawrence
As we eagerly paddled our raft into the swift current of the dark, ominous canyon, we were unsure of what we’d find ahead. No question, the rapids would be huge and the currents intense, but this outing had an interesting twist: we would run the swirling stretch of whitewater with only two paddlers in a 14-foot raft—an adventurous style of rafting known as R2ing.
R2 refers to a paddle raft being paddled by just two people. The rafters sit shoulder to shoulder in the middle of the raft, each paddling a side. Although lesser known in the whitewater world, R2ing has been around nearly as long as the sport of rafting itself. In the ‘90s, several swashbuckling rafters or Catarafters were trying it. The exact origins of R2 are difficult to trace, but it probably started when some river guides grew bored of traditional rafting, or perhaps, fell into a similar predicament as my friend Adam and I did.
As river guides on the Arkansas River in June of 2009, we were looking for a fun challenge on our day off. Our plan was to run the Royal Gorge with some friends, but they quickly made excuses, leaving only two of us for a full-sized raft. When I suggested R2ing, Adam and I were stoked.
I had tried R2ing a few times previously, but never on such a tough stretch of whitewater. That day the Royal Gorge raged at nearly 3,500 cubic feet per second—so high that no commercial trips ran it. At such flows, the class III-V stretch could have waves at least 15 feet high.
Eerily, as we launched from Parkdale put-in at about 3:00 p.m., we were the only raft on the river.
Advantages of R2ing
As Adam and I fought to keep our paddle strokes in time with each other as we entered Primero Rapid, I was amazed at how light and maneuverable we were. “When I first tried R2ing, I never imagined two paddlers could control a full-sized raft,” said pro rafter, Dan McCain, “But once you get your paddling in sync, you can turn on a dime.” McCain, who has racked up numerous hairy descents via R2 including 70-plus-foot Mosier Creek Falls in Oregon, swears by R2ing. It’s now his chosen way to raft rivers, “I think R2ing is the way to go, especially when you are running a difficult river.”
Some raft manufacturers actually make rafts designed with R2ing in mind, like the Aire Puma (11’6) or the Hyside Mini Me (9’0) and Mini Max (10’6). The boats can paddle difficult water, but usually just spice up an ordinary run—the smaller the boat, the bigger the thrill.
That day on the Gorge, Adam and I were using a standard 14-foot raft, and it was easier to avoid flipping because there were less people to move around during a high side (moving weight to one side of the boat when hitting a wave or rock). Adam and I experienced this as we paddled through Sunshine Falls, a huge class IV rapid that funnels into two large standing waves at the bottom. We punched through the monstrous, curling wave and leaned right, helping keep our craft topside up.
Disadvantages of R2ing
But there are downsides to R2ing, too.
1. You have to rely heavily on your co-paddler. “If you are not on the same page, that boat is going to go in the worst place imaginable,” says Sheena Coles, marketing manager with Aire rafts.
2. Poor teamwork can ruin the experience. R2ing a tough stretch of whitewater with your buddy might cement the friendship, or destroy it.
3. R2ing is vulnerable. If one paddler falls out, the raft becomes very difficult to pilot with the remaining paddler. While this might be fun on an easy class II-III stretch on a hot summer day, falling out on a gnarly run can be a much scarier proposition. That day on the Gorge, there were very few eddies on the sides, meaning it would be nearly impossible to stop the raft from being carried downriver. Adam and I were playing rafting roulette. Hit our line or get ready for the worst. And soon we were about to enter a mile-long stretch of rapids, including Sledgehammer, a class V. We stopped and scouted, wisely. Sledgehammer hole frothed as big as a Ford pickup.
Paddling tensely out of the eddy, we were quickly swept into the main current. After seesawing over several curling waves, we furiously dug our paddles in, nicking the edge of Sledgehammer hole, but keeping the boat in the main current through the mile-long stretch. Somehow we made it through, unscathed.
The worst was behind us, though the rest of the rapids wouldn’t be void of tension. In the end, we made it through the Gorge safely.
We had to tip our hats to this R2 rafting thing—we hit nearly every line flawlessly. Heck, maybe my friends should bail more often.
Now it’s your turn.
R2ing isn’t just for thrill seekers; it can also be a lot of fun on almost any intermediate stretch of whitewater. Here are a few local spots to give it a try. Or even R2 overnight in Westwater Canyon.
The Weber River: 5.2–mile section from Lower Henefer, Exit to Taggart. Difficulty: Class 1 to 3-
Provo River: 6–mile section from Deer Creek Reservoir to Upper Diversion Dam. Difficulty: Class 1 to 2-
The Snake River in Wyoming: 8-mile section. Difficulty: Class 2 to 3-
Tips and Cautions
• At least one person in your raft should have whitewater rescue training.
• Bring an extra paddle in case you drop one, and a throwbag to reach wayward swimmers.
• If using a smaller raft, find a co-paddler who’s a similar weight.
• R2ing can be strenuous, especially paddling against a headwind. Be sure you’re physically prepared for your whitewater stretch.
• Before floating a river, do your homework. Especially in Utah, some stretches can have dangerous manmade dams, logs, fences, and other obstacles. Check out River Runners’ Guide to Utah and Adjacent Areas by Gary C. Nichols for more info on safe stretches.
A river rat by nature, Chris has been rafting and kayaking rivers for more than 13 years—he loves highwater, despises flatwater. He’s guided commercially in Montana, Colorado, and West Virginia. Besides rivers, Chris also enjoys rock climbing and backcountry skiing.