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A Champion's Favorite Rivers

Where to go for the best whitewater kayaking in the country

Whitewater kayaking is not a sport for the timid. One of the first things any good kayaker learns, in fact, is "the roll," in which one spins the kayak upside down, placing oneself briefly but entirely under water. As a member of the U.S. Whitewater Team and the 1987 winner of the World Whitewater Championships in France, Bruce Lessels has had plenty of experience rolling his kayak. Here, Lessels, who also is the author of the Whitewater Handbook (AMC Books, 1994) and the president of the Zoar Outdoor Kayaking School in Charlemont, Mass., lists seven of his favorite places to kayak in the United States.

Tuolumne River
Stanislaus National Forest, California
Located near Yosemite National Park in a pristine land reserve, the Tuolumne has 6 miles of expert-only class IV and class V rapids at top. Below are 18 miles of slightly less demanding class IV rapids.
Permits: Granted to only 80 people per day to prevent overcrowding. For permit and river condition information, call the Groveland Ranger District in Stanislaus National Forest, 209-962-7825.

Rogue River
Southwestern Oregon
Expert kayakers love this river for its class IV and class V rapids. But warm water and a 40-mile run of class II to class V rapids also make it fun for novices.
Schools: Sundance Expeditions Kayak School and Rafting Company, based in Merlin, Ore., offers a nine-day introductory course. 503-479-8508.
Permits: A limited number are given out through a lottery system with a January 31 deadline for the Memorial Day through Labor Day season, 503-479-3735.

Middle Fork of the Salmon River<br> Central Idaho
A paddler's favorite, the Middle Fork is 98 miles of remote, wild river appropriate for beginning, intermediate, and advanced kayakers. The water is warm, many of the beaches are sandy, and along the way are excellent hiking, great trout fishing, and beautiful hot springs.
Permits: For private permit information or a list of area outfitters, call the U.S. Forest Service, Middle Fork Ranger District, 208-879-5204.

The Clark's Fork of the Yellowstone River
Southwestern Montana
The whitewater and scenery are awesome, but non-expert paddlers should steer clear; the river's 37 miles of class IV and V rapids have proven deadly for even the most advanced kayakers. Wildlife is plentiful.
Permits: Because there is not a problem of overuse, no permits are required. For more information, call the Jackson Hole Kayak School, 800-733-2471.

Rio Grande
Big Bend National Park, Texas
Unlike most other American rivers, the Rio Grande is runnable all year. Hot springs warm the water to a perennially comfortable 70 degrees, making the river inviting to even the wimpiest of beginners. Rapids range from class II to class III, but the temperature and scenery make the river popular even with advanced kayakers.
Permits: Required for all paddlers and can be obtained on-site at Big Bend National Park. For more information, call the Park Service at Big Bend, 915-477-2393.

Chattooga River
South Carolina and Georgia
Deliverance was filmed here. The Chattooga's rapids are some of the most challenging on the East Coast, and the scenery some of the most beautiful. Few have successfully navigated the treacherous class IV section, and many have sustained critical injuries in the attempt.
Schools: Beginners come here for the Nantahala Outdoor School in Bryson City, N.C. For details, call 704-488-2175.
Permits: Kayakers running the river on their own can obtain the required permits at the put-in at the U.S. Route 76 Bridge near Clayton, Ga.

Sheenjek River
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska
Although the rapids on this river usually do not exceed class II, the temperature and volume of the water combined with the remoteness of the site make this almost a class III challenge. The area is accessible only by seaplane.
Permits: For information, call the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, 907-456-0250.

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Updated on April 10, 1996