Bay Area Sloughers Message Board › General info: Paddling tidal rivers and sloughs
(Disclaimer: This info is not intended as professional instruction. The info below has NOT been verified to be correct. You are responsible for your own paddling knowledge, skills, and safety).
Many of California's coastal rivers are affected by the tides, as well are the bay and delta sloughs. This means that consulting tide tables is a prerequisite for planning a paddle in these waters. Ignoring the tides can lead to unpleasant outcomes, ranging from paddling against strong currents, to getting stranded in the mud for hours.
Fortunately, the tides are 100% predictable. There are many websites that will give tide information by location and date. For example, search google for "Alviso slough tide table", and you will find several websites that will give daily, weekly, and monthly charts for tides. Make sure the tide table you are using is for the location that you plan to paddle.
The tide times vary daily, so you will likely need to plan in advance, and search for a day that has a tide that works for you.
So what tide are you looking for? Well, it depends. You are probably looking for some of the following things, depending on your destination:
1. Enough water. Many places are very shallow or mud at low tide.
2. Little or no current. See the description of "slack" tide below.
3. Current in your desired direction. For a one-way trip, you may wish to flow with the tide. For an out-and back trip, you may want to try to time the tide so you are with the current in both directions.
Usually you are looking for a high-tide for your paddling trip. Some locations will also accommodate a low tide. For instance, Alviso Slough is deep enough to (usually??) have water at low tide. The window of about 1.5 hours before and after a tide (high or low) is known as the "slack" tide. This time period has very little current. For reasonably short (~3 hours) out-and-back trip, this is a good time to plan your trip.
So which way is the current? When the tide is rising, the current is flowing into the slough or river from the ocean or bay. When the tide is falling, the current is flowing out of the river or slough to the bay or ocean. Usually this is pretty easy to determine with a map. In a more complex area, such as an estuary that connects to a bay in multiple places, or network of interconnected sloughs, the direction of the current may be hard to predict!
Another thing to consider, particularly in the coastal or bay areas, are the winds. Many areas are consistently windy in the afternoon. For this reason, the morning hours tend to be a better time to plan a trip. Even so, consult the winds in your weather forecast, and use good judgement. A stiff head or cross wind can be much more difficult to deal with than paddling against a current. A cross wind in particular can make steering a canoe or kayak quite difficult, and strong gusts can blow a canoe right over.
Also, be careful around river mouths. Currents can be strong, and being swept out to bigger water is highly possible. These are good areas to say away from as a novice.
Another thing to be aware of is flood stage. Many water bodies become completely different animals during the rainy season. Be sure to know how your river may vary, depending on the weather, and time of year.
This all might seem quite menacing, but it really boils down to researching your destination, consulting the tides, checking the weather, and avoiding areas that are beyond your experience and skill level. Good preparation will help ensure the smooth relaxing paddle that you were hoping for.
Edited by Angela on May 18, 2012 6:46 PM
Great writeup, Steve!