As the saying goes, ‘Anyone can kayak, but it takes a smart kayaker to figure out the shuttle.’
Downriver boating is a point to point activity. You start upstream and end downstream, but somehow you have to get back to your vehicle at the top. This usually involves two cars, a bike, a motorcycle or hitch-hiking. For runs that have more than an hour or so drive between start to finish it’s time to consider a shuttle driver.
Ideally you have someone who loves you, loves to drive but doesn’t want to boat, so they can drop you off at put in and pick you up at take out. We affectionately call these people “Shuttle Bunnies” and we LOVE them! Injured buddies or someone who forgot their spray skirt or pfd and can’t get in anyway can quickly become your favorite bunny.
Alternatively, you pay someone to drive your car from the put in to the take out at the appropriate time, or as the case may be- pick you up in a motor boat to take you across a reservoir. Here are a few tips for the care and feeding of your bunny:
If it’s a multi-day trip you may not want your car sitting at the often vandalized parking lots over two or three days, so ask if the shuttle service has a safe place to store your car after they pick it up and then they will bring it down at the agreed upon date.
Agree on a payment and get some paperwork in place before your trip. Leaving a tip in the car (if they pick it up after you’ve gone), or handing it off when they meet you or passing it off at the safe return of your car is common place and much appreciated. We don’t recommended leaving beers on the front seat as a tip.
Always bring a spare set of keys with you so they can lock them in the car if they’re leaving it for you, or have a safe and secure place to hide them on the vehicle. Note* Be wary of other kayakers, in the event that their car breaks down, they might search for stashed keys and take yours. Ever heard of Horse-thief Haven?
One short story about how not to do a shuttle: After a fantastic eight day float down the Escalante River in Utah we arrived at our take out and could not find our car anywhere in the egg-fry-hot parking lot. Instead of blasting out of Dodge to get showers and a nice meal we sat in the stagnant heat of Bullfrog Marina for an hour just trying to get a hold of our shuttle company, then three more hours waiting for them to come get us, then a three hour drive in the opposite direction after they picked us up, and another hour of waiting while someone retrieved our car from the wrong take out.
This taught us the lesson to tape a big piece of paper to the dashboard that says where the car should be delivered, on what date and time, and thanking them very much for treating our vehicle so carefully. You may want to add to that note any nuances of driving your car, and to remember to set the parking break. (Yes, I’ve had one friend who found her car in the river at take out after it rolled off the parking lot and down the cliff.)
Most shuttle drivers will drive their own cars to meet you and have a friend drive their car back while they drive yours. There are a few exceptions to this, like Barefoot Brad, who is the most reliable shuttle driver I’ve ever met and will take you anywhere on the Smith or Illinois River and surrounding basins of Northern California/Southern Oregon. He will ride in your car with you and then pick you up or deliver your car when and where you want it. Brad goes above and beyond normal shuttle service. His Facebook page posts Smith River levels on a daily basis when flows are in and on the way to put in he drops weighted pieces of orange flagging when he sees trash so he can stop on the way out to pick it up!
Local rafting companies, gear shops or paddle clubs are the best places to call to find out who shuttles on the rivers you want to boat.