Brian Jennings, a 28-year-old professional kayaker and river guide, was raised in the whitewater mecca of Fayetteville, West Virginia. "I learned how to read whitewater while learning to read a book," he said.
Indeed, Jennings grew up in a raft, assisting as a guide from age 12 on, and paddling the explosive New River and Gauley River, two of the country's most renowned whitewater runs. He switched from raft to kayak at age 21, employing his whitewater sense to paddle him to pro-level competitions beginning in 2003.
Jennings now travels, boat in tow, to paddle the endless drops, eddies and rapids of rivers around the country. "I try and share my passion for paddle sports with as many people as possible," he said.
But altruism aside, Jennings is among that rarest of citizenry: People who get paid to play. He makes a living sampling rivers around the world, living an endless summer vacation, and honing an expertise on all things fast and flowing.
It's these folks—the whitewater guides, pro boaters, and product designers—who we've polled to establish a list, the Best Whitewater Rivers in United States.
Phil DeRiemer, an American Canoe Association whitewater kayak instructor with more than 20 years of experience, was another member of our panel. He picked two archetypal North American waterways—the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho, and Arizona's Grand Canyon section of the Colorado River—as his top choices for this poll.
"The Grand Canyon is the granddaddy of multi-day river trips in the lower 48," he said. "And while the rapids can be thrilling, they pale in comparison to the setting in which you find yourself while floating down the canyon."
For the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, which drops precipitously from the mountains in Idaho's Frank Church Wilderness Area, DeRiemer loves the journey from an alpine setting to the high desert. "From the put-in at Boundary Creek to the take-out near the confluence with the Main Salmon, one can experience the growth of a river from a mountain stream to a powerful force," said DeRiemer, who is the 49-year-old co-owner of DeRiemer Adventure Kayaking in Lotus, California.
Other expert boaters, like former raft guide Ian Anderson of Glenwood Springs, Colorado, chose more obscure waters, including the Upper Youghiogheny River in Maryland. Anderson's favorite section, a cascading leg on the Upper Youghiogheny near the town of Friendsville, has a gradient of more than 100 feet per mile, creating a five-mile stretch of nearly continuous advanced and expert class IV and V whitewater.
"The low volume and technical nature of the run necessitates smaller, more maneuverable rafts," Anderson said. "National Falls, an eight-foot drop with a gnarly hole at the bottom, is one of the highlights of this trip."
Among other polled paddlers, the rivers ranged from the woodsy, 150-mile Kennebec in Maine, to the Mokelumne River in northern California, which flows from the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range as a boulder-strewn creek suited for advanced and expert paddlers only.
Andrew Griffith, a former raft guide from San Francisco who now works as an editor at an outdoors magazine, picked the South Fork of the American River east of Sacramento, where his favorite stretch features big rapids with names like Meatgrinder, Troublemaker, Satan's Cesspool and Hospital Bar. "These are the trips that I recommend for my family and friends," he said.