As Canadians, we are so familiar with the act of canoeing that I sometimes think we forget the basics. This got me thinking that I have seen dozens of books on canoeing techniques and routes, but scant few on the fundamentals.
I don’t want to say that I am an expert on canoeing, but I will say that I have spent at least three weeks a year in a canoe for the last 45 years – much of it on the water, too. With that in mind, here is some sage advice for anyone about to take up the pastime.
Fundamentally, to be a good canoeist you need a situational awareness of conditions around you that surpasses that of a kid playing Call of Duty. Being aware of environmental conditions is key to canoeing safely.
Here’s an example of situational awareness that could come in handy. Imagine you are canoeing on a hot sunny day, and quite suddenly the precipitation gets so heavy that you get soaked and can hardly breathe or hear the person yelling to you at the bow of the canoe. Additionally, fish seem to be jumping out of the water. Many people might think this is a brief sun shower that will soon pass and, due to inexperience, they will just try to ride it out. The experienced canoeist with situational awareness will quickly realize, however, that they flipped the canoe – and this realization can make a world of difference.
For one thing, it will mean that your lunch is soaked, which is never a good thing on any canoe trip.
Another thing that new canoeists have a hard time with is paddling with a partner. Sometimes this can be quite a battle, especially if you are both new at it. One of the more common issues facing rookie paddlers is that they are not making much, if any, progress. Some blame poor paddling muscles or sloppy technique but most often the issue with attaining better speeds can be settled easily, by having both paddlers face the same direction. This is also a great tip to remember if you have been trying to navigate the same 50-metre portage for any more than three hours.
Speaking of technique, almost all canoeing books will tell you to do the J-stroke. But none will tell you that you do should not do that stroke using cursive writing. You’re welcome.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly for the new canoeist, is this: When paddling with an old timer, he will probably place you in the bow of the canoe. This is for your own good. For with that person in the stern and you up front, he or she will be able to critique your paddle stroke, point out safe routes and steer appropriately with the wind and the waves in mind.
This critiquing will be annoying at first, as it is often a constant stream of criticism, but eventually as you get better, you will hear less and less from your mentor at the stern. I remember this happened on my second time canoeing.
Right from launch at the dock to mid-lake my mentor remained silent and I took great pride knowing that I had finally learned everything there was to know about paddling a canoe. Finally after doing a lengthy loop around the lake, I eased the nose of the craft silently along the dock and he took that moment to utter only one small bit of advice.
“Next time,” he said, “wait ’til I get in the canoe.”