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Freestyle canoeing

Gary, I had posted something on freestyle canoeing a couple of years ago. At the time, someone had questioned its relevance to basic canoeing skills. While freestyle is an endeavor all its own, the skill required can help in other areas of canoeing. Being able to place your paddle so that the canoe moves sideways, having the balance to pivot the canoe around an end, all help.

Freestyle helps people understand what is possible in a canoe.  There are more levels of skill in canoeing than most sports or arts I can think of. 

Like Erich, I have led a lot of canoe trips in my life.  Americans all seem to think that they come out of the womb being able to paddle.  A lot of people are still at the change sides to control the boat stage.  It is why plastic kayaks are so popular.  Most people can learn to paddle in a couple of weeks if they open their ears.

I love the Verlen Krueger story when he was paddling across Canada with his son in law Clint Waddell.  They timed their trip so they could compete at the big canoe races in Flin Flan, Manitoba.  The boys were paddling big miles every day on rivers and felt pretty confident.  The problem was they were going up against people, some of them Natives that grew up with a paddle in their hands.  Krueger and Waddell got smoked in every race they entered.  It definitely taught then some humility.

My Best friend just acquired their first canoe...So looks like I will be paddling this summer on some excursions...I look forward to any advise about learning more...I am going to go to check into classes with a canoe center for instructions..I haven't paddled in many years besides a kayak

Hi denis, 

Start with a good book.  Canoeing is a traditional sport so you can find good books in the library for free.

Canoeing is a simple sport that takes years to perfect. 

You can learn the basics in a 100 hours.  You can be a competent paddler after 1,000 hours.  You can be skilled after 10,000 hours. 

Dress for immersion. Never get in a canoe without a lifejacket.  Practice rescue techniques. 

Thanks ppine  I will hit the library up this week....Check out what they have

I firmly believe that the little plastic kayaks are popular because they are cheap and require little skill to paddle.  Canoeing takes a little practice. 

Kayaks are often cheap and a lot of fun, but guiding a canoe with a traditional paddle provides much greater satisfaction to me. I'm competent but may not reach skilled by ppine's standards. Paddling with others they think you are a master when you don't have to switch sides. I still do but only for variety and to ease the work on my rotator cuff. Folks also look at you funny when you have the canoe at an angle even though zipping by them paddling on one knee...even had someone say Lookout you're about to tip over! 

Newbies often think that kayaks are safer because a closed boat (sea or ww) can be rolled and being decked can't be swamped. Canoes are seen as "tippy" and some of that comes from William Harrison's presidential campaign of 1840..."Tippecanoe and Tyler too". Of course the later refers to the Battle of Tippcanoe . In the canoeing world, we sometimes say, "Half the paddle, twice the paddler". Often, as ppine says there is the perception that kayaks are easier to paddle. Some of this is because with a blade on both sides, making the canoe go straight, is easier and more intuitive. When learning to paddle a canoe, pay particular attention to a proper J stroke, and what is sometimes referred to as a "goon stroke". With the former, the grip hand finishes with the thumb pointing downward. The latter finishes with the thumb pointing upward. The goon stroke can be useful, especially in ww when a strong correction is sometimes needed. But rather than a nicely flowing stroke, such as the J, the goon is in reality, a forward stroke followed by a pry. For long trips, I use either a J, or a Canadian stroke. Other stern strokes are the pitch or the Indian stroke. The latter is sometimes called the quiet stroke. 

I would add to ppine's comments on safety. No matter how hot the air temperature is, always dress for the water temperature. Here in the west, we often paddle on rivers fed by snow melt. Even on the hottest summer days, we dress for the water temperature. Carry an extra paddle, always have a well fitted PFD. Make sure your boat has short painters, bow and stern, and that they are made from material which will float, to avoid possible entrapment. Every PFD should have a whistle attached, and that whistle must be a waterproof type(no whistles with a "pea"). The whistle should be attached by a short length of cotton string so that if the whistle gets caught on something, the string will break. And don't make the mistake of attaching the whistle to the zipper pull. If you fall in on a river, swim on your back with your head upstream. Do not attempt to stand until you are in quiet water no more than knee deep. The risk of entrapment(getting your foot caught between rocks) is a very real danger. Avoid sweepers(fallen trees or logs). I would also encourage personal training over books. Books are helpful, but I have taught canoeing for two decades and I am often frustrated by people who have read books and developed some very bad habits. It is much easier to teach someone if they come to me completely green, rather than having already "learned" some wrong techniques.

I keep a knife on my life jacket as well as a waterproof match safe.

Practice rescues as much as possible.  If your friends don't want to practice, find some different people to paddle with.  I always wanted to find a canoe club but they are scare in these parts.  Canoeing is a team sport.

The numbers I threw out there can probably be condensed somewhat.  I often lead trips with people that have limited moving water experience.  Often the least experienced person is in my boat.  I have turned a 16 year old high school girl and a 20 yo baseball players into pretty good bow paddlers in a week.  Young people are often good at taking direction and pick things up quickly.  Some of my older friends are much tougher to reach.

Most people start with a J stroke.  Paddling for a week especially if the days are long creates some muscle memory and sometimes a meditative state.  That is when the Canadian and pitch strokes start to come alive.

It is impressive how rivers and some big lakes can provide access to remote places where other people don't go.  There is some great camping and fishing to be had.  The birds and aquatic mammals are always around.  On some trips it can be like an American wildlife safari.

I am slower now on the trails, but in a boat I am as good as I ever was.


I'll add a couple more things. The standard is to never canoe alone. On expeditions and rivers, three canoes(solo or tandem) is the minimum. On rivers, make sure your canoe has proper floatation. That doesn't mean rely on the end floatation in composite and aluminum boats. A canoe with no floatation and filled with water weighs about 2000 lbs. As far as learning to paddle, a J stroke can be learned fairly easily. A Canadian stroke or pitch stroke is nearly impossible to learn correctly without proper instruction. Learning these incorrectly can result in rotator cuff injuries which will be with you for years. Proper boat trim is important, especially on windy flat water and on rivers. I wrote a primer on canoeing for TS some years ago and it is still in the library. I encourage reading that before proceeding.

Erich thank you found your article on strokes....

You are welcome Denis. You might want to grab a copy of Slim Ray's Canoe Handbook. There are others as well, but Slim's book is a good starting point. As well the books and films by Bill Mason. Though a bit dated in a few ways(don't tie your gear in with long cordage to float free, but tie in tightly) he provides good insight into boat handling. As well, the little paddling book by Omer Stringer, a master of flat water.

August 11, 2020
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