Canoe a Gentle River


This time of year nearly 30 years ago, an excited novice canoe paddler discovered the pleasure of floating a river.


I remember the river and the trip. A sunny, warm day enhanced the magnificent mountain and meadow scenery. Each river bend added ner-vous energy, and loud riffling noise generated by shallow water raised images of waterfalls ahead. It was an exhilarating, thrilling experience. These days, paddling gentle rivers brings pleasure of a different sort; years of experience and understanding create a relaxed confidence that I didn’t have that first time.


For novice paddlers eager to learn all that canoesport has to offer, I suggest taking your canoe on gentle river trips. Here are some simple truths to help you develop the understanding and confidence to enjoy the pleasure of river paddling without fear.


Moving water must be respected. Years ago, on a slow section of river, a canoe team dumped an aluminum canoe in gently moving water two to three feet deep. There was no thrashing whitewater; in fact, it was pretty easy to walk across the current. The canoe turned sideways above a rock, and that gentle current wrapped the canoe around the rock. Moving water, even the mildest current, must be respected-it carries great strength.


We don’t paddle rocks; we paddle water. I still recall the first time I paddled a Class I+ rapid. There was one huge rock right in the middle. We looked downstream at it from above, and we looked up at it from below. We talked, and we worried. I thought we had a 50-50 chance of dying if we ran the rapid. But we ran it. We didn’t hit the rock-and we lived. I still float the same rapid and laugh every time I pass that rock. I’ve learned to paddle water, not rocks. Rocks become friends; they create eddies that are useful for stopping, playing, or turning. Focus on water, and don’t allow rocks to unduly divert your attention.


The best choice is to go where the water goes. When scouting a rapid, many paddlers worry about obstacles. If you simply launched an empty canoe, it would run the rapid just fine. Why? Because the canoe goes where the current takes it. I’ve learned to do the same thing. When looking at a river, I watch where most of the current goes; and that’s where I go. The lower the river, and the more obstacles uncovered, the more important it is to recognize the river’s main course. One of my mentors would throw a large stick in the water to watch where the current went. He then would “go with the flow.” (Hmm, sounds familiar.)

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