It’s been a while since I’ve paddled with Gene, but he remains one of my favorite partners. Enthusiastic about canoes, always ready to learn more about paddling on rivers, he is also a fine storyteller and good friend over pancakes on the way to a river. He is a better paddler than he knows, but on a river he would be unnerved by the sight of a low-hanging tree, a sweeper in the water, or a log jam on the outside of a bend or at the bottom of a rapid. Man, he’d see that sweeper and immediately paddle himself over to the other side of the river so as to avoid the danger. While I can’t fault him for avoiding trouble, the truth is he usually sets himself up for more difficulty. Here’s why.
When a river runs around a bend, the current works itself to the outside of the bend. Trees and debris tend to be located at the outside of a bend because the river cuts away the bank, and that’s where they fall in the water. Sweepers and log jams are gnarly-looking, and if we get trapped in the mess, that sweeper-dragon can breathe fire with some major consequences. Gene didn’t like to get anywhere near that ol’ dragon-of-a-sweeper, so he’d paddle to the inside of a bend, hoping to sneak around and stay away from trouble.
Problem is, river current takes an object (like a canoe) from the inside of a bend and carries it directly to the outside (see the illustration). So poor Gene would start way on the other side of the river, the current would shove him toward the sweeper, and he’d find himself looking right down the throat of a fire-breathing dragon (sweeper), and get so nervous that he’d get himself in trouble. After a few such encounters, Gene got anxious around any sort of tree on a river, and would paddle even farther away when he saw a dragon in the distance.
What should he have done? Had he started on the side of the river where the dragon lived, and begun to paddle across the current away from the sweeper, he would have found that his forward movement and inertia would help him maintain better boat control so as to easily clear the sweeper (see illustration). For one thing, he would initially be headed in the same direction as the current, so it would help him get moving under control. Of course, the risk is that if he dumped, he could be carried into the dragon’s mouth, but he was being carried toward it anyway when he did things his way.
If you paddle an efficient stiff-tracking canoe down a river, practice how you are going to stay away from the logs, trees, sweepers, and trash on the outside of a bend or at the bottom of a jet. You already know that you can’t turn your boat on a dime. Start with gentle rivers, begin near the outside of a bend, set the direction of the boat away from the danger at the bottom, and work on accelerating your boat across the current-angled toward the safe side and out of trouble. If your angle is good, as the river carries you toward the dragon’s mouth, all you have to do is accelerate straight forward and you can tweak his nose while avoiding the fires of disaster. Now, you still have to keep your wits about you. This technique doesn’t work in every situation. But as you look for places to apply it, you should develop confidence in one more technique to keep you out of trouble.
And Gene, if you’re reading this, remember the basics: start on the same side as the dragon, look him in the eye, set your angle across the current, accelerate as needed to just tweak him on the nose, and slip past his ear when he turns his head. When you make it, pinch him on the butt for good measure. Here’s to good paddling, ol’ buddy!
Steve Salins is a contributing editor who frequently shares his knowledge of all things canoe.