How to canoe: This story featured in the 2013 Beginner’s Guide issue.
By Alan Kesselheim
Canoeing is how this whole paddling business got started, and as they navigated their bark craft through the boreal forest, early paddlers faced the same challenge learning how to canoe that you did at summer camp: sharing the canoe with another paddler.
Though solo canoeing is always an option, nothing moves a canoe better than a well-matched tandem team. The trick is good communication and knowing your job. Here are a few tips to get you started.
The bow is for power. If you’re sitting in the front you provide forward momentum and correction strokes when the boat wanders. You set the stroke cadence with a steady rhythm and are the lookout, identifying obstacles and making course corrections. The draw is a bow paddler’s key correction stroke. Instead of using the paddle to push the canoe forward, you’re using it to pull—or draw—the bow toward the paddle, thereby changing the boat’s direction. It’s great for avoiding rocks.
The trick is to reach well out of the boat, plant the blade firmly, and then pull the paddle shaft toward the canoe. To practice the cross-bow draw, simply swing your torso to plant the paddle on the “off” side, without switching hand positions (one on the top of the handle, one halfway up the shaft), and draw the canoe in the opposite direction.
The stern is for control. If you’re sitting in the stern, or the rear, paddle in sync with your bow partner with your paddle on the opposite side of the canoe. Identify and steer the general course, sighting on a distant point or open downriver channel. You also complement the corrections made in the bow. Paddling a tandem canoe is like dancing. Talk to each other. Forgive each other. Again, the draw is a key correction stroke, but since the stern paddler can’t efficiently draw on the “off” side, you’ll want to use the pry instead. Trail the paddle behind your hip, turning the blade parallel to the hull (like a rudder). Lever the blade emphatically away from the canoe to change the boat’s direction. Finally, because the canoe seats are set asymmetrically, the stern paddler overpowers the bow and has to correct every few strokes with a brief rudder, or J-stroke. After roughly every third forward stroke, pivot the paddle into rudder position and give a short flick (not as dramatic as the pry).
Stay stable. In waves or whitewater, drop from a seated position directly to your knees if things feel dicey. This lowers your center of gravity and puts you in the most secure stance. Second, take a stroke, any stroke. Get that paddle in the water. It will act as an outrigger or brace.
Paddle smarter, not harder. “Ramming speed” is the default strategy of neophytes. More often than not, paddling harder only makes bad things happen faster and more dramatically. Instead, back-paddle gently through standing waves to keep from swamping, and to slow the action as you read your way through moving water.
When in doubt, stop and scout. The canoe world is full of scary and embarrassing stories about rapids not scouted. When you see something coming up that looks iffy—a funny break in the river horizon line, a downed tree, an unclear route—overcome the aversion to stopping. It’s always worth taking a look and staying safe.