Rolf Kraiker: Passionate Paddler


By Conor Mihell
Published: February 8, 2011

Canadian canoeist, filmmaker, photographer and author Rolf Kraiker’s latest project is a blast from the past. Kraiker is currently at work on an instructional video illustrating the art of traditional solo canoeing, the graceful, ballet-style of paddling that’s been practiced for generations on the crystalline lakes of Northern Ontario, the heartland of canoe tripping. He’s releasing a series of segments of his film online—latest video here—which draw on his experience as a canoe instructor, well-traveled wilderness tripper and professional photographer to reveal the nuances of solo paddling with a variety of creative camera angles. The crisp, engaging teasers certainly caught our attention—and to learn more about Kraiker’s take on the soul of canoeing we went to the man himself.

What’s your first memory of paddling a canoe solo?

Rolf Kraiker: When I was a youngster, I grew up in a neighborhood where a lot of my friends went canoeing, but I came from a European background and it wasn’t something my parents were interested in. When my friends described their canoeing adventures, I was always envious. A turning point for me was when a family friend gave us an old Klepper folding kayak. It wasn’t a canoe, but it was close. I spent countless hours kneeling on the canvas deck pretending it was a canoe I was paddling. Even though it wasn’t a real canoeing experience, I was hooked.

Why are you so passionate about canoeing? It didn’t take me long to understand that a canoe opened up a view of the natural world that extended well beyond any that I’d been privy to before. Beyond that, there’s an inherent aesthetic in canoes. I’ve built and restored many and there were many times when I’d finish an evening in my shop, turn off the lights and just admire the lines of the canoe I was working on by the flickering light from the woodstove.

Who were your mentors? Omer Stringer and Bill Mason are the paddlers who inspired me the most, but I had very little in the way of formal instruction for most of my formative years. Mostly, I struggled on my own figuring out what worked for me. My incentive was nature photography. In order to get close to animals, I had to learn very precise control of my canoe. It didn’t take me long to figure out that there was a lot more to controlling a canoe than simply sticking a paddle in the water. I spent a lot of time experimenting with different ways to make the canoe do what I wanted it to do.

There’s a long-standing debate over contemporary “sit-and-switch”paddling versus the Canadian style. What’s your take on this? I used to think everybody should learn more about proper control of a canoe, and that implies the more traditional approach. [But] there really isn’t a wrong way of paddling a canoe; [the] different techniques come with advantages and disadvantages. Sit-and-switch is easier to master, becoming proficient in Canadian-style paddling is a much greater investment in time, but it does have benefits beyond the scope of just becoming a better style paddler.

The fact that people still paddle Canadian-style must say something for its appeal. The Canadian style of paddling has its roots in the aboriginal techniques used in handling birchbark canoes. From my perspective, paddling a canoe in the Canadian style makes me feel at one with the boat. The canoe becomes an extension of my body and it’s a great feeling when that happens.

Why did you decide to work on a video? My goal is to break down the skills and illustrate them in a way that’s easy to understand. Having taught a lot of canoe courses, one of the biggest drawbacks to comprehension is that most of what needs to be done happens underwater, out of sight of the students. It dawned on me that it’d be really useful if I could show paddlers what’s going on both above water and underwater.

When can we expect to see a full-length production? I don’t want to commit to [a date], it’s already taken longer than anticipated but I hope to have it completed at the end of this summer.

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