Learn to Drive a Truck
It’s your first trip down a wild Canadian river. You expect big rapids, large lakes, and long portages. You judge yourself capable in intermediate-level (Class II-III) rapids. Beyond that, things get scary fast. Question: Which of these methods would better improve your skills?
A. Enroll in a whitewater canoe class. You’ll learn to run big drops and perform powerful peel-outs and eddy turns in dicey currents. If you can play in rough rapids in a sport canoe, you’ll whiz through Class II in a tripping canoe. B. Take a shake-down trip with someone who has canoed up north. Select a route that has risky rapids and large lakes. Pack enough stuff for a week. And plan to stay that long.
The correct answer is a resounding B! Accomplished paddle skills are second to good judgment–knowing your limits, and your boat’s. Indeed, whitewater play procedures can even be a detriment, as this case illustrates: In 1984, I guided a canoe trip down the remote Cree River in northwestern Saskatchewan for the Science Museum of Minnesota. The Cree’s current is very fast, its Class II-III rapids go on for miles, and boulder gardens discourage eddy turns. All paddlers were intermediate level except for two Texas sport boaters who regularly canoed Class III.
A few hours into the trip, we came upon a fast, shallow rapid. Hip-high boulders confused the channel, and there appeared to be no outlet. But wait! Just ahead, there was a clear but narrow slot near shore. I yelled, “Back ferry, right now! Back ferry!” Then, I modeled the procedure and slipped cleanly through the slot. Three boats followed suit–no problems. Then came the Texans, who tried to turn and ferry upstream, hoping they could eddy out in time. Big mistake! Their canoe caught a rock and the rest is history. Later, when they had dried out, they told me they didn’t know how to back ferry, that their instructors had said it was a “knee-jerk reaction of last resort.” “We were taught,” said one, “that a forward ferry is always the way to go.”
Wrong. Dead wrong! This scenario has repeated itself so many times on my canoe trips that I feel it’s time to speak out. Here’s the deal. Whitewater schools provide sport canoes and kayaks that pivot on a penny–and they rightfuly teach techniques that are appropriate for these boats. But a wilderness cruiser is a big bruiser that, when loaded, weighs three-tenths of a ton and may need 20 feet to turn!
See the problem? Whitewater schools rightly emphasize aggressive bow-upstream techniques; wilderness trippers rightly de-emphasize them. They (sport paddlers) ferry forward, we (wilderness trippers) go back. They play in rapids, we run or line the edges. When in doubt, we portage!
I plead with whitewater schools to rethink their instruction, at least for beginning-level canoeists. Not everyone who takes a whitewater class will don a dry suit and brave bad rapids. Indeed, it’s probably fair to say that most students who choose to paddle a canoe don’t own a hot sport boat and probably never will. What they really want to learn is how to better paddle their family canoe or wilderness tripping canoe in rapids.
A sport canoe or kayak is like a hot Porsche; a wilderness tripping boat is like a lumbering 18-wheeler. Whom would you choose to drive a loaded semi down a winding mountain road–a Le Mans race-car pro or a long-haul trucker? Learn to drive a truck before you head up north!