After a recent class on how to control a canoe, someone asked, “What do you do to show off, to have a little fun?” Since I enjoy attention, it wasn't hard to think of a move I like to use. I learned it as the “jam-pry” from Steve Scarborough at a Northwest paddling clinic many years ago. It’s a move designed to both slow a canoe and move it to one side simultaneously. It’s practical when needed, and dynamic if you want to add a little glitter while paddling before an audience.

The intent of a jam-pry is to slide the canoe sideways (as though you were doing a pry stroke) and concurrently slow the forward speed of the boat (as though you were doing a backstroke). The sideways motion comes from an angled blade slicing through the water against the canoe–sort of like an angled rudder moving forward along the edge of the canoe. Although the blade face is not perpendicular to the backing motion (as in a backstroke), there is a backing element inherent in this stroke, which slows the canoe as well. If you know how to do a “reverse” sculling motion, then consider the jam-pry to be the forward-moving “half” of the reverse sculling motion.

Here’s how it works. Imagine yourself a solo paddler. Begin with your paddle behind you, as though you have just completed a forward stroke. Raising your upper hand, bring the paddle shaft against the canoe and vertical (though the blade remains in the water behind you). Your lower elbow will be quite bent, and the shoulder may be rotated back, so your body will be “wound up” toward your paddling side.

The plan is to slide the paddle forward along the gunwale of the canoe, scraping the canoe the entire time, with your upper hand out over the water to keep the paddle vertical as it slides toward the bow. This is not unlike a backstroke, except instead of levering the blade, you will be slicing the entire paddle forward.

The trick is to add the proper angle to the blade as the paddle slices forward. Angle the blade so it “pushes” the canoe toward your non-paddle side. I describe that blade angle as directing the “leading edge angled toward the canoe.” But if those words get lost in visualization, just slice the paddle through the water and “play” with the blade angle. If the paddle slices away from the canoe, you have the blade angle backward. To correct, rotate your upper hand away from your face to change the blade angle until you feel the blade scrape against the canoe as you push forward. Once you dial in the proper blade angle, you will find that the canoe slides sideways as you slice forward. Find and maintain the sweet angle. Too much angle stops forward momentum; insufficient angle doesn’t push the canoe sideways. To finish the stroke, continue slicing the jam-pry forward until the blade clears the water in front of you.

Note that in a solo boat, the first half of the jam-pry shoves the stern of the canoe to the side. Since the object is to slide the whole canoe to the side, it is critical that you follow through with the jam-pry to well in front of your paddling position. (That’s why I focus on maintaining the stroke until the blade completely clears the water toward the bow.) As you work this stroke, you will discover that you must rotate your upper hand throughout the full stroke to maintain an effective blade angle. Realize that in a tandem situation, the jam-pry works the same–except it moves only half of the canoe to the side. If both tandem paddlers do a jam-pry, the canoe will spin, just as if both were prying.

On a river, use the jam-pry to avoid an obstacle and buy some time to maneuver. If solo, use it to backferry across a current at the top of a rapid to place yourself in best position. In the stern, you can use it to adjust a ferry angle. And the best move? Come steamin’ in toward a dock preparing to land alongside. Under full power, aim the canoe 10 to 15 feet away from the dock. When you're ready to “land,” hammer a single jam-pry. Watch your canoe drift sideways and slow down so gently that you barely tap the dock. Don’t forget to smile at onlookers. As “Uncle” Harry Roberts once so eloquently wrote: “A touch of the bill of your cap and a short salute is the proper acknowledgment. To ignore applause shows no class.” Good paddling!

Contributing editor Steve Salins invites feedback on his column. E-mail him at