by Steve Salins
first appeared in July 2006 Canoe and Kayak

For a fully loaded open canoe, 45 miles of Class II+ water on a river like the North Fork of the John Day in Oregon presents some challenges to staying dry and safe. Although river characteristics vary somewhat depending on where you are paddling, these tactics for safely navigating long rapids with large waves in a loaded open canoe will always be useful.

A loaded canoe handles differently from an empty recreational whitewater boat. Even competent whitewater paddlers find that a loaded canoe initially feels "sluggish." Acceleration is slow. Realigning the course and steering effects happen more slowly. Unless you have a raging eddy line, there is no "snap" to an eddy turn. Canoes spin more slowly because more of the hull is buried in the water. However, it's not all bad: added weight dampens the effect of waves and current changes. At times the ride feels like that of a luxury automobile with soft springs.


A powerful straight-ahead forward stroke. I've already noted that your loaded canoe may not accelerate quickly, but when it's time to point the canoe and power forward to reach an eddy, or move to the other side of the river, you have to have the technique to make it happen.

A dependable eddy turn. There's a reason why you should practice eddy turns. It builds confidence that you can turn and stop your canoe in various river environments. On a trip, you must adjust for the added momentum of a loaded canoe, and the fact that it will not spin so quickly. That may mean a slower approach to an eddy line and a sculling brace to give the canoe time to turn.

Teamwork. When you're paddling with a partner, you must understand and agree on how you are going to handle your canoe. If you are matched with an unfamiliar partner, talk through how you plan to handle ferries and eddy turns, your approach to reading water, and picking a route through rapids. Sort out your expectations as to who is responsible for what moves .

A solid, dependable low brace. 'Nuff said.


All river paddlers should know to never commit to a rapid without being aware of what's ahead. On any unfamiliar river, you must either get out to look or paddle to a secure eddy where you can see what's ahead from your boat. In a tripping environment, scouting demands more than evaluating a clear open route; you must also evaluate how to get through without swamping your open canoe.

Go where the risks aren't. A paddler in a decked boat may seek out the biggest waves for the ride. A canoeist on a playing trip may try to play the whole rapid. But a boater in a loaded open canoe chooses a route that minimizes waves, seeks the quieter water along the edge, and stays clear of pinning obstacles.
Slow down. Novices "shoot" the rapids, pulling for all they're worth and driving the canoe down the river. They also take on lots of water. Slow down. Let the bow of your loaded canoe rise gently on big waves and gently settle into the trough that follows. Become comfortable letting your canoe drift sideways through a wave set—leaning in whichever direction is necessary to keep a dry boat. Keep your paddle sculling in the water for boat control as well as to provide stability. Watch for rocks. If sideways, you can pull forward or push back to slide the boat past river obstacles.

"Cross cut" the current in long, twisty rapids. Like many rivers, the North Fork presents long rapids in which the current bangs against one side of the river, then swings across to bang against the other side. Entering a corner on the inside, stay along the shore until the current begins to cut across the river, and then cut across the current (remember, sideways to waves can be okay). You maintain control and keep a dry boat. The inside of turns will also be shallower and more likely offer rocks to avoid, so hugging the shoreline presents its own dangers. But cutting back and forth to avoid the most powerful current, waves, and head walls is not only fun, it keeps you secure.

Plan ahead. If a loaded boat responds more slowly, how do you compensate? Scan the river far ahead, make your plan, and begin your moves long before you think you will need them. The current doesn't move any slower; it's just your canoe that does. Watch ahead, and execute your plan to give you plenty of time to reach the point you are aiming for.

Prerequisites, power, and planning: your set of valuable tools for river tripping. Good paddling!