Tomorrow I teach my monthly “How to Canoe a Canoe” class, a basic course about canoe paddling. Actually, I seldom say it that way. I prefer to talk about how to “control” a canoe, because I think it is most important to make a canoe do whatever you want–turn around, move sideways, back up, stop, go forward in a straight line, keep from turning over.

At first, students are fixated on “strokes.” How do you do this; how do you do that? So we talk about strokes and we work on strokes: J-stroke (isn’t that the first thing your office buddies ask about when you tell them you paddle a canoe?), draw stroke, sweep strokes, and the whole lot. Actually, I firmly believe that if you are ever to be a good paddler, you have to have good fundamental stroke technique. But when all that basic stuff is finished, there is one more lesson to be learned: seldom does a good paddler do a “pure” stroke! Watch a really smooth canoeist at work, especially in whitewater. The blade is in the water, and it seems to be controlling the canoe in some subtle way that is not readily apparent to an onlooker.

What is going on? That paddler is blending various strokes to make that canoe move in whatever direction he desires. When you boil all the strokes down to a basic action, it becomes apparent that you really can do only two things with a canoe paddle. You can put it in the water and pull on it, or you can put it in the water and push on it. So if we get rid of all the various named “strokes” and simply pull and push the boat in the direction we want, canoeing becomes pretty simple. Now, before all the certified ACA instructors (and authors of “how to canoe” periodicals) string me up, we must understand that a solid mastery of fundamental strokes is the foundation that allows us to understand and feel what we have to do to control our canoes in some sort of blended way.

If you understand and have good technique with your forward stroke, draw, pry, backstroke, and sweeps, now it’s time to learn to slice and blend. Perhaps you have a bit of wind blowing the bow of your solo boat away from your paddling side. How about doing a bit of a draw-to-the-bow and, leaving the paddle in the water, turning it into your forward stroke? Maybe you’re halfway through a forward stroke and need to move your boat away from your paddling side. Change that forward into a pry. It’s okay; you have permission to not work in full-stroke chunks, but to change your paddle action as you go to keep your canoe under instant control.

An effective way to become comfortable with blending your strokes is to use an underwater recovery when paddling forward. Twist your blade so it slices through the water on recovery, and twist it again to gain your power stroke. Pull yourself sideways with your draw, then twist your blade to slice it back out for another draw stroke. Perhaps you are paddling in the bow with a bent-shaft paddle and your partner asks for turning help with a bow rudder. When it’s time to paddle again, leave the blade in the water and slice that ruddering stroke forward and blend it into your next forward stroke.

If you want a practice exercise, go to your local mud puddle (it doesn’t have to be a large body of water) and find a post, or drop a buoy in the water. Point your canoe at the post, with the bow about a foot away. Pretending your canoe is a hand on a clock, move your boat around the center post, keeping the bow within a foot of the post while the stern swings through the 360-degree arc of the clock. You can do this solo or tandem. When you have it mastered, do it again without taking your paddle(s) out of the water. If you don’t get divorced (either from your partner or from yourself!), you’ll gain a real sense of canoe control–and you’ll probably no longer think of paddling in terms of pure strokes.

Before long, you’ll discover a couple of truths. Your paddle is most effective when it’s in the water; and if you keep it in the water most of the time, you can make your canoe do all sorts of subtle things as you slice and blend with a growing sensitivity to your blade angle. By the way, don’t talk to your kayak friends about this stuff-they don’t understand because they alternate paddling sides with each stroke, so they never quite get to develop that elegant style that a single-blade paddler can enjoy. Good paddling!

Steve Salins is a contributing editor who frequently shares his knowledge of all things canoe.