Tuesday, September 15, 2015

DANCES WITH WATER – How to Paddle a Canoe

I feel sorry for those who want or need a motor to propel their boats. Sure, it’s fast and easy, but it’s so remote, so…well…soulless. Not to mention loud, smelly and rushed.

PHOTO: boattest.com

I don’t remember who taught me how to paddle a canoe—very likely it was my dad. During his late teens and early twenties, he’d spent months canoeing in the magical lakeland wilderness now comprising northeastern Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) and southwestern Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park.

I’m sure my counselor at YMCA Camp St. Croix must have helped. At age ten I was part of an ambitious canoe trip that was—and likely still is—the longest ever launched from the camp: 360 miles down the St. Croix and Mississippi to East Dubuque, Illinois.

       I want my five- and nine-year-old grand-
       children to know and love canoeing—
       Minnesota style—too.

After that, I canoed for many years in the BWCAW and Quetico myself, first at YMCA Camp Widjiwagan, and then on expeditions I and my friends organized and outfitted ourselves. I still paddle—in my precious little 13-foot wood-and-fiberglass Mansfield Osprey—as often as I can.

Now this is by no means competitive—nor even especially athletic—canoeing; it’s just basic mobility for traveling, exploring and getting to my favorite fishing and photography locales. At least for now I’ll leave the racing, the tricks, to others more fit and able than I.

I’ve written about canoeing here before—how quiet, beautiful and spiritual it is; how efficient it is; how I feel more comfortable paddling my little Osprey than I do walking on dry land. But recently I’ve been thinking about another aspect of this elegant, ancient mode of travel: how paddling a canoe actually works, and how to teach that.

My motivation? My nine-year-old granddaughter is getting immersed by her closer-by fraternal grandparents in all the fun New-Englandy conveyances they grew up with—sailing, skiing…even surfing, for God’s sake. While I celebrate those opportunities, I also want her and my five-year-old grandson to know and love canoeing—Minnesota style—too.

PHOTO: Rockbrook Camp

So how does one begin? I’m sure there are many wonderful, effective approaches, but here’s a teaching idea I’ve been thinking of for years—and have yet to actually use. I can’t wait to put it to the test with my grandchildren next time they come to Minnesota.

Think of the student sitting in the canoe’s stern seat with a paddle. (Typically, the bow paddler provides power while the one in the stern provides both power and steering.) Now imagine the very tip of that curve in the canoe’s bow attached to a dock (or simply held in place by someone), allowing just the stern to swing freely back and forth.

The essential trick in steering a canoe is to think of the stern paddler’s moving the stern back and forth, not the bow. Kind of like driving a car whose steering wheel turns the rear wheels, not the front ones. All the basic canoe steering strokes operate on that principle; when you move the stern to your left, the canoe turns to the right—and vice versa.

With this pivot point setup, I’d have the student practice moving the stern left and right—first simply experimenting on their own, and then using proper strokes. Then I'd untether them and let them practice integrating those strokes with forward motion, perhaps even following a simple slalom course.

    An expert can rotate a canoe on a dime and 
    even make it sidle to one side or the other 
    while moving neither forward nor back.

Given that background, the kid’s ready to learn the actual strokes. There are dozens of them—for basic leisure canoeing, cruising, racing, whitewater, freestyle exhibition and more. You can learn about them here: Wikipedia   /   Knights of Dionysis    /   YouTube

ILLUSTRATION: Knights of Dionysis

Many folks think a canoe has to be moving in order to steer it. While movement does facilitate the stern paddler’s basic steering strokes, an expert can rotate a canoe on a dime and even make it sidle to one side or the other while moving neither forward nor back. (The latter involves either the draw stroke, the push stroke or, more elegantly, sculling—what I like to call the figure-eight stroke.)

A word about rhythm or stroke rate. This is generally up to the bow paddler, as is when to switch sides. But even if the stern paddler is an expert, steering takes a bit of extra time out of each stroke. And since a proper balance of both power and weight depends on the two paddlers paddling continually, in unison, a good bowman will allow a second or two of rest between strokes for the stern man to execute the steering strokes.

This is also a very efficient way to paddle, taking advantage of a certain amount of coasting after each stroke and enabling experienced paddlers to cover great distances over the course of days or weeks with a minimum of fatigue.

Speaking of efficiency, one of many fine points few leisure paddlers seem to understand is feathering the paddle between strokes. This means, after each stroke, rotating the paddle so the blade is horizontal while swinging it forward for the next stroke. This minimizes the amount of air resistance, which, especially on long trips and/or windy days, is no small consideration.

Of course, there are other important chapters to any canoeing primer, like getting in and out and moving around the craft safely, loading, etiquette, bow paddling—including steering from the bow, flipping and portaging, maintenance, paddle selection, safety and others. While too involved to undertake in one post, perhaps I’ll dip my paddle into those waters in a future post or two…or when I write the book.


Gary Noren said...

Thanks for a great post, Jeff. It inspired a very long response from me - so long that I must have maxed out on words, because suddenly as I was typing away, I lost everything. Please know that your post motivated me to comment on Marty's and my current search for a new home by canoe... and also my first experience in an aluminum canoe (Alumacraft, I believe) in the BWCA at age 12 with 20 guys from Troop 3 in Shoreview. What a memory - 17 days and over 50 miles. Shooting rapids, lining canoes upstreams, gunwale jumping, jousting ... oh my! I even got my Canoeing merit badge on that trip! Let's talk canoes when we next get together.

Jeffrey Willius said...

Hey, Gary. I'm so sorry my site or platform vaporized all those thoughts!! At any rate, thanks for your kind, albeit fewer, words -- your first here, I think. I don't think I've heard about that age-12 BWCA experience. Would love to hear more next time we get together.
I LOVE your idea of home-hunting by canoe!!

Jeffrey Willius said...

And thanks to you, Enndery, for your comment! I hope you'll come back often...

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