Kevin Paddling A Canoe

Paddling A Canoe: Solo Canoe Paddling Tips

There’s an art to paddling a canoe solo. But once you’ve mastered it, the wilderness is your oyster. Imagine how many remote fish-filled lakes are just waiting for you.

Check out this video of some of my solo canoe paddling tips:

The Goony and the J-Stroke

There are a number of innovations when it comes to paddling a canoe in a straight line. You can power forward and then change side every time the boat begins to veer slightly. But unless you have a bent-shaft paddle, this technique is considered the most degrading technique in the paddling community and will get you laughed off the water in no time. Then there’s the process of twisting the paddle blade toward the canoe after completing each forward stroke. In this case, the paddle acts somewhat like a ship’s rudder. But this has been labelled the “goony stroke”, and for good reason; every time you twist inward, you put on the brakes. Next is the J-stroke, which is the ultimate steering stroke. You twist the paddle outwards (opposite of the goony) to form the letter J, which forces the canoe back on course while maintaining forward momentum.

Paddling A Canoe In Rain

The Canadian Stroke

The definitive steering stroke for canoe trippers, however, is the Canadian Stroke. It was actually the Americans who came up with the name (originally, it was called the Knifing J Stroke). Canadians just didn’t bother changing it back because—according to the experts—a well-executed Canadian Stroke is the pinnacle of perfection in motion, a skill that only comes after extensive canoe tripping.

It starts the same as the J-stroke, but rather than pull the blade abruptly out of the water after the J is complete, the paddle is “knifed” forward under the water’s surface until about halfway through the recovery. This saves both time and energy since you have to place the paddle forward for the next stroke anyway.

The power face of the paddle faces the sky and the main trick is to get the proper angle while the blade is being pulled forward through the water. Too much and the paddle will burst out of the water; too little and it will dive deep below the surface like a submarine. The pressure given to the paddle while being pulled up through the water, and the length of the time it’s kept below the surface, is what determines how much the canoe veers back the other way. In simpler terms, the Canadian Stroke is just an extended J-stroke. And, in fact, the original name, the Knifing J, is a better label for it.

To master the stroke, it takes a lesson or two. Or about a week of canoe tripping (in Canada, of course) will suffice.

6 Replies to “Paddling A Canoe: Solo Canoe Paddling Tips”

  1. Paddling through the internet while using Kevin Callan’s inspirational post as a blueprint, I have managed to “put my oar in” in a manner of speaking.

    To begin let me start off with a most eloquent thought :

    “The movement of a canoe is like a reed in the wind…there is magic in the feel of a paddle and the movement of a canoe, a magic compounded of distance, adventure, solitude, and peace. The way of a canoe is the way of the wilderness, and of a freedom almost forgotten. It is an antidote to insecurity, the open door to waterways of ages past and a way of life with profound and abiding satisfactions. When a man is part of his canoe, he is part of all that canoes have ever known.” – Sigurd Olson, “The Singing Wilderness” (1956)

    No one is sure who paddled the first canoe. Many think it was some sort of hominid who looked at a cold river, saw a floating log and a stick and thought “why not?” The next man hollowed out the log, and the next one thought a skin over a frame might be lighter, and so on and so forth until we have the 31 pound carbon-fiber canoe, a translucent Brancusi sculpture. If the Native people had access to Kevlar and resins, they would have done cartwheels.

    There is much manliness in the history and culture of canoeing. It especially speaks to a man’s need to venture out and explore undiscovered areas. Without the canoe, much of Canada and the upper United States would not be as it is today. Lewis and Clark, men among men, were hard-core canoeists. If you’ve ever heard the call to follow in the footsteps of such men, here are a few things to keep in mind.

    The manly nature of canoeing can lead to some problems. Let me say this right at the outset: There is a very good chance that you do not know how to paddle a canoe, even if you were a Boy Scout (especially if you were a Boy Scout). If you’re Canadian, there’s a better chance of it, but for some reason, a lot of men think they instinctively know how to paddle a canoe. No man thinks he can instinctively ride a mountain bike down a muddy single-track or ski a double black diamond. If someone does, they’ve probably been removed from the gene pool.

    Because of this, men do not seek instruction. They know enough to be dangerous, and they are sometimes just that. Rescuers have fished a lot of men out of a river at the bottom of a rapid they had no business paddling. Actually, Rescuers fish their wives and girlfriends out; the men are on their own.

    First Word of Advice:
    Take canoeing lessons. They’re cheap insurance, and your partner will thank you. I guarantee after half a day, you’ll know more than 99.44% of the population of men. That means a better experience. To select an instructor, look for someone certified by a governing body like the American Canoe Association, the Canadian Recreational Canoe Association, or a similar organization in your area of the world. While lack of certification doesn’t mean a bad teacher, put it this way: just because your Cousin Fred is an avid hang glider doesn’t mean he can teach it. You don’t want to learn from someone who doesn’t know any more than you do, they just think they do. The certification process is a significant time commitment.

    Second Word of Advice:
    Paddle solo canoes. No one learns to ride a bike on a tandem bicycle, do they? One thinks bicycle, not solo bicycle, right? There’s a weird disconnect here. Yes, most canoes are tandem canoes, but they are and have been paddled solo for years. It’s a Canadian thing. There are instructors who specialize in that style of paddling. You will learn a lot faster about proper technique if you paddle solo. Besides, it’s more manly. Do it before you paddle with your companion.

    Third Word of Advice:
    Canoes are sexy. I guess I should clarify; almost all canoes are sexy. The plastic tub sold at the local hardware store is probably better suited as a cattle feeder than a canoe. One of these cheap canoes was designed by the shipping department of a large canoe company; they wanted to nest them to keep shipping costs down. They paddle like they were designed by guys in a warehouse who never paddled their product.

    Canoes and courting have a long and somewhat lurid history. Specialized courting canoes were built in the 1910’s and 1920’s and were wildly popular in canoe culture. The Canadian Canoe Museum has a courting canoe with a built-in Victrola. They’re beautiful. And sexy. The lady did not paddle, but faced the paddler, often shaded by a parasol. The center of the canoe was, shall we say, unencumbered. I’m sure that many children were conceived as the result of a canoe ride into the willows overhanging the banks of a meandering river, inspired by songs like this one from 1916:

    In closing I happened to come across a very appropriate poem :

    I’ve nestled down in limousines and heard love’s whispered pleas, tender, true,
    In sailing yachts romantic I have skimmed o’er many seas, ‘Neath skies so blue,
    I’ve spooned in cozy corners when the lights were low, And always missed my cue,
    It seemed very pretty, but I surely know, There’s no love like the love in my canoe.

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