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How To Canoe If You’ve Never Paddled Before

Author: Cassidy Randall

April 23, 2018

Do you fantasize about canoeing peacefully across an alpine lake, but lack any actual canoeing experience? Do you dream about posting very Instagram-y photos of yourself paddling into the sunset, but don’t know how to paddle a canoe in the first place? Worry no more—here’s how to get started. After all:

—It doesn’t take that much skill. Well, relative to whitewater kayaking or big wave surfing, anyway.

—You can carry lots of things in a canoe, like camping gear, snacks, dogs, a freeloader passenger in the middle… the possibilities are endless.

—You don’t even have to get wet! (Assuming everything goes according to plan.)

1. Choose your partner.

It’s pretty important that you and your paddling partner can practice civil communication skills and teamwork on a basic level before deciding to depend on each other in the middle of a body of water (they don’t call them “divorce boats” for nothing!). It’s all fun and games until somehow, in extremely slow-moving water, you manage to hit the only rock in the middle of a hundred-yard-wide river because you couldn’t stop bickering about whose J-stroke was better (paddling term—see #4).

Just kidding! You’ll obviously start on a flatwater lake, not a moving river.

But in all seriousness, canoeing is a great partner activity and you will no doubt come out a much stronger friend/family member/partner at the end of a glorious day on the water (mostly because it’s like the ultimate trust exercise).

2. Strap the canoe to your vehicle

Don’t have a roof rack? No problem! Pool noodles are totally acceptable padding between the boat and your roof. In fact, the more duct tape, pool toys, and haphazard cam straps desperately “securing” the boat to top of your rig, the more respect you will receive when you park at the put-in. Trust me.

3. Nail the smooth entry into the boat

You’ll want to hold the canoe steady for your partner while he/she steps in carefully, one foot at a time, and gracefully sits down with paddle in hand. Once they’re settled, you can follow suit, likely hooking a foot on the gunnel and toppling unceremoniously into the boat while accidentally hurling your paddle 20 feet into the water.

4. Practice paddling

The general rule of canoeing is “brawns in the front, brains in the back.” This does not refer to your partner’s intelligence level vs your own (although you may think so at particularly challenging moments on the water), but rather to the fact that the bow paddler provides the power while the stern paddler provides the steering.

The most common steering strokes are called the J-stroke, which involves sweeping your paddle through the water towards you and then out in the form of a J, so that it acts as a rudder while your wrist bends in the most awkward way possible; and the C-stroke, which acts as a powerful turning mechanism capable of warp speed directional changes.

You’ll want to practice these in both directions, until you become really, really good at going in circles. Meanwhile, your partner in the bow should be paddling vigorously, demonstrating impressive amounts of brawn for fear of being labeled a “lily-dipper” (note that this is the worst insult possible in canoeing).

5. Get in a rhythm

Now that you’ve mastered technical paddle strokes, you’re ready to go somewhere! Don’t be alarmed if you’re not paddling in a straight line. This is virtually impossible in flat water in a canoe, though it likely won’t stop you from sort-of-politely and usually-unsuccessfully offering your paddle partner totally uninformed advice for troubleshooting.

Just remember: brace with your feet, paddle with your abs. Obviously.

6. What to do if you tip

Don’t worry, tipping the canoe is totally normal! It’s usually a product of this common formula: “Let’s bring the dog along—he’ll sit calmly in the middle!” + squirrel on shore = explosive flying leap of fur. Or one of you stood up and waved vigorously to a friend on shore. Either way, the result is the same.

Don’t panic. Canoes rarely sink. Because you’re wearing your life jacket (safety first!), you’ve got extra buoyancy to swim the canoe to shore while your paddle partner recovers important flotsam, like the beer cooler. And maybe the dog.

And there you have it! Canoeing is easy, fun, and the perfect bonding activity. Now go get on the water—and don’t forget to keep your iPhone from getting wet!

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Photod courtesy of Hilary Oliver.

Cassidy Randall

Cassidy splits her time between moonlighting as a gypsy in foreign lands and saving the world from toxic chemicals as marketing director for Made Safe. She writes about badass women who are quietly (and not-so-quietly) taking over adventure sports, beautiful places and what it takes to get to them, as well as mission fail, mediocrity, and all the hard things social media glosses over about outdoor adventures. She writes at www.directionaldetour.org.