Starting Out in Canoeing
Part 1: Getting Your Feet Wet
by Tamia Nelson
In the four months that Farwell and I have been writing this column,
we've gotten a lot of mail, and I've been surprised by how much of it
has come from folks who were just starting out in paddlesport. Retired
folks, couples with young children, single men and womenall of
them different, yet all of them alike in wanting to take a canoe or
kayak out on the water.
Reading their letters is a little bit like reliving my own past. Only
twenty-one years ago, I was in their place. It's hard to explain just
why I was drawn to canoeing. There were no canoeists in my family. None
of my friends even owned a canoe. Perhaps it was the lure of wild places
accessible only by water. I was already a rock and ice climber. I liked
solitude and stillness. I was a photographer, and I had already learned
that even the smallest creek had a thousand moods and fancies. I wanted
to live with a river, capturing each moment on film.
Well, whatever my reasons, I did what most folks do when the paddling
bug bites: I bought a boat. In my case it was a 16' fiberglass canoe,
made by a manufacturer who's no longer in business. Neither I nor the
guy who sold me the boat really knew anything about canoesI bought
my canoe at a ski shop!but I was lucky. My canoe was a good boat
for a beginner: stable, forgiving and attractive. It wasn't the best
choice I could have made, of course, but it wasn't bad.
OK. I had a canoe. I also had two paddles and a roof rack that was
only marginally more reliable than my rump-sprung Jeep Wagoneer. I
didn't have any life jacket, though. Why did I need one? I knew how to
swim, didn't I? Besides, I'd spent every penny I had on the canoe,
paddles and rack. (To say nothing of my weekly trip to the local garage
to have some missing part or another bolted back on the Wagoneer!) Now
all I had to do was to learn how to paddle.
This took me a little longer than I'd planned. My new canoe was a
tandem canoeit had two seats for two paddlers. I didn't realise at
the time that I could paddle it solo. No one in my family was interested
in paddling with me, and none of my friends were eitherat least at
Finally, I persuaded a friend and co-worker to come with me on a trip
to a local lake. As it turned out, she knew even less than I did about
canoeing, but we had a good time, anyway. True, we spent a lot of that
time going in circles, and a lot of the rest arguing with each other
about whose fault this was, but, then again, neither of us drowned. And
I discovered that paddling was every bit as magical as I imagined it to
From that day on, I couldn't get enough of canoeing. My friend lost
interest in a hurry, but by then I'd learned that I could manage my boat
alone. This was indeed liberating, for two good reasons. First, I could
go paddling whenever I wanted tono need to wheedle or beg friends
to come along for the ride. Second, and most important perhaps, I didn't
have anyone to blame when I couldn't make my boat perform. On the water,
alone, I knew right away when I was "in the groove." Do things right,
and my boat went where I wanted it to go; do things wrong, and it
didn't. No slack and no excuses. Instant feedback. An ideal environment
I was very lucky, though. I still didn't have a life jacket. If I'd
made a single mistake too far from shore, I'd have been deadthe
lesson of a lifetime. The last lesson of a lifetime. Instant
feedback. But I was lucky.
Not long afterward, I met Farwell. Shortly after that, we were
together in the same boat in northern Quebec. My learning curve soared
upwardand I fell in love. But that's another story.
Today's story is about starting out in paddlesport. So far, I've told
you how I got started, and, in the main, it's just about the
worst example you could find to follow. I did almost everything wrong.
The few things I did right were mostly accidents. You can do much
better. Here's how.
STEP 1: KNOW YOURSELF
You want to learn to canoe or kayak. If you didn't, you wouldn't have
read this far. Why you want to learn is up to you. There are
probably as many reasons as there are paddlers. Your reason doesn't
matter. What is important is that you know it. If canoeing is a
means to some other endfishing, for example, or
photographyyou'll need to do things differently than if you're
setting out to win a National Wildwater Championship.
STEP 2: READ A GOOD BOOK
A canoe doesn't know your family history. It doesn't care whether
your ancestors were Inuit hunters, Canadian voyageurs or fisherman from
the Northern Isles. Boating skills can't be inherited. You have to
learn to canoe. Begin by picking up a book. You can't drown in
your living room, can you? And no one will curse you out if you miss an
eddy while you're following the author down a Class IV river. Whether
you're learning canoeing, fly-tying, or neurosurgery, it's best to start
out by reading.
There are many good canoeing primers, but one stands out:
Path of the
Paddle, by the late Bill Mason. I have a first edition. It's now
been revised by Bill's son Paul. Frankly, I can't think what needed
revision; I only hope that nothing from the original has been edited out
or cut. In any case, Path of the Paddle is a superb text-book.
It's well organized, clearly written, and wonderfully illustrated. Buy
it or borrow it, but if you're interested in canoeing, read it from
cover to cover before you do anything elseand then read it again.
Pretend you're back in school. Make notes. Imagine yourself in the
situations Mason describes. Learn to think your way down a river or
across a lake. Before you've even set foot in a boat, you'll be well on
your way to becoming a canoeist.
Kayakers, of course, will have to look elsewhere, but they'll have a
column all to themselves in the near future. Right now, we'll stick with
STEP 3: DON'TYES, I SAID DON'TBUY A BOAT
Not at first, anyway. Buy a good life jacket instead. Check out the
May 1999 issue of Consumer Reports to learn how to tell a good
life jacket from the other kind. Be sure to get one that's comfortable.
You'll be spending many hours in it, after all. It has to be
Now, ask around. Find out if any of your friends like to canoe, and
then ask them if they'd be willing to take you out for a short spin some
evening after work. No luck? You say there aren't any canoeists among
your friends? Then look for a local paddling club. There are a lot more
of these now than there were when I was starting out. See if one near
you has "open house" evenings on a local river, or a weekend
"introduction to paddling" course. If so, go. Hang out with other folks
who love messing about on the water. Try out their boats. Pick up a few
hints and tips.
Do this for a while, and chances are good you'll hook up with an
experienced paddler looking for a partner. If you do, that's wonderful.
There's no better way to learn. If not, don't worry. Just find a livery
or outfitter that rents canoes. Rent as many different boats as you can
and spend a couple of hours in each one. Stay off the rivers. Stick to
warm, quiet waters. Avoid days when the wind is blowing a gale. Leave
the kids at home with a sitter. Take things slow and easy. Test the
boats, not yourself.
Most importantly, be patient. Learning to paddle is part of the fun,
and experience starts when you begin. Go canoeing as often as you can.
Soon you'll be able to take a rented boat out, launch it and recover it,
paddle it forward and backward in a straight line, slide it right and
left, and turn it 90 degrees to either side in its own length. When this
day comes, congratulations! You're no longer a novice.
© Verloren Hoop Productions 1999
You've gotten your feet wet now. What's next? For the answer, look
for the second part in our two-part series on "Starting Out." In the
meantime, we'd like to hear from you. Send your comments and questions
to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. (No
attachments, audio clips or family snaps, please!) We won't promise that
we'll answer each letter, but we can promise that we'll read every
oneand we will. 'Nuff said.