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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

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 women—all 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 canoes—I 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 canoe—it 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 either—at least at first.

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 be.

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 to—no 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 for learning.

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 dead—the 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 upward—and 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.


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 end—fishing, for example, or photography—you'll need to do things differently than if you're setting out to win a National Wildwater Championship.


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 else—and 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 the canoeists.


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 comfortable.

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 (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 one—and we will. 'Nuff said.

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