Part 2: Going Against the Flow
by Tamia Nelson
Today's the day! You're about to move onto put your boat in
moving water for the first time. And you're going to do it by yourself.
As I explained in last week's
column, this isn't a good idea. Rivers and streams can be dangerous
places for canoeists, and moving water is no place for a lone novice. In
fact, it's almost always safer to paddle in company. There are
times when having experienced companions can make the difference between
life and death.
Still, not everyone can find a nearby paddling club. If the mail that
I get is any indication, a lot of folks don't have a single friend who
shares their interest in canoeing. Some people work swing shifts or
seasonal jobs. They're working when everyone else is playing. When
they're ready to take time off, everyone else is back at work.
Play it safe, or go it alone? It's not an easy decision. Prudence and
common sense tell you to be patient. Sooner or later, you'll almost
certainly hear about a club or find a couple of paddling buddies. And
maybe you will. But a lot of life can go by while you're waiting for
something to turn up. Perhaps you've run out of patience.
OK. You're not a fool. You don't want to die on a river. But you're
ready to move on. What do you do?
First, you have to find a good place to learn. This won't be easy. It
may be just about as hard as finding someone to paddle with. But let's
say you've done it. You've found your river. It's a pool-and-drop
stream, with a gentle gradient and no ledges, falls or dams. It's
mid-summer. The spring floods are long past. There's been just enough
rain to keep the current flowing through the pools at something less
than a walking pace. The water's warm enough to swim in. Andthis
is the real miraclethe river's clean. It isn't full of junked cars
or sewage, and it isn't criss-crossed with barbed-wire fences.
And you. What about you? There's no doubt that you're as ready as you
can be. You've already mastered your boat in flat water. You've got a
good life jacket, and you always wear it. Your boat has a short painter
(15-25 feet of one-quarter-inch nylon or dacron line) attached at each
end, snugged down under a length of shock cord. You've tied a couple of
inflated truck innertubes securely under the seats. (Remember that
you're alone. You'll be kneeling just aft of the midship thwart. If you
had a companion, the innertubes would be lashed in the center of your
boat.) You've got a good knife in a hard sheath, strapped to your leg or
life jacket. There's a spare paddle in the boat, along with a bailer (a
cut-down bleach bottle). Your car keys are clipped into a pocket of your
So there you arestanding at the put-in at the foot of a pool in
your river. You're alone, of course, but that doesn't keep me from
talking to you, does it? Before you put your boat in the water, let's
wade out together, just to get the feel of the water.
You walk out into the pool until the water is almost up to your
waist. Damn! It's really moving, isn't it? Didn't look this fast from
shore! With every step you take, the water's tug-tug-tugging at you. You
stumble a little on a stone (the pool has a sand and silt bottom,
sprinkled with small cobbles), and before you know it you almost go
inthe river just snatches your leg away, and you can feel the sand
washing out from under the one foot that's still planted firm. You flail
about for a few seconds, but you get your balance back and then decide
you've done enough wading. You've got a much better understanding of the
power of moving water than you had three minutes ago.
It's time to launch your boat. No! Not that way. Bow upstream! You
always launch bow upstream on moving water, and you keep your boat
parallel to the shore until you're ready to start out. Yeah. That's
Ready? Is your paddle on the "outside"the side toward the
river? Draw the bow out into the main current. Just a bit, now. OK.
Paddle gently forward. Forward? Yes, forward! Head upstream.
Careful! The bow's starting to get away from you. Draw the stern in
to straighten the boat out, but keep paddling steadily forward.
Good. You're on the river. Congratulations! You're actually moving
upstreamgoing against the flow. Now ease off a bit. Look right.
Look left. Just holding your own against the current? Good. Angle the
bow toward the side of the river across from the put-in. Use your pry.
Good. You're holding an angle of about 30-45 degrees off the current.
Paddle just hard enough to keep from being swept downstream.
Look left. Look right. Damn! What's happening? The put-in's way the
hell over there. And the other bank's a lot closer. What's wrong?
Nothing! Nothing at all. You're doing an upstream ferry: crossing
from one side of the river to the other, and letting the river do most
of the work.
Before you know it, you're there! You've crossed the river like you
were on wires. Now try it going the other way. Ready? Nudge the bow out
into the current. Set the angle. Look right. Look left. Paddle just hard
enough to keep from being pushed downriver. Hold the angle. That's all
there is to it.
Good work. You're back where you started from. Now do it again, but
this time, play the river a little. Vary your angle and change the power
of your forward stroke as you go. See what happens. Drift down a few
feet, then regain what you've lost and make some progress upstream,
still working your way across.
Back again already? Let's try something else. Angle the bow out as
before, but let the river swing the boat until you're headed downstream.
Whoops! Feel the upstream gunwale dip? You've got to lean into
the turn a little if you want to keep on an even keel. You're on your
way downriver. Not for long, though. Start back-paddling. Harder! You
want to hold you boat against current. Good. Now point the bowYes,
the bow!at the bank where you started. Same angle as before: 30-45
degrees to start with. Keep back-paddling. Look left. Look right. How
about that! You're moving across the river. Way to go! You're doing a
back-ferry. (Back-ferrying is also known as "setting.")
As you approach the bank, swing round until your bow is pointing
upstream again, and glide into shore. Then head back the same way. Push
the bow out. Let it swing around. (Don't forget to lean!) Point the bow
toward the bank you're leaving. Back-paddle. That's all you need to do.
The river will take you across.
This is a good trick to remember when you're headed downriver and you
find yourself going somewhere you don't want to gotoward a
sweeper, perhaps, or straight at a big rock in mid-stream. First, put
the brakes on. Back-paddle. Then point your bow AT the thing you want to
avoid. Set the angle and hold it. Just like magic, you'll move away from
whatever it is that you don't want to get closer to. Take the ferry
out of trouble. Sounds good, doesn't it?
Damn, look at the time! You've spent two hours already, and you
haven't gone more than 100 yards from the put-in. Let's head upstream a
couple of hundred yards, toward that big rock at the top of the pool.
Almost there? OK. Slow down. Head right at the rock. See that slick
of quiet water just downstream from it? That's an eddy. Paddle into it.
Easy! Back-paddle just a touch! Don't want to split the rock in two, do
Bow nestled up against the rock? Good. Just keep your paddle in the
water to give you a brace if you need one, and look around. You're
parked in the eddy. The river's flowing by on both sides of you, but
you're not going anywhere. That's another thing to remember. In rapids,
the eddies below rocks can be places to rest and scout. Rocks can
be your friends. Comforting, that.
Ready to leave? Poke your bow out of the eddy, into the current.
Drive forward. Paddle upstream fifty yards or so. Pivot your boat
around. Point the bow atYes, at!the rock. Set the
angle with a quick draw (or pry). Back-paddle. See how you move away?
Take the ferry out of trouble.
Now, paddle forward. Soon you'll be coming down the river on one side
of the rock. Catch the eddy with your bow. Sweep the boat around,
leaning into the turn. How 'bout that! You're back in the eddy. Parked.
Time to go. You've got to stop at the store on your way home. Look
around one last time. Hear that rattling call from the sycamore on the
bank? It's a kingfisher. See it dive! That's one trout that didn't get
OK. Peel out. Head downstream, toward the put-in. Almost there. Nose
the bow in toward shorethere's a weak eddy along the shore, too.
Swing round, leaning into the turn. Made it!
After you pull your boat out, you take a minute to look back at the
river. It's been a good day. You were on the water for three hours, but
it seems like only three minutes. You were never more than 300 yards
from your put-in, but you went a hell of a lot further than that. While
you've still got a lot to learn, you've definitely moved on. That's what
happens when you go against the flow!
© Verloren Hoop Productions 1999
Canoes and kayaks have a lot in common, but they're not identical.
Next week, Farwell gives some advice to folks just starting out in
kayaking. 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.