Learn How to Canoe

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PHOTO: DENNIS AND JUDY SIZEMORE
Canoeing is a wonderful way to see nature, but requires a few extra precautions.

Canoeists, like the Water Rat, know the joys of paddling on
a lake or river, flowing along in harmony with the earth’s
natural forces and often enjoying glimpses of her untouched
beauty that the shore-bound never have a chance to view.
Furthermore, waterways that are deep enough to accommodate
motorized boats tend to be heavily trafficked . .
. but narrow and twisting streams, broad flat swamps, and
shallow inlets where only small craft can venture remain
far more wild. And the canoe — with its quiet grace,
speed, ease of handling, light weight, versatility and
relatively low cost — is the ideal boat for exploring
such reaches.
If you’re hankering for adventure, then, or simply want to
enjoy the wonders of nature that can best be found off the
beaten trail, canoeing could be your ticket to freedom.
Learning how to handle one of the narrow, tippy vessels
will take some practice, of course, but the following
guidelines for choosing equipment and mastering the basic
paddling techniques should put you on your way to becoming
at ease on the water.

Choosing a Canoe

A new canoe of good quality will cost you a hefty $400 to
$2,000, while a used one will run from $100 on up. As a
novice, you’ll want to rent your equipment until you’re
familiar with the various styles of craft and know
which will best meet your specific needs. Check with
camping stores or boat dealers for information on nearby
canoe liveries.

The sleek river runners come in a confusing variety of
sizes, designs, and materials . . . simply because there is
no perfect, all-purpose canoe. You’ll want to choose the
style most suited to the type of paddling you’ll be doing.
For example, will you be cruising on flat water or running
the rapids? Do you plan to travel as a solo paddler or with
a partner? Are you primarily interested in fishing, racing,
or canoe camping? These factors — and a good many
others — can influence your choice of equipment.

Canoe Design Considerations

In general, it’s best to select the longest canoe that
suits your needs. Although they’re lightweight, the shorter
craft (those from 10 to 13 feet) tend to ride low in the
water, offer little room for gear, and are typically slower
and more unstable than are longer canoes. So, even if you
intend to paddle solo, you’ll want to choose a 14-footer,
at least.

Most canoeists prefer a 16 to 18-foot craft. The standard 17-foot
size travels swiftly when powered by two paddlers, has the
capacity to carry a good bit of gear, and is easy to handle
in white water. Canoes over 17 feet have an increased
capacity (meaning that they ride higher in the water than
would a shorter canoe loaded with the same weight), but in
gaining that advantage they sacrifice maneuverability.
Therefore, craft 18 feet or longer are used primarily for
cruising on flat water.

When selecting a canoe length, you should also be aware of
the craft’s beam (the width of the boat at its widest
point) and the degree of fullness from the beam to the ends
of the craft. The more pointed and narrow a canoe, the
faster it will travel . . . however, that speed is achieved
at the expense of stability.

Another aspect of canoe design is depth. On a
wind-protected river you’ll want a center depth of about
15 inches, in order to be sure you have adequate freeboard
(that’s the height of the craft’s side above the
water-line) to prevent white-water waves from splashing
into your lap and swamping the canoe. On an open lake,
however, the wind will tend to catch such high sides and
blow you off course, so a shallower craft — 11 to
12 inches — would be more appropriate.

Hull configuration will play an important role in
determining your canoe’s specific function, too. There are
two basic types of hulls: flat-bottomed and rounded. The former design has a very shallow draft (the
amount of boat that rides under the water), ample
cargo-carrying capacity, and stability. This type of canoe
is generally the choice of fishermen or women, because it gives an
angler room to stand up and cast, and will remain
relatively steady while he or she does so. Variations of
the flat-bottomed hull are the “shallow V” and the “shallow
arch” designs. Each of these configurations results in a
canoe that initially is somewhat tippier than is a
flat-bottomed boat, but has a greater reserve stability if
the craft should really begin to go over, and such designs
are sometimes preferred for general-purpose recreational
canoes.

The round-bottomed style feels least stable at first, but
is actually very seaworthy in rough waters. It’s also the
fastest type, making it the choice of white-water racers
and long-distance paddlers.

Finally, you’ll have to decide what type of keel (the
centerline that runs along the bottom of the craft), if
any, will best fit your needs. Some canoes have a “fin”
keel, others have a flat or “shoe” keel, and still others
are keel-less. (An aluminum canoe, of course, always has a
keel . . . since that feature functions as the joint that
holds the two sides of the boat together.) A fin keel can
help to keep a craft on course in a strong wind by
minimizing sideways slippage, but in a swiftly flowing
shallow river, the fin has a tendency to hang up on rocks
… so in such waters the flatter shoe keel would be a
better choice. In fact, real white-water fans frequently
prefer a keel-less design (it offers no drag and allows the
canoe to slip sideways easily to avoid obstacles) with
“rockered” ends, resulting in a highly maneuverable craft.

Each of the design elements — length, beam, depth, hull
shape, and keel — will play a part in determining the
handling characteristics of your canoe. As a newcomer to
the sport, then, you’ll want to try out different styles
and combinations, and finally choose a design that suits
you.

Canoe Materials

One of the most important factors to consider when you’re
in the market for a canoe is the material — wood,
aluminum, fiberglass, Kevlar, or ABS plastic — it’s
made of. And, again, you should get to know the various
materials, to see how they hold up, before putting down any
cash.

Wood makes by far the most attractive canoes and — if
cared for properly — will last for decades. Wooden
craft do, however, require some upkeep, and they’re heavier
than are those constructed of the more modern materials. In
addition, the high price of wooden canoes ($1,000+) puts
them beyond the budgets of most would-be owners. (Those
purse-minded purists who yearn for the beauty and sleek
performance of wood might consider buying a do-it-yourself
canoe kit, such as the one offered by Old Town which
produces a 17-foot cedar strip model.)

The low price, light weight, durability, and low
maintenance needs of aluminum canoes make them practical
for both white-water and general family use. The main
drawbacks of aluminum are its lack of aesthetic appeal, its
noisiness, and its tendency to cling to rocks rather than
slip over them as plastic or fiberglass will do. On the
other hand, aluminum will slide unharmed over sand bars,
and can withstand the kind of brutal treatment that would
often damage a wooden or fiberglass boat. If you decide a
metal canoe will suit your paddling style, choose one with
close, flush rivets on the keel line and neoprene seals…
to assure watertight joints.

Fiberglass is one of the most popular canoe materials,
because of its reasonable price, attractiveness and low
maintenance requirements. However, fiberglass craft can
range in quality from poor to excellent, so you’ll want to
examine any prospective purchase closely. Avoid the
“chopper gun” models, which are made by shooting shredded
fiberglass matting into a liquid resin, resulting in a
heavy but weak hull. The hand-layup method, in which sheets
of fiberglass cloth are wetted down with a high-quality
resin and placed by hand on the canoe, is a far superior
construction technique. When buying a fiberglass canoe,
you’ll get what you pay for… so be leery of “bargains,”
and always look for the cloth weave on the inside of the
craft.

A newer material called Kevlar (it’s a fiberglass
polyamide) is woven into sheets and hand-laid in much the
same way as is fiberglass, although the Kevlar process is
considerably more costly and sophisticated. This synthetic
is substantially lighter and sturdier than fiberglass, too,
and these qualities are reflected in a typically higher
cost.

The most recently developed canoe-body substance is ABS (it
stands for acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene) plastic,
marketed under such trade names as Royalex and Oltonar. A
typical ABS “sandwich” consists of expanded buoyant plastic
foam encased in layers of ABS and covered with a tough
vinyl skin. This unusually durable material has the unique
ability to snap back into shape after a collision. Plastic
canoes are relatively maintenance-free as well as being
rugged, and — not surprisingly — frequently command
hefty prices.

Selecting a Canoe Paddle

Finding a canoe, of
course, is only part of the outfitting process . . . you’ll
still need something with which to propel it! Paddles are
made from almost every material used in canoe
manufacturing, and the advantages and disadvantages of each
substance are similar, as well. Wooden paddles are
generally heavier and require periodic sanding and
varnishing, while the synthetics and metal need little or
no upkeep. If you choose wood, you’ll find that a laminate
is sturdier and lighter than a solid piece. If, on the
other hand, you prefer a paddle honed from a
single plank, be sure to select one no wider than 6-1/2 inches,
as a broader blade will tend to split.

Like canoes, paddles come in a variety of designs, and
again your choice will depend on the type of canoeing
you’ll be doing. The common “beavertail” blade, for
example, has a rounded tip as opposed to the square
blade popular with white-water canoeists. You’ll also have
to select either the long-established “pear” grip or the
newer “T” handhold.

There are two rules of thumb commonly used to determine the
length that will suit you best: You might simply choose a
paddle that — when you’re in a standing
position — reaches up to your chin or a bit higher . .
. or you could, instead, buy one that just fits between
your hands when your arms are stretched out to the sides.

Mastering the Basics of Canoeing

As is the case with any active sport, canoeing
demands a certain proficiency in several specific skills.
Before you even set foot in one of the narrow boats, it’s a
good idea to practice the basic strokes . . . while, say,
kneeling on the edge of a dock. Hold the paddle by placing
the palm of the hand that’s opposite your paddling
side on top of the grip, and — with the other
hand — grasp the shaft as close to the blade as is
comfortable. Since a paddle is most efficient when it’s
vertical, or nearly so, make sure the blade will enter the
water at a point near your knee, and draw it back only as
far as your hip. Then, as you return the paddle forward for
a second stroke, “feather” it (turn its edge forward) in
the air to decrease its wind resistance.

Once you’ve gotten the “feel” of paddling, get a partner
and practice the different strokes in a canoe . . . keeping
close to shore at first. If possible, have an experienced
canoeist friend take the stern while you sit in the bow,
and let him or her instruct you in the various techniques. You’ll want to learn how to go forward and
back up, pivot the boat, turn in a wide “sweep” stroke,
execute emergency maneuvers, and — once you graduate to
the stern — master the “J” stroke.

Of course, just getting into and out of the boat can be an
education in itself. To board, first pull the canoe
parallel to the dock. Then stow all your gear (which should
be in watertight bags), balancing the weight fore and aft
as well as from side to side, and lash it securely to the
thwarts. Be sure — even on short outings — to take
along an extra paddle, bailers (capped milk jugs, cut off
at the bottom, and sponges will do nicely), and duct tape
(for emergency repairs). Also, attach a painter (a length of
line) to the bow and coil it neatly in the boat and
always wear life preservers. Finally — with all the
gear secure — the person who will sit in the bow climbs
aboard and, once he or she is seated, the stern rider
eases in place.

It’s best to paddle from a kneeling position (in order to
keep your center of gravity low in the boat), resting your
buttocks against the seat and using pads or cushions to
minimize the wear and tear on your knees. Some canoeists
find this position uncomfortable, however, and prefer to
paddle from a seated position except when in stormy
water or rapids, where a low center of gravity would be
essential.

Practice paddling in calm waters until the maneuvers become
familiar. Also try capsizing the craft on
purpose — holding onto your paddle — and then right
the swamped canoe and propel it to shore.

Getting Underway With Canoeing

After you’ve mastered the strokes in the bow and stern and
feel confident in both flat water and moderately fast
streams, you might want to try an overnight canoe
excursion. The guidelines on gear and safety that apply in
other wilderness activities all hold true for canoe trips.
Make sure you take equipment appropriate to canoeing,
hiking and camping . . . including a first aid
kit and emergency repair materials, compasses, maps,
matches, a flashlight and insect repellent. Remember to
guard against the sun with a wide-brimmed hat, long-sleeved
shirt, sunglasses, and sunscreen, and to have some warm
woolen clothing along for comfort on wet and windy days. In
short, think ahead and try to prepare for all possible
situations.

Before actually making the trip, read all you can about the
waterways on which you’ll be traveling. You can get
topographical maps from your state’s Geological Survey or
Parks and Recreation department (look under “Government
Offices — State” in the Yellow Pages). In addition,
there are innumerable canoe-trail guidebooks put out by
canoeing organizations and outfitters (it’s best to get
several and compare the information). You’ll want
to be familiar enough with the route before you
set out, to be able to anticipate each stretch and be aware
of any possible fluctuation in the river. (If at all
possible, canoe with a partner who has traveled the waters
before.)

Shopping For Canoe Supplies

When you set out to buy your equipment, you’ll find that
there are hundreds of firms to choose from. It’s a good
idea to shop for name-brand canoes, as the quality of such
manufacturers’ workmanship has been established over the
years.

You’ll also need to find out whether there are restrictions
on fires and campsites or a quota system on the waterway,
whether fishing is allowed (and whether the water is even
potable), and what problems you may encounter
when putting a craft in or taking it out (is it necessary,
for instance, to obtain prior permission to portage on
private land?).

Finally, begin a steady program of physical conditioning
well before the excursion. Take several day-long trips to
accustom your muscles to continual paddling — and
practice canoe carries over various kinds of terrain,
with a pack on your back — before graduating
to overnight (or longer) excursions. As always, travel with
a friend or in a group.

Whether you take up canoeing for the challenge of white
water, for the relaxation of an afternoon of fishing, for
the fun of a family trip, or simply to satisfy your yen to
wander, you’ll discover that there is still peace along the
waterways . . . and the opportunity to find real
companionship, beauty, and adventure. Happy paddling!