Your Partner Deserves a Good Paddling: Advice on Canoeing

by A Manly Guest Contributor on January 31, 2011 · 31 comments

in Travel, Travel & Leisure

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Darren Bush.

The movement of a canoe is like a reed in the wind…there is magic in the feel of a paddle and the movement of a canoe, a magic compounded of distance, adventure, solitude, and peace. The way of a canoe is the way of the wilderness, and of a freedom almost forgotten. It is an antidote to insecurity, the open door to waterways of ages past and a way of life with profound and abiding satisfactions. When a man is part of his canoe, he is part of all that canoes have ever known.”

- Sigurd Olson, “The Singing Wilderness” (1956)

No one is sure who paddled the first canoe.  I think it was some sort of hominid who looked at a cold river, saw a floating log and a stick and thought “why not?”  The next man hollowed out the log, and the next one thought a skin over a frame might be lighter, and so on and so forth until we have the 31 pound carbon-fiber canoe, a translucent Brancusi sculpture.  If the Native people had access to Kevlar and resins, they would have done cartwheels.

There is nothing I love so much as a good canoe.  From my birchbark Algonquin Tciman to my Kevlar ultralights, it doesn’t matter.  I love ‘em all.  So when I talk about canoeing, you need to understand this isn’t my hobby; it’s my life.

There is much manliness in the history and culture of canoeing.  It especially speaks to a man’s need to venture out and explore undiscovered areas.  Without the canoe, much of Canada and the upper United States would not be as it is today.  Lewis and Clark, men among men, were hard-core canoeists.

If you’ve ever heard the call to follow in the footsteps of such men, here are a few things to keep in mind.

Advice on Getting Into Canoeing

The manly nature of canoeing can lead to some problems.  Let me say this right at the outset: There is a very good chance that you do not know how to paddle a canoe, even if you were a Boy Scout (hell, especially if you were a Boy Scout).  If you’re Canadian, there’s a better chance of it, but for some reason, a lot of men think they instinctively know how to paddle a canoe.  No man thinks he can instinctively ride a mountain bike down a muddy single-track or ski a double black diamond.  If someone does, they’ve probably been removed from the gene pool.

Because of this, men do not seek instruction.  They know enough to be dangerous, and they are sometimes just that.  I’ve fished a lot of men out of a river at the bottom of a rapid they had no business paddling.  Actually, I fish their wives and girlfriends out; the men are on their own.  One of said women once kissed me, murmured a low and intoxicating “thank you,” glared at her boyfriend and walked away, as mad as a wet girlfriend can be.  Last summer I pulled a woman off a log mid-stream, and in so doing asked her where her companion was. “My husband is down there,” she said, pointing a hundred yards downstream, where the less-than-manly man waited in an eddy.  “He’s sleeping on the couch tonight,” I quipped.

“Tonight?” she almost snorted.  “If he’s lucky.”

First Word of Advice:  Take canoeing lessons. They’re cheap insurance, and your partner will thank you.  I guarantee after half a day, you’ll know more than 99.44% of the population of men.  That means a better experience.  To select an instructor, look for someone certified by a governing body like the American Canoe Association, the Canadian Recreational Canoe Association, or a similar organization in your area of the world.  While lack of certification doesn’t mean a bad teacher, put it this way: just because your Cousin Fred is an avid hang glider doesn’t mean he can teach it.  You don’t want to learn from someone who doesn’t know any more than you do, they just think they do.  The certification process is a significant time commitment.

Let’s assume you take lessons and move past that barrier.  Great!


Second Word of Advice:  Paddle solo canoes. No one learns to ride a bike on a tandem bicycle, do they?  One thinks bicycle, not solo bicycle, right?  There’s a weird disconnect here.  Yes, most canoes are tandem canoes, but they are and have been paddled solo for years.  It’s a Canadian thing.  There are instructors who specialize in that style of paddling (me for one).

You will learn a lot faster about proper technique if you paddle solo.  Besides, it’s more manly.  Do it before you paddle with your companion.

Third Word of Advice:  Canoes are sexy. I guess I should clarify; almost all canoes are sexy.  The plastic tub sold at the local hardware store is probably better suited as a cattle feeder than a canoe.  One of these cheap canoes was designed by the shipping department of a large canoe company; they wanted to nest them to keep shipping costs down.  They paddle like they were designed by guys in a warehouse who never paddled their product.

Ye old courting canoe.

Canoes and courting have a long and somewhat lurid history.  Specialized courting canoes were built in the 1910s and 1920s and were wildly popular in canoe culture.  The Canadian Canoe Museum has a courting canoe with a built-in Victrola. They’re beautiful.  And sexy.  The lady did not paddle, but faced the paddler, often shaded by a parasol.  The center of the canoe was, shall we say, unencumbered.  I’m sure that many children were conceived as the result of a canoe ride into the willows overhanging the banks of a meandering river, inspired by songs like this one from 1916:

I’ve nestled down in limousines and heard love’s whispered pleas, tender, true,
In sailing yachts romantic I have skimmed o’er many seas, ‘Neath skies so blue,
I’ve spooned in cozy corners when the lights were low, And always missed my cue,
It seemed very pretty, but I surely know, There’s no love like the love in my canoe.

Full disclosure here.  I own about a dozen canoes.  It varies from 12 to 14, now that the Marriage Retention / Canoe and Kayak Nonproliferation Treaty of 1988 has lapsed.  We’re both good with it.

Links of Interest:

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Darren Bush is the owner and Chief Paddling Evangelist of Rutabaga, but he’s also an amateur blacksmith, longbow shooter, and primitive skill aficionado. He believes primitive skills are highly undervalued in modern society.

{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Orual January 31, 2011 at 9:51 pm

No, no, no. Canoes are NOT sexy. Canoes are romantic. Kayaks are sexy.

2 EhMoose January 31, 2011 at 9:55 pm

Canadians know a thing or two about Canoeing: these are 12 year olds.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KhdzrXexMFE

3 Joel January 31, 2011 at 10:18 pm

While we Canucks might have a leg-up when it comes to canoeing, I’ve still seen plenty of people get themselves stuck and/or swamped. On a flat lake.

Take lessons. It’s important. Even a one-hour lesson can teach you enough to not instantly make a fool of yourself.

4 Brian January 31, 2011 at 11:11 pm

Some of my favorite camping trips in Scouts involved canoeing. We used to practice tipping it over and getting back in all the time. One cannot be called an avid canoer until they have hauled in a trot line catfish over the side of one!

5 Brad Alexander January 31, 2011 at 11:16 pm

Get lessons, yeah. Then you will look like you know what you are doing to the uninitiated. And you won’t look like a total goober in front of someone who does know what they are doing.

6 Chris Adamiak February 1, 2011 at 6:44 am

Great little article!, As a avid paddler since the age of 7, recommend lessons. However going out for the weekend for lessons is not always a option. Enter Patron Saint of Canoeing – Bill Mason. He has a great collection of films called “Path of the paddle” . These films go into great detail paddling techniques for both flat and white water. He also has a book to go along with the film, which is still the go to bible for technique. I remember watching all of Bill’s 16mm films from the library in our living room on the screen. You can get them on DVD from http://www.nfb.ca, and even watch them on the website. Canoeing if most definitely a way of life. When a day is long and stressful, looking a a picture from a past trip can instantly bring a sense of calmness upon you. Get out and paddle!

7 Sandra February 1, 2011 at 7:01 am

Yes for the love of all things, take a lesson!! As a woman who does know how to canoe, there is nothing worse than agreeing to sitting in the front only to have the dude in the back completely cock it up. If you want to impress (or at least increase your fun on the water) do your homework and learn a few techniques that you will need for the type of water you are canoeing on.

8 Darren February 1, 2011 at 8:01 am

Chris, that’s a great resource…I should have included the Path of the Paddle series. The little boy in those films, Paul, is now an amazing whitewater canoeist. Google him. It’s really cool.

I did not pay Sandra to write that. Another good reason to paddle solo. :-)

9 Darren February 1, 2011 at 8:04 am

Oh yeah: Blatant commercial plug:

http://www.quietwaterfilms.com/Solo-Canoe.htm

I made this film a few years ago because of the lack of solo canoe instruction. Not as beautiful as Bill’s, but good stuff nonetheless. If you want to learn to paddle solo it’s one of the few resources out there.

10 Jordan February 1, 2011 at 9:03 am

As a former flat water canoeist and now die hard whitewater canoeist I want to warn flat water paddlers to stay away from the white stuff. You’ll likely never feel the same way about flat water again.

11 Scott Wertel February 1, 2011 at 9:40 am

Last year was the first vacation my wife and I (and family) went on since our honeymoon, 10 year prior. We found a great family resort in upper Vermont and I highly recommend it for anyone interested.

We canoed the river on one day. It was windy out and in early spring, so the water was cold and rushing. Worse, once we hit the open waters of the bay, it was pretty choppy. Needless to say, a few of the other “teams” in our group didn’t make it all the way back as dry as when they left. My wife was terrified of the event.

The next day we went down the same waterway, but this time in a double kayak. The weather was the same, but she felt much more comfortable with the experience. I enjoy paddling both, and don’t mean to detract from the canoeing topic. I just want to let the guys know that if you ditched your significant other out of a canoe, try to convince her to try kayaking. It may look the same to some people, but it is a completely different experience and you may just win her back.

12 Antonio February 1, 2011 at 9:50 am

Thanks for the great article Darren!

I was inspired by the article, but more inspired when I followed the links to your business and personal blog. You are living a great life, and from the looks of the pictures your family is reaping the rewards of your wise stewardship.

I also saw you are in Madison, just a few hours south and one of my favorite cities in the US. I’ll try to stop in your store on my next visit in the spring and investigate these classes your business offers.

Thanks for the great read – Antonio

13 Zackary DuFour February 1, 2011 at 10:06 am

Canoes are nice, but real men ride in pirogues!

14 Justin February 1, 2011 at 11:10 am

I’ve taught canoeing for the past 4 years in the Canadian Rockies and agree with the point made that taking a lesson is the best thing you can do. I’m constantly amazed at how many men (and how few women) assume they know what they are doing only to end up taking a cold swim. So while the skill of canoeing and getting outside may be “manly”, don’t let ego stand in the way of seeking out and listening to someone who knows the finer points.

I agree that learning in a solo canoe can be the best way to learn, but keep in mind your goals and the equipment available. Where I teach (and many other places in my area) solo canoeing is taught in whitewater boats since most people who solo canoe do it on whitewater in my area. These canoes have a drastically different feel to them than the ones pictured above, and the initial stability is harder for beginners to feel comfortable in.

And keep your goals in mind. If you want to brush up on skills to take a trip with your partner, then getting more experience in a tandem is likely what you’ll need. It’s still important to learn both the bow and the stern, but it’s equally important to learn how to effectively communicate with your paddling partner, and it’s amazing how often this aspect of canoeing is overlooked. I’m a firm believer that before every couple gets married they should have to tandem whitewater canoe together.

Good overview on the topic though, just thought I’d share my opinions. And good on you for the props to a Canadian icon, and anyone who is interested in canoeing NEEDS to look up Bill Mason.

15 BIll February 1, 2011 at 11:48 am

Great article, especially as I’ve been thinking of taking up canoeing come spring and have been researching nearby clubs to take lessons. However, I think the stories about the women at the beginning could’ve been left out. Personally, in times that I’ve come to someone’s aid when they’ve not known as much as I do about something, I’ve always managed to not poke fun at them behind their backs with their wives or girlfriends. Just seemed the more gentlemanly thing to do.

16 Rhubarb February 1, 2011 at 12:18 pm

I grew up on the Great Lakes, on the US side, and my Dad, who was an Eagle Scout, took my family canoeing a lot and taught us all how. I do love canoeing and have normally gone with friends and a picnic, but I love being the one to steer.

Sadly I now live in the land of tumbleweeds and very little water, so there’s nowhere to rent a canoe here for two hours in any direction. I get little chance to do it now.

17 Rhubarb February 1, 2011 at 12:25 pm

EhMoose…

I did War Canoeing in Girl Scouts and it’s amazing how fast you can get going. When I lived on a ship we would do rowing drills as well, thanks for sharing the video.

18 Roger Hyttinen February 1, 2011 at 5:35 pm

Nice to see a post about paddling! I recently discover solo river kayaks (I also have a canoe and a sea kayak) and have not looked back. While I do use the canoe in the spring for our annual river clean up, most of my paddling these days is in the river kayak. This is another option for solo paddling – and they are big fun!

19 Darren February 1, 2011 at 5:50 pm

Quite enjoyed this! I am guilty as charged as the man who assumes he knows how to paddle, as if it is a inborn ability everyone has. I’ve never considered taking canoe lessons, but now I’m considering it.

20 Chris Adamiak February 2, 2011 at 9:42 am

Darren, don’t forget about Paul’s Sister Becky is quite the Paddler as well, she moves the canoe quite eloquently. She has a dvd on solo paddling focusing on Omering or Canadian style paddling. Its quite a sight to see.

http://www.redcanoes.ca/becky/canoe/solo.html

On another note, I usuully grab every copy of Bill Masons books i find used, and happened across a autographed copy at a local thrift store, with the new clipping inside on where he was to sign the book!. What a great day that was!. Great article again!

21 Darren February 2, 2011 at 10:12 am

Chris,

Becky is a fine paddler in her own right. Good correction of an oversight. Thanks. I don’t have an autographed book (SCORE!) but I do own one of his paintings… a great story on how Canadians play nice in the sandbox.

And Bill…yes, it is not gentlemanly to poke fun at someone just because they know less. I wasn’t poking fun at them at the time…there was no need to, They were ashamed of themselves for putting themselves and their partners in a bad situation through ego and the inability to admit they were over their heads. Abandoning your wife stuck in the crotch of a tree and waiting downstream for her to extricate herself doesn’t strike me as particularly manly. That said, I promise to be kinder in the future, Seriously, I appreciate the reminder.

Justin…thank you. I have this great cartoon from an old strip called Pardon My Planet. It shows a minister standing before a couple and he says “Before I pronounce you man and wife, you need to paddle this canoe to the other side of this pond and back.” The couple both look terrified.

It is all about communication. My experience is that if a couple has a good marriage, they’ll be good paddling partners with only a little coaching. If it’s a non-communicative marriage, then it’s paddling upstream.

Paddle on,

DB

22 Bill February 2, 2011 at 12:28 pm

I have loved canoeing since I bought my first Watson Fibreglass ‘second’ for $150 in 1972. I cottage on the Ottawa River, and spend many hours exploring the back waters, snyes, and channels around Calumet Island. I avoid the rapids further downstream like the plague… leave them for the kayakers and rafters. I was recently at the Toronto Boat Show and saw a Swift carbon fibre solo canoe, 10 ft. long, weighing remarkable 12 pounds!! The salesman offered me to pick it up and I did… almost threw it over my head it was so much lighter than I expected. Now that I’m approaching 60 it might be worth the investment.

BTW – wasn’t it Pierre Burton who said the definition of a Canadian was someone who could make love in a canoe?

23 Shlotzsky February 2, 2011 at 5:47 pm

Make sure to never tip a canoe if you’re in the southern US (especially Florida.) You don’t want to end up as gator bait.

24 Indiana Thomas February 3, 2011 at 12:51 am

One of the most rewarding and defining moments of my early manhood was canoeing the Allagash in northern Maine. It allowed me to push my personal boundaries and grew my leadership abilities. Canoeing has been a life long pursuit and really appreciate the article.

The camp I went to is called Darrow Wilderness Camp. I would recommend anyone with kids in the age ranges they accept to go. http://www.darrowcamp.org

25 Bill February 3, 2011 at 9:03 am

Canoeing seems like a lost art with the popularity of kayaking. I went canoeing last summer and had a great time. They’re fun to navigate down a nice calm river.

26 Geoff February 3, 2011 at 9:51 am

I banged around in canoes as a kid and then didn’t canoe for maybe ten years in favor of kayaks. Now I’m back to canoes. I love the way canoes sit on the water and their movement is so different and, IMO, more refined than kayaks.

I had a great adventure once off the coast of Maine in an open deck canoe when a buddy and I, young and foolish, couldn’t con our friends with boats to take us fishing. Bluefishing in Penobscot Bay out of a canoe was an experience! I’m amazed that the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes, the Indians of coastal Maine, used to take their canoes way off shore to harpoon swordfish and hunt seals. That’ some kind of manliness.

27 Eric February 3, 2011 at 12:17 pm

And let’s not forget the joys of canoe CAMPING. I spent years as a backpacker before I found out about canoe camping. All those tortured decisions about how much things weigh… one ply vs. two ply toilet paper, aluminum cookware vs cast iron, zippo lighter vs. plastic bic… now I just throw the 20 lb dutch oven in the canoe and don’t worry about it, along with lawn chairs, coolers full of frosty beverages, and even my old beater guitar. Heaven!!!

We try to make a 3-4 day trip to the Buffalo River in NW Arkansas every few years. The upper river gets all the attention because of the white water, but I love the placid and calm lower river, where we have gone a full day before without seeing another living soul. I haven’t canoed in a ton of places, but if you are into multi-day trips it is hard for me to imagine a better playground than the Buffalo.

28 Bill February 3, 2011 at 12:28 pm

One of my fondest memories of my youth involved a canoe. Mom and Dad took the youngest seven kids to an amusement park. We rented three canoes and paddled off into the “lake” (actually a pond with delusions of grandeur). Well, my youngest brother, a toddler, got away from Mom and Mom lunged for him. The canoe capsized. Two sisters and I saw this and paddled over to help. My youngest brother was scared so he grabbed on to Mom’s legs – underwater. Mom brought him to the surface, then handed him off to us. She waded to shore.

Dad, on the other hand, was stuck. He’d lost a leg in WWII and he couldn’t pull the wooden leg out of the mud at the bottom of the lake. Park employees had to help.

This memory is still crystal clear four decades later.

29 NE February 3, 2011 at 3:55 pm

As a therapist and a paddler I think couples would be well advised to commit to one hour of paddling together before commiting a lifetime together in marriage. Your ability to work together and communicate is quickly challenged in a canoe. You will also know your partners priorities as soon as you tip. Did she scramble to high ground leaving you, your supplies, and your vessle to sink? What do you think she’ll do in emergency situations later?
Don’t lose hope if the first trip is a little rough. My beloved and I set out on a four day canoe race the first time we crawled into a canoe together. Within the first half hour we had our first major fight and were incredibly cruel to one another but we both recognized we had hundreds of miles to go and had to work together to get there. It might seem easier to throw in the paddle but we found the canoe a great training ground for the rest of our life and have genuinely enjoyed the adventure ever since.

30 sadie February 9, 2011 at 2:23 pm

NE, that’s funny, because one of my teachers, who often took me canoeing, went to great lengths upon hearing of my engagement to get in touch with me, so that she could tell me that I MUST go canoeing with my fiance before I married him. I laughed, because I had already made sure to do so (I had to make sure he would be okay with me in the stern!). We went canoeing on our honeymoon and seven years later, still laugh about getting rained out and hitchhiking to a cabin because we couldn’t stand to be soaking wet for another day!

One woman in my canoe class told me that she and her husband had resorted to a “canoe truce” in which, as she said, “His paddle is for steering. My paddle is for handing him his sandwich and his beer.” My aunt simply recommended that my husband and I never be shy about needing separate kayaks from time to time. :)

31 Brandy July 20, 2013 at 10:03 am

for several years I taught some basic canoe lessons on a little lake during an annual family camp. it was a rare man who didn’t think he instinctively knew how to canoe. the freak out sessions that resulted from this faulty belief were amazing.

I read this post and had to laugh in agreement. virtual high five!

also worth noting – the average man does figure out steering faster than the average woman – once they set their mind to figuring it out. and it is indeed hot when a guy can handle himself in a canoe. just sayin’.

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