Dating back to the Native Americans and even before that, canoeing has been a popular method of transportation and recreation. Though today it is not such an essential skill as it once was, knowing how to get around in a canoe can prove to be extremely beneficial in the great outdoors. Even if you have never canoed in your life, learning to canoe is relatively easy. Becoming an expert takes a great deal of practice, but anybody can learn to canoe.
Before learning anything about canoeing, some vocabulary must be familiarized. The parts of a canoe are similar to that of any other watercraft. The bow is the front end of the canoe, and the stern is the back end. The bottom shape of the boat is the hull. Gunwales (pronounced “gunnels”) run along the top edge of a canoe’s hull, helping to hold its shape. Gunwales are usually made of wood, vinyl or aluminum. Thwarts are cross pieces in a canoe, running from gunwale to gunwale, and are sometimes built into the seats. Thwarts help the canoe hold its shape.
In addition to the parts of the actual canoe, knowledge of the equipment is equally important. A paddle is use
to propel the canoe. The broad part of the paddle is the blade, and the long, skinny part is the shaft. The grip is at the end of a paddle opposite the blade, and can be shaped like a “T” or like a small football. A painter is a rope that is tied to an end of a canoe, used for rescue or anchoring to the shore. Anyone on open water should be wearing a PFD, or personal floatation device – such as a lifejacket. PFD’s are extremely important, especially in the case of an injury. For example, if a canoe is swamped (filled with water), the hull could hit somebody’s head and knock them unconscious. A lifejacket could save his or her life.
Some other items can be useful while canoeing. A bailer comes in handy for getting water out of a canoe, and can be made by cutting the bottom off of a plastic milk or bleach bottle. A kneeling pad can be made from any non-absorbent foam. Bring one – it will be much appreciated! Also, a thwart bag can be attached to the boat to store miscellaneous items such as sunscreen, raingear, and anything else.
Once these terms become familiar, types of canoes should be considered. General recreation canoes are multi-purpose and usually tandem (two person canoes). These canoes are about 15 to 18 feet long, and handle reasonably well. Tripping (touring) canoes are about 13 to 17 feet long for solos, and up to 20 feet long for tandems. These canoes have less rocker, and are therefore meant for calm waters, but can be handled on moving rivers and big lakes if the canoeists are experienced. Whitewater canoes are short, deep and highly rockered. Some other types of canoes include solo sport canoes and racing canoes.
Many canoes are made from plastic that is inexpensive and impact-resistant. These canoes are, however, quite heavy and less able to hold a perfect shape. Composite (laminated) canoes are built from fiberglass, Kevlar, carbon fiber or a combination of these, layered with synthetic glues. This type of canoe is a little more fragile and costly, but very lightweight. Another common material used in making canoes is aluminum. While not lightweight, aluminum is durable and resistant to ultraviolet rays. Some other materials include wood and fabric skin stretched over a skeleton-like frame.
A general rule is to buy the lightest canoe that you can afford, as long as it is strong enough to do what you want to do. Moving the canoe is best done with two people. One person should be on either side of the canoe. Then, you simply pick it up by the gunwales and walk with it, balancing the boat with your free hands. If the walkway is narrow, another method is to pick up the canoe by the lip of the deck, or near either end. The rear partner should match the stride and pace of the front partner.
Once you get to the water, do not just throw the canoe onto the ground. Gently set it down to avoid scraping the bottom and damaging it. It is best to load the canoe while it floats, rather than dragging a heavy canoe over dirt and gravel to get it into the water. Then, to get in, there are a number of factors that must be taken into consideration. Canoes are rather tipsy. In order to stay dry while entering a canoe, the most important thing to do is to stay centered. Keep your weight as close to the centerline as possible. This is extremely important in light canoes. In addition to staying centered, it is essential that you keep your weight low. Anybody who attempts to enter a canoe by standing upright and walking in will soon be going for an unexpected swim before he or she gets underway.
Now that you are in the canoe, here are some tips for paddling with a partner. With that second person, teamwork becomes a major factor in getting to where you want to go. Practice good cadence, or rhythm – both team members must work as one in order to go anywhere. Generally, the stern paddler is the more experienced one and does the steering. The forward member sets the cadence, scouts upcoming obstacles, and helps pull the boat through the water. Each person should paddle on opposite sides to ensure a straight track. Switch sides occasionally to reduce fatigue. One of the most important things in teamwork is communication. Speak up, as the forward member is usually the first to spot rapids and other obstacles. Before embarking on a major trip, take some time to practice in calm water with your partner. Get to know each other’s styles, and you will quickly become attuned to them. This will ensure a successful trip.
Once underway, wind can be an issue to deal with. For more ease of travel, adjust the gear in the boat so that the bow sets slightly higher in a tail wind, and slightly lower in a head wind. On a river, where winds change often, keep the canoe reasonably level. Make sure the gear is stored as lowly as possible, so that nothing sticks up above the gunwales to catch the wind.
In stronger winds, simply arranging gear may not be enough. When there are noticeable waves, swing the canoe to ride diagonally across them. If a canoe is riding with the waves, one wave may cause the stern to slide backwards, while the next wave rushes over the stern and into the boat. Avoid this, and do not ride directly with the waves. Be careful, though, so as not to end up riding parallel to the waves, risking the boat becoming overturned. Try to ride diagonally.
When winds are lighter, making the canoe the smallest possible target for the wind can help a great deal. Do this by riding directly into the wind. On rivers, this may not be possible due to changing direction. Sometimes the best solution in these cases may be to paddle ashore until the winds die down.
Once you master the basics of canoeing, and even before that, you will likely realize that canoeing is one of the most fun things you can do. Whether camping in the great outdoors or just canoeing for fun on a lake, the skills of canoeing will prove to be essential for a complete outdoor experience!