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Multisport Skills

How to Have Fun in a Canoe

Can a landlubber learn to paddle—and like it?

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I’d always assumed the human race held onto canoeing just so Boy Scouts could earn an easy merit badge. The boats are cumbersome, and flatwater trips are closer to car camping than real adventure: You’re sitting down the whole time, and you’re not even carrying your own stuff­—where’s the fun in that?

OK, I may be biased. The first and last time I paddled was three years ago, for a college class in North Carolina. It was sweltering, and we stopped every few minutes to talk about fish habitat. Plus, my partner and I never quite mastered the art of steering and pinballed down the river, banking off berms the whole way. We must have paddled 8 miles down a 2-mile stretch. As the paddler in the stern, I was in charge of keeping us straight, but who cared? I could always go back to real backpacking and master canoeing later, like in my 70s.

So when I learned the 2017 BACKPACKER Editors’ Choice trip would involve three days of canoe camping along New Zealand’s Whanganui River, I was bummed. Then a little nervous. What if I slowed down the team? What if I capsized and lost all our food and we had to hunt wild goats to survive? What if I steered my boss over a waterfall?

On day one, we stepped from the bus onto a cold beach. I dipped a toe in the sluggish, brown water. Freezing.

I tried to stay optimistic as our guide Phil gave his spiel. I heard two things: The paddler in the front (the bowman) announces obstacles and keeps rhythm, while the person in the back (the sternman) steers—and longer arms mean more efficient strokes. I quickly aligned myself with Adam Roy, a 6-foot-2 beanpole with the wingspan of an orangutan. He’d sit in the back and steer (or not steer) and take all the glory (or blame). I’d take the front with the view.

We christened the vessel the S.S. Buroy, a combination of our last names and a straightforward title we felt would reflect our solemn and uncomplicated mission: go straight and keep up. And at first, we did.

After a mile or two, the river started to widen and curl, entering canyons wallpapered with ferns and waterfalls. The jungle to either side was thick and tangled—the only way through here was by boat.

When I tore my eyes from the scenery, I realized we’d fallen behind. The other boats were specks rounding a far-off bend. We leaned into our strokes, but it wasn’t enough—we were zigzagging and couldn’t close the distance.

“Paddle harder!” I yelled, head down with the effort, just before we collided with a log. We extricated our boat, but it took minutes, and our team had vanished downriver. Just as we started to gain momentum, Adam announced that he needed to disembark, with some urgency.

“Can’t you just pee over the side?” I asked. He declined.

The farther we fell behind, the more our trajectory wandered. I started having flashbacks. Though steering was decidedly not in the bowman’s job description, I decided I needed to help at least a little. I dug my paddle deeper.

I soon broke a sweat, even with thick cloud cover and a cold breeze. Despite my “help,” we bounced from one bank to the other even more wildly than before. I couldn’t understand it—Adam and I were fit (on trail, we smoked the rest of our team). Plus, I’m usually good at figuring things out on the fly, and this was an activity summer camp kids could do with their eyes closed. Too embarrassed to admit my incompetence, I fumed quietly as I threw my whole body into paddling, which only served to increase the speed with which we zigzagged.

That evening, we were the last craft to pull into camp. We so overpacked, I thought as I schlepped plastic barrels and coolers up the bank to our site. Real backpacking doesn’t allow this sort of nonsense. But when I rounded the bend into a grassy, fern-draped campsite and saw our dinner of pasta salad, roasted sweet potatoes, wine, and—gasp—ice cream, I changed my tune. If I could just learn to paddle, I could get used to this.

The next day, Adam and I took our positions and shoved off from shore. I noticed my coworkers passing us, chatting easily. Meanwhile, I was gasping for breath. I have to be missing something.

After lunch I pushed aside my pride and asked Phil to troubleshoot.

First he put Adam—the heavier of us—up front; according to Phil, a weighted bow could mean a less squirrelly ride. He told Adam to slow his strokes to avoid overpowering mine, and taught me how to steer without overcorrecting.

We hit the benches. It took a minute (and a bit of bickering) to sync strokes, but when we did, the nose of the canoe tracked straight. We cheered. Suddenly, we were a well-oiled machine, a new crew with a new image.

We needed to rebrand. We brainstormed vessel names as we cruised past one boat after another, hooting and hollering. We were river bandits now, swift and formidable. Against all my expectations of a boring float trip, I was having fun. As we darted through riffles and caught strips of fast current to slingshot around bends, Adam settled on a name.

“We’re pirates!” he yelled. “Beware The Kraken!” Aye, and beware her crew, drunk on the joys of the open water. 

The Verdict: Pass

Years of negative thinking had left me with a grudge against canoeing, but with a little help (and the humility to accept it), I learned to paddle straight—and enjoy the benefits of letting the water do the work.

How to Paddle in a Straight Line

Work with the wind. Angle slightly into a port or starboard wind to avoid being blown broadside. Have the sternman paddle on the downwind side of the canoe.

Don’t overcorrect. In the stern? Hold the paddle under the water like a rudder and fan it right or left by just a few degrees at a time. (Up front? Don’t help; just set the pace.)

Paddle on opposite sides. The sternman should paddle on one side and the bowman on the other, switching periodically to avoid fatigue. Use a J-stroke to make small corrections.

Measure strokes. Long-armed partner? If you’re paddling on the right and he’s on the left, matching strokes will leave you trending left. Paddle more frequently (up to three or four strokes to every one of his), or have him shorten his strokes to stay straight. Similar wingspans? Paddle together. 

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