BushLife - Guide to Canoeing

Introduction to Canoeing: A Guide for the New Canoeist

On a fall morning, most lakes and rivers are kind of magical – they steam beautifully against the cold morning air. Calmer morning winds provide a mirror backdrop for the sky and the tree canopy shows its amazing colours. There is no better way to enjoy these kinds of days than with a morning paddle. As the cold comes in more and more, these kinds of days are running out so let’s get through introduction to canoeing so you can get going quickly. Or at least get fully ready for next spring.

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Canoe Construction

A good start to this post would be to address the different materials canoes are made of and its effect on weight.

We bought our cottage and it came with a giant yellow canoe that was hanging off the ceiling in the garage collecting dust. This was all fine and dandy until I had to move it out of the way… I quickly realized somehow, someone managed to get it up there and they probably thought twice about ever pulling it down again as it weighs so much. This can be a good and bad thing as with weight comes stability.

The thing is I live on a lake and can drag just about any canoe to the water and leave it there for convenient use. But for anyone who needs to carry it on a roof of a car or anyone tripping where a portage is required, you certainly don’t want one these beasts. That’s because its an old school fiberglass model. Mine certainly feels like a 90 pounder so I use it confidently on the lake and leave it home when its time to canoe elsewhere.

Common Canoe Materials

Fiberglass

Fiberglass is what boats are made of and it was a legendary material when it first came out. Many, many moons ago, a salesman once gave my grandfather an axe to smack the hull of a boat in his quest to prove how solid it was. He was certainly right about its strength as the axe bounced right back. On a canoe, fiberglass would generally be an inexpensive to mid grade model. These budget canoes come at the price of weight. 70-80 lbs is my best guess for a typical fiberglass model.

Polyethylene (Plastic)

These are very tough models of canoe, and very heavy. Typically, 80 lbs. Similar to fiberglass, polyethylene canoes are durable and require little maintenance but they are not something to be portaging in the backwoods. These are great for people who own land on water and intend to canoe locally.

Royalex

Back in the day, anyone doing white water was after Royalex. It was an amazing product of extreme durability and for that reason it deserves a mention. As of 2013 they stopped manufacturing the “Royalex” material but if a decent one showed up on the used market I’d say it would be game for anyone ever considering white water adventures. We are talking around 70 lbs for 16′ of canoe.

Kevlar

Kevlar is light, really light! 40-50 lbs for a 16′ model. Thanks to the strength of its fibres, fewer are required to make a strong kevlar canoe. Maintenance isn’t substantial either however Kevlar is much more difficult to repair. Kevlar is also a faster variety of canoe. All sounds great, what’s the catch? Price. Kevlar is far more expensive than fiberglass or plastic.

Aluminum

Aluminum seems to get a bad rap and I don’t really know why. My neighbour has one and he was kind enough to lend it to me. I found it to be super light and unlike the stereotype that they are loud, it wasn’t bad at all. I also found it to be stable and strong despite the lack of weight. While not pretty, not the fastest nor a typical canoe for “canoeing”, I would certainly use one for fishing or hunting and I find aluminum to be very utilitarian. It is also durable, requires little maintenance and is unaffected by UV light. The one downside is it gets hot under the sun which is easily solved by throwing a towel or chair pad under your backside.

Cedar Strip

Cedar Strip Canoe
Cedar Strip Canoe

Here you have the Mercedes or Cadillac so to speak of canoes. I’ve also had the pleasure of borrowing one from another neighbour which led me to getting my own pictured above. In my mind, there is nothing more relaxing than going down a quiet lake or river in a cedar strip. It’s almost like driving a classic car, but without lacking a single amenity or quality in the process.

These canoes are fairly light, quiet, responsive and fast. They are also very expensive as they are extremely labour intensive to make. Being wooden and exposed to the elements, you guessed it, they also require a lot (and the most) amount of maintenance of all canoes. A cedar strip is not only a big commitment of finances and time (maintenance) but also emotion as it’s a piece that can be proudly paddled and handed down to the next generation.

What Do I Use?

I have a Bever brand that is from Sweden. It’s that 16 fiberglass I mentioned, flat bottomed which we’ll talk about below, heavy and VERY stable. In fact its the most stable canoe I have ever used which is why I keep it. It’s absolutely awesome for going down the lake, stable for beginners and it cuts through waves with ease.

My other canoe is a 16′ Swift Kevlar and I love it. I had the pleasure of buying it this year which believe me was a nightmare as is anything else during covid. I bought a 19 year old model that was in better shape than many canoes a year old, meaning it didn’t get much use. It still cost a fortune and I had to drive an hour and a half one way to pick it up. Why all the trouble? This canoe opened up many doors as it responds better to different strokes and is very transport and portage friendly.

My canoes are basically opposites and on purpose as they provide the right options for whatever required use a certain outing presents. And then of course there’s my favorite, the cedar strip.

Canoe Shape

So let’s talk about rocker. Rocker is the amount of curvature (front and back) a canoe has. Flat bottoms are excellent for travelling in a straight line such as going across a lake. They will track better and have more speed. Curved bottoms are much better for manoeuvring, the more curvature, the more easily the canoe will want to turn. This of course is at the expense of speed.

As to the bottom, there are some shapes here as well and by bottom I mean from the keel upwards around the sides of the canoe. Flat bottoms are more stable for entry/exit but will roll over more easily while paddling. Rounded bottoms are the exact opposite and are faster and more manoeuvrable. In other words novices are better off with flatter bottoms. Other shapes like tumblehome is similar to a flat bottom but the sides curve in more facilitating easier reach with a paddle while maintaining load capacity. V-shapes are good for lakes and straight lines, not so good for rivers.

Let’s go back to my canoes for comparison. The fiberglass is flat and super stable. The Kevlar is very rounded and far more difficult to get in and out of. I also find it generally a lot tippier while paddling, however it will turn on a dime. For fishing, guests, etc. we use the fiberglass. For a more “paddling” type of experience, out comes the Kevlar.

Types of Paddles

Paddling a Canoe
Paddling down the Bonnechere River

Yes, it makes a difference and a huge one at that. The wider paddles will move more water and accelerate the canoe faster. This is great for racing but will cause fatigue and quickly. Tall and narrow paddles are more for trips. Each stroke is much easier, fatigue is put on hold but the canoe will not respond as well. I like to be right down the middle so to speak and average out the best of both worlds. I also splurged a bit on a hand made wooden paddle so at least when you go by, you get a nice complement by just about anyone close enough to see the work of art in your hands. Don’t forget to get a paddle that is the right size and fit for you.

Related: Canoe Paddle Sizing: A Beginner’s Guide

The “J” Stroke is The Most Important Part of Anyone’s Introduction to Canoeing

Ah, the infamous J stroke! Now that we have the canoe and paddle sorted out, it’s time to actually use the thing. There is however one big problem, with each paddle on the right of the canoe, the canoe wants to turn left. With each paddle on the left, well of course the canoe wants to turn right. It’s so easy to spot the newbie from the not so newbie just by watching someone paddle. See to go in a straight line, the newbie will alternate sides they paddle on. I hesitate to say intermediate, pro, etc. as literally the “not so newbie” is the one that learns a stroke and goes forward in a straight line without having to switch sides.

And here comes the J stroke. The path of the paddle going through the water needs to form the shape of a J. The paddle curving away from the boat in that J shape will compensate for having thrust on one side of the boat and the canoe will amazingly go straight! Only when paddling the right side, remember you need to flip your J like this: Ⴑ

There are other strokes at our avail but let’s stick with the J for now. In fact it would be criminal on an introduction to canoeing to not bring it up. It is a very easy skill to learn and you can overcome the most frustrating part of paddling with this one little trick.

Manoeuvring

There are times we need to go sideways and yes, a canoe can literally go sideways. Times we need to turn in position. Other times we need to quickly pull off to the side such as avoiding waterfalls on rivers. Etc.

As much as I love writing and this is a blog, there are those moments when its far more suitable to cover certain topics with a video. If you are new to canoeing or want to improve, this video will single handedly propel your skills to a whole new level. It’s not my video either, it’s one of the very tools that taught me.

It’s a video from non-other than Bill Mason, a legendary Canadian film maker and author of Canoeing books and I’ve embedded it here from the National Film Board’s YouTube channel. If you are serious about canoeing, this less than 28 minute video will make all the difference in the world for your skills.

Paddling 2 Person

Even better, you’ll have someone to talk to! And you should watch this one:

An Introduction to Canoeing Can’t Be Done Without the Accessories!

So here’s a funny story. A hunting guide friend of mine was on a hunt and once saw a person on a canoe stand up which generally isn’t a good idea… This person then proceeded to pull out a 12 gauge shotgun and blast away at some birds only to find himself flipped over backwards straight into the water. He obviously didn’t read an Introduction to Canoeing:) While this is funny, at the wrong place and a colder time, this could also mean a survival situation. If you haven’t already read Backpack Gear Load Out, now would be a good time. The only difference here is it’s time to change the actual pack itself – for a waterproof variety.

Waterproof Duffels

Yeti Panga 75

Yeti Panga 75
YETI Panga 75L Waterproof Duffel

The Yeti Panga 75 is my go to bag for longer trips. At 75 litres as the model implies there is plenty of room to carry ample gear. You won’t find pockets here which can be a pain but careful packing will get the job done right. The bottom line is the bag is watertight – which means it not only keeps your gear dry, it floats. Good gear costs money and it’s worth considering a waterproof duffel to protect your investment.

Mustang Survival Greenwater 35

My other bag is the Mustang Survival Greenwater 35 and as its name implies, it’s a convenient 35 litres. Perfect for short trips! My only complaint with this bag is its lack of body. When you pick it up by the shoulder strap it bends a lot and doesn’t sit like a typical duffle. However, it does do its job perfectly in terms of protecting my gear and it just really fills that size well.

Yes, the Boat Safety Kit

You can have a nice quiet paddle or you can have the law writing you tickets. With paddle power, I don’t think you’ll outrun the police on this one:) Just do the right thing and buy this piece of gear. It’s for your own good anyways. The Fox 40 Boat Essentials Kit has a heaving line to toss to an overboard passenger, a whistle and a flashlight. The container doubles as a bailing bucket. This kit needs to be with you at all times you are on the water with of course life jackets for each paddler.

If you are not going deeper into backcountry, you won’t need everything in my survival kit. I suggest to always carry some water, snacks, sunscreen, bug spray and a hat. Don’t forget to get yourself something to keep your phone dry. There are several purpose built wet pouches out there. And always dress and carry appropriate clothing for the time of year. Many people don’t realize that it’s almost always colder on water than land so if in doubt, be extra prepared.

Canada and the Iconic Canoe

I once read that the United States is the country known for its horses. Back in the day the way to travel the vast land was by horse until the railways came in. In Canada on the other hand, the vehicle of choice was always the canoe. Sadly, I didn’t really know this until I wrote introduction to canoeing.

With over 2 millions lakes and 8500 named rivers, Canada is the nation of water! I also read but can’t find it so I’m going by memory is that one can cross the country from coast to coast by canoe. The longest portage on this very trip would be around 20 km. That’s pretty remarkable considering a coast to coast distance is anywhere from 5500 to 7200 km! So yes, there is nothing more historic or iconic in Canada than the canoe and its a tradition that goes back to our indigenous peoples and their birch bark canoes.

Introduction to Canoeing – Conclusion

Truth being told, if something didn’t have a motor I had no interest in it. Somewhere along the way I’ve come to appreciate that its actually nice to be close to the water, to be quiet, hear nature and wind and that going from point A to B isn’t always about getting to B. You can really see and hear things along the way that you would never notice when you are flying by in a motor boat. It’s what inspired me to write introduction to canoeing.

So grab a canoe and get out there a little bit. Perhaps you can’t even truly call yourself a Canadian until you fall off a canoe at least once in your life.

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Purchase the Items in This Post

YETI Panga 75L Waterproof Duffel

YETI Panga 75L Waterproof Duffel

Mustang Survival Greenwater 35L Submersible Deck Bag

Mustang Survival Greenwater 35L Submersible Deck Bag

Fox-40-Classic-Boat-Safety-Kit-1080x1080

FOX 40 Classic Boat Safety Kit

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Stelios Lazos
Stelios Lazos

Stelios comes from the corporate world where he was a highly successful executive. Inspired by his love for the outdoors he has re-located with his family to live to the BushLife where he blogs about his adventures. Finding inspiration in the never-ending questions from aspiring outdoors people, Stelios aims to share his knowledge, one post at a time.

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