The beginner's guide to canoeing: Basic strokes for paddling folks and everything you need to get started

You too, can canoe! Here's how to embark on this great Canadian tradition.

You too, can canoe! Here's how to embark on this great Canadian tradition.

(Unsplash/Atia Naim)

The canoe gliding serenely through calm waters against a backdrop of tranquil wilderness is a quintessential Canadian image, and as Canadian as maple syrup and hockey.

"What sets a canoeing expedition apart is that it purifies you more rapidly and inescapably than any other," wrote former prime minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau. "Travel a thousand miles by train and you are a brute; pedal five hundred on a bicycle and you remain basically a bourgeois; paddle a hundred in a canoe and you are already a child of nature."

Before you canoe a hundred miles, you'll want to get a grip on the basics. Even if you've never been in a canoe before, Canada's other national sport is surprisingly easy to learn, and incredibly rewarding to do.  

Where to start

Tandem canoeing is the best way to start  ̶̶ keeping the boat straight is much easier with two people versus paddling solo.

Many Canadians never take formal lessons, learning from friends or family on summer vacations at cottages or while camping. You can also learn through trial, error and YouTube. However, a basic skills course can cut down on the frustration of zigzagging (not fun), as well as the tipping (refreshing on a hot day, but otherwise, not fun).

Paddle Canada, which oversees recreational canoe, kayak and stand-up paddleboard instruction in Canada, says basic skills courses run from two to four hours. A one-day course on lake canoe skills provides a more thorough grounding. Provincial recreational canoeing organizations, canoe outfitters, community centres, parks and conservation areas are other good places to find courses.   

Think calm, warm waters, close to shore. You'll want to go with a safe lake or even a pond: a small, shallow, sheltered body of water that is unlikely to get wavy and has no current. Pick a day with no thunderstorms! It goes without saying that you should know how to swim and feel comfortable in the water.

Equipment you'll need

Many parks, conservation areas, outfitters and campgrounds in Canada rent canoe packages, providing everything you'll need:  

1. A canoe: Generally canoes are quite stable, but the longer and wider it is, the greater stability the canoe has. For two people, common sizes range from 15 to over 17 feet long.

2. Two paddles: Determine the right paddle by turning the paddle upside down, with the grip on the floor. The throat of the paddle, where the blade begins, should reach between your chin and nose.

3. Two life jackets: You require a personal flotation device (PFD) for each person, but Transport Canada does not make you wear them. However, they work much better when you do!  

4. Safety equipment: Transport Canada also requires you to have a whistle to call for help (often comes with the PFD), a bailer and a buoyant rope at least 15 metres long.

Getting in

How do you get in without getting your feet wet? It can be done, but it's easier if you wear sandals or shoes that are fine to get wet.

The centre line of the canoe is your sweet spot. You want to maintain three points of contact, stabilizing the canoe on both sides with your hands, while stepping in to the centre line of the canoe with your foot. If you get in from a dock, have your partner kneel and hold the canoe, while you step in. Then hold the dock while your partner gets in. Getting in from shallow water or a beach works in a similar way.

Basic strokes for paddling folks

Partners work together by paddling on opposite sides of the canoe; this creates stability and helps the canoe travel in a straight-ish line. The front or bow person mainly paddles forward, and the rear or stern person paddles forward and steers.

Basic strokes you'll want to learn are forward and backward paddling, the draw, and the pry. In the stern, the sweep and the j-stroke help you steer.

To paddle forward, reach ahead of you with the paddle blade and dig into the water, pulling towards you, stopping after your hip. Your arms should be nearly straight, using torso rotation instead of your arm and shoulder muscles, so your core bears the bulk of the work. Your paddle should be near vertical when it enters the water.

In the bow, you can also draw or pry to save the boat from hitting a surprise rock or to pull your canoe into a dock (ditto for the stern). Draw by reaching out with your paddle blade parallel to the canoe in the water, and pull the water towards you. Pry is the same motion in reverse, pushing the water away.

Steering your canoe in a relatively straight line is the greatest challenge, which falls to the stern.

If you're paddling on the right, a sweep will turn your boat left. A sweep is as it sounds  ̶ starting with the paddle nearly straight in front of you, just below the surface of the water, sweeping with the blade in a half circle to finish at the back of the canoe. To turn the right, the stern paddler performs a j-stroke, essentially a forward stroke with an outward pry-like flick behind you at the end, not really in the shape of a j. This one gets easier with practice and helps keep the canoe in a straight line.

Backward paddling, i.e. the forward stroke done backwards, is useful to avoid collisions and stop your boat.

Other important tips

If the stern paddler times the stroke to match their partner's, that goes a long way to helping you paddle a straight line.

If the canoe wobbles, don't grab the gunwales, i.e. the sides of the canoe. This makes it a lot easier to tip over. Instead put your paddle in the water. Also, don't stand in your canoe.

Over time, you'll find canoeing starts to click, and can become second nature. Then you can really relax, enjoy your canoeing and paddle those one hundred miles (or maybe just five!).


Kimberley Fehr is a freelance writer and marketing copywriter. Find her on Twitter @KimberleyFehr, website: www.kimberleyfehr.ca.