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During one of my latest runs down a local favorite (class III), I ran into 5 very inexperienced paddlers. When I came across them, they were finishing up emptying their boats and wringing out their hair. It seems a deceiving little pillow rapid got the best of them. I asked them if they had ever been down the next set of rapids and they responded with an emphatic, “NO” proceeded with, “we’ll follow you”. After giving them a couple pointers on what to avoid downstream, we paddled on. I went first.

I got through the run and looked back to see three heads, and three empty boats, floating towards me. This is where it got interesting. This set of rapids dumps into a large, deep pool lined with rock walls. There is no getting out on the bank because… there is no bank. Their boats filled with water, none of them knew self-rescue techniques designed for these set of circumstances and none of them had a bilge pump.

Fast-forward to the end of the story—I had a bilge pump. Also, they all floated far enough downstream that they were able to get a footing along the bank and dump their boats. Things could’ve turned out much differently however and hopefully these people learned a valuable lesson:  Know how to rescue yourself. Know how to re-enter your boat. Carry a bilge pump. WEAR SHOES 🙂 Seriously.

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I’m gearing up for a annual canoe trip with some old friends. We started out with 6—a nice even number for 3 canoes—but a buddy had to drop out due to work conflicts. We’re down to five, which means someone is going to have to paddle solo in a tandem canoe. I figured this would make a good topic to cover. So, how do you do it? How does one person successfully navigate a canoe that was designed to be paddled by two people?

First, avoid the easy way out. While it may be tempting to sit towards the stern, where a comfortable seat is waiting for you, the best results will be achieved if you kneel in the center of the boat—just behind the yoke. This will position your body, and the canoe, to get the most out of your paddle strokes. The key is to slightly lean towards the paddle side of the boat. This approach lifts the bow slightly out of the water, keep the stern in the water, and reduces the waterline of the boat, making it easier to maneuver. The rest is all in the paddle strokes: The Forward Stroke, the Draw, the Pry, and the C-stroke.

The Forward Stroke
This is the stroke that everyone knows and it comes naturally to most. Simply lean towards the paddle side of the boat while holding the paddle straight up and down. With your outside shoulder turned slightly towards the bow of the boat, slice the paddle into the water and smoothly pull the paddle towards you. When the paddle reaches your hip, lift it out of the water and do it again. This stoke propels the canoe forward and slightly away from the paddle side of the boat. If this is the only stroke applied, you’ll simply paddle in circles.

The Draw
This paddle stroke pulls your canoe towards the paddle. While leaning towards the paddle side of the boat, and the paddle blade parallel with the length of the boat, extend the paddle away from the canoe and pull the paddle towards you. Keep the paddle as vertical as possible. If you draw towards the bow, the bow turns toward the paddle. If you draw towards the stern, the stern turns toward the paddle.

The Pry
This stroke pushes the canoe away from the paddle. The best way to execute this stroke is to place the shaft of the paddle up against the gunwales, with the blades of the paddle parallel with the length of the canoe. Lean towards the side with the paddle and put the blade of the paddle into the water at an angle that puts the blade under the canoe. Using the gunwales as leverage, pull the handle back towards your body. Like the Draw, Prying towards the bow pushes the bow away from the paddle, and Prying towards the stern pushes the stern away from the paddle.

The C-stroke

This stroke is a combination of the Forward Stroke, the Draw and the Pry, combined into one continuous stroke. The name “C-stroke” comes from the shape your paddle makes while it’s underwater. The first part of the stroke is a Draw, which moves the bow towards the paddle. As you Draw, smooth the stroke out to a Forward Stroke that’s parallel with the length of the boat. This propels the canoe forward and pushes the bow away from the paddle. Finish the stroke with a Pry, which turns the bow back towards the paddle. When using a C-stroke, a solo paddler can easily paddle a solo or tandem canoe and keep it going perfectly straight.

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