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  • Writer's pictureCliff Jacobson


Updated: Oct 31, 2022

Kopka River, Ontario.

I was once asked what prompted me to start writing about canoeing and camping.

“Myths,” I replied. I was incensed at the many stupid things that were parroted, edition after edition, in the canoeing literature. Here are some examples, many of which still survive today in modern books.


Going with the flow in yard-high waves keeps your attention. Allow the canoe to get off track—even momentarily—and it may spin sideways and swamp. Old canoe books recommended the use of a sea anchor to keep the canoe from broaching in a following sea. The legendary canoeing writer, Calvin Rutstrum describes the procedure in his book, “North American Canoe Country” (The Macmillan Co. 1964).

Rutstrum says to tie a 15-foot long rope to your largest cooking pail; when the sea begins to roll too heavily, throw the pail out into the water behind the canoe. The pail will fill with water and, according to Rutstrum, it will keep the canoe upright and stable, and the stern headed into the running sea. (Note: technically, this is a “drogue” when deployed off the stern; a sea anchor is deployed off the bow.

I tried this once, but the pail snagged on a rock and swamped the canoe! From then on, I preferred “proper paddle technique”.

When running with a heavy sea, the rule is to keep paddling! if you go slower than the waves or turn off wind, the canoe may broach and capsize. The stern person may have to hold a tight rudder (to stay on course) while the bow paddles ahead.

If your canoe begins to surf and a rocky shore looms ahead, get up a head of steam, then make a well-braced turn (lean downwind!) into the wave trough. You'll gulp some water and stall sideways in the wave trough. If you goof--or lean the wrong way--you'll swim to shore! Once in the trough, turn upwind and ferry ashore. Experienced paddlers who read this will smile: they know that a “surf turn” is easier said than done! But better to do it wrong and capsize and save your canoe from crashing at high speed into a rocky shore.


The idea is that two canoes are more seaworthy in a following sea if they are lashed together, catamaran style. Rutstrum recommends using “green-cut” poles for strength and flexibility. The poles are lashed to the front and stern thwarts—bows about four feet apart; sterns about six feet apart. The uneven spacing is to keep water from piling up between the poles.

It works well enough in moderate winds. But it’s a disaster in a serious sea. Lashings loosen, poles break and water splashes in. It’s a very wet ride, unless you have a spray cover.

Catamaran canoes. It works well on reasonably calm waters but can be a disaster in big waves. Cr. Seagull Outfitters.

On the other hand, the late Verlen Kruger had remarkable success with this method. But he had hard-decked canoes, high-strength composite poles and secure hull fittings.


Canoeing texts advise you to quarter waves at roughly a 30 degree angle when the bow beats up wind. This shortens the canoe’s waterline and allows the boat to fit more easily between the oncoming waves. You get better buoyancy and a drier ride.

Yes...but. A canoe on a quartering tack is on the verge of broaching to the wind. It takes a good team to hold the correct angle, especially if the canoe has much rocker. Screw up and you’ll swim! A head-on approach to the waves is a safer plan, more so, if partners move closer amidships to lighten the ends.

Quartering waves is a good plan for skilled paddlers. Beginners are better off to attack on-coming waves head on.


The plan is to protect the edge of the blade from damage. Well, I’ll push off with a foot thank you, not with the polished grip of my $300 carbon fiber paddle!

The blade beats the grip if you must push off. Why? Because a rough grip will cause blisters, whereas a nicked blade is a cosmetic nuisance that is easily repaired at home.

That's a $300 carbon-fiber paddle I'm holding. It has a butter-smooth, ergonomic grip that fits my hands perfectly. NO WAY will I use push off rocks with that grip! Standing on a lump of coal--Little MIssouri River, Teddy Roosevelt Natl. Park, ND.


Baloney! Most experienced open canoe paddlers stand “for a better look” when they approach rapids. Polers always stand—even when driving up or snubbing down rapids. If you can’t stand confidently in a tandem canoe you probably lack the balance to paddle moving water.

Scott Oeth poling his canoe down a dicey rapid. Yeah, he's standing! It's what polers do. Thanks for the photo, Scott.


Whether you sit or kneel depends on the kind of canoe you have, how it’s outfitted and how you prefer to paddle (sit’n switch, FreeStyle, etc.). Generally, you’ll have better control, stronger strokes, and more aggressive leans if you kneel in your canoe—more so, if it’s outfitted with knee braces and thigh straps.

This said, be aware that many canoes—notably, narrow lake cruisers and racers—aren’t designed for kneeling. The bows are too narrow to place your knees wide for a comfortable stance, and the low seats will trap your feet. Sit (low) in these canoes and lock your knees against the sidewalls, under the inside gunnels. This is a very stable position for running rough water.

My friend, Dick Pula has knee issues so he ALWAYS sits in his canoe. No problem: his canoe is outfitted with a low seat, foot and knee braces. Dick is locked in solid and confidently paddles big rapids without incident.


I’ve saved the best for last: When my wife Susie and I canoed Lewis and Shoshone Lakes in Yellowstone National Park at ice out, the ranger who issued our “backcountry boat permits” told us to trail a 15-foot long rope behind our solo canoes—the theory being that if we upset in the icy glacial water, we could grab the line and swim the canoe ashore.

Uh huh. I told the ranger this was nonsense. He said he wouldn’t issue the permit until I agreed to comply. I promised...with two fingers crossed.

Sailors know that loose lines and a rough sea don't mix. Lines should be secured so they are instantly available but won't stream out in a capsize. This photo shows my method.


*My flagship book, CANOEING WILD RIVERS, 5th Edition, contains a wealth of advice on how to safely canoe difficult rivers.

*My teen book, JUSTIN CODY'S RACE TO SURVIVAL! mixes a fictional wilderness survival tale with practical outdoor tips everyone should know--a first for books of this type. Adults love it too!

My book CAMPING'S TOP SECRETS, 2022 revision, details practical camping tips and procedures that only the experts know. If you know just a few of these tricks you'll be a hero to your friends!

My long out-of-print book, CANOEIST'S Q&A (available as an e-book) contains 25 true scenarios (plus FAQ's) that define the wilderness canoeing and camping experience--a great training tool for those who go beyond the beaten path.


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