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  • Writer's pictureCliff Jacobson


FreeStyle canoeing is like ballet on the water. Wood-canvas canoe by Tom Mackenzie.

Some years ago, I had the privilege of taking a FreeStyle canoeing class from Karen Knight and the late Tom Mackenzie--two of the world's top instructors. There were about 50 in attendance, mostly young women in small solo canoes. Many were new to the sport; some had paddled only a few months; still, they were much better at FreeStyle moves than me. My problem was that I just couldn't shake the burned-in whitewater procedures I'd honed from decades of canoeing rapids in loaded canoes. I marveled at how these relatively new paddlers could dance so beautifully on the water while comparably, I was a klutz.

One day, we gathered to canoe a local river. The water had a determined current and enough obstacles to keep things mildly interesting. Problems surfaced immediately: canoes broached in the riffles (nothing rated above Class I), grazed rocks, and snagged in vegetation on the outside bends. I watched in confusion, wondering how this could be? After all, there was nothing here that required more than casual canoeing know-how. Yet, my new friends, who were so beautifully accomplished on dead-flat water, were crashing and burning all around me. There seemed to be no carryover between their paddle-on-the-pond ballet art and a gently moving river.

Expert paddler, Jim Mandle negotiates a rapid on Ontario's Steel River. Canoe is a carbon-Kevlar Bell Flashfire.

A year later, I made a week long canoe trip in the Adirondacks with some friends, one of whom was a nationally known FreeStyle guru. All went well until we encountered white caps on one of the lakes. I thought they were no big deal, but our friend was seriously scared, so we put ashore to wait them out. Some years later, I had a similar experience with a friend who is an expert Class III-IV whitewater boater. We were paddling loaded solo cruising canoes (Bell Yellowstone Solos) on French Lake in the Boundary Waters, a big wind at our tail. I braced and comfortably rode my horse across the lake with no concern at all. But my whitewater friend was uneasy and pleaded not to go on.

Hmmm... I wondered? He is a much better paddler than me: How could he be intimidated by waves which I view as just a fun ride?

The most probable answer is that skills from one canoeing discipline (i.e. whitewater, quiet water, FreeStyle, racing, tripping) don't "carryover" completely to other disciplines. For example: Accomplished whitewater paddlers use a "thumbs-up J" to keep their skittish solo boats on course. This stroke is powerful and it quickly converts to a low brace (essential in pushy water), but it is not fluid and it wastes energy. Consequently, practiced solo paddlers don't use it--they unlovingly refer to it as the "goon stroke" (seconded by the late Bill Mason). Instead, they opt for the more efficient "thumb-down" pitch/solo-C combo which keeps a dead-straight course without wig-wagging.

Another example: If you use a use a bent-shaft paddle in your canoe (which just about everyone does these days) you must necessarily use the power side (rather than the angled back-side) of the blade to execute a "low brace." The time lost in reversing the blade in rapids could be disastrous in a whitewater canoe. Then there's the matter of "back versus forward ferry" technique. Whitewater sport boats spin and forward ferry around obstacles; stiffer-handling tripping canoes generally "backferry" around them.

It follows that paddle strokes and procedures that work best in one style of canoe may be awkward--even dangerous--in another style canoe. This was made clear to me on a Buffalo River trip where everyone but me was a hotshot rapids rider. Indeed, one man had successfully canoed the Grand Canyon in a whitewater solo canoe! Naturally, I was intimidated by his expertise.

The author (center) and friends in their solo canoes. Yellowstone River, Montana

But there were no specialized whitewater boats on this trip. Instead, we all paddled similar solo cruising canoes that by design, are marginal in rapids. Very high water on the Buffalo brought big waves and lots of obstacles to avoid. My friends did fine but their moves were often less elegant than mine.


Jim Mandle: Bell Flashfire on Ontario's Steel River

Probably because I have spent thousands of hours paddling solo cruising canoes, while my friends were new to them. They were discovering that these little boats handled much differently than the hot sporty boats they usually paddled--similar to what one might experience if their daily driver was a Mazda Miata and suddenly they switched to a pickup truck.

Kopka River, Ontario

The point is, If you embrace just one style of paddling (e.g. flatwater, whitewater, FreeStyle or racing) and close your mind to other styles, you will be at risk for stuff that is out of your league--like when a calm lake suddenly turns on edge, a usually clear stream becomes blocked by a sweeper, or a lazy channel erupts into a rapid. Then, a repertoire of skills gleaned from other disciplines can save the day.


*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, BOUNDARY WATERS CANOE CAMPING, 3rd Edition, details everything you need to know to safely and enjoyably canoe the BWCA.


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