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  • Writer's pictureCliff Jacobson


Updated: Jul 1


by Cliff Jacobson

Steel River, Ontario

When I was a Boy Scout in the 1950s, my greatest thrill was summer camp and the overnight canoe trip. Only boys who had passed their swimming requirement were invited.  If you knew how to run waves and steer around rocks you were a hero to your friends.  Hitting a rock or log—or worse, a capsize—drew laughter.  As in life, good skills were rewarded, bad ones had consequences.


Take this test and see how much you know about canoeing!



Directions: Choose the best answer.  Many questions have more than one right answer: Choose all that apply:


1.  You are canoeing into a brisk headwind. The canoe should be loaded so that a)  It is slightly bow heavy.

b)  It is slightly tail (stern) heavy.

c)  It is level.

d)  It only matters if there is a lot of weight in the canoe.


2.  You are paddling a loaded tripping canoe down a river with strong current and big waves.  Ahead is a big sweeping bend with a prominent rock in the middle. You should: a)   Stay as far to the outside of the bend as possible.

b)   Stay as far to the inside of the bend as possible.

c)   Stay in the middle of the river.

d)   It doesn’t matter where you are as long as you avoid the rock.


3.  You are canoeing along the right shore of a river that has a fast current.  Thirty yards ahead is a ten-foot-wide ledge you must avoid.  It’s clear sailing on river left, if you can get there.  Best plan is to: a) Turn the canoe to the left and paddle straight across the river.  

b) Turn the canoe about 30 degrees to the right and back-paddle hard-- keep this 30-degree angle as you back-paddle. 

c) Continue towards the ledge. Use powerful pry and draw strokes to sideslip the canoe away from the drop.

d) Paddle hard and keep momentum when you go over the ledge.

Kopka River, Ontario

4.  You are canoeing into big waves on a windy lake.  Best way to maintain control and keep from swamping is to:

a)  Paddle hard, directly into the waves.

b)  Turn the canoe about 30 degrees to the waves and paddle hard.

c)  Paddle straight into the waves, with enough speed to make progress but not so much that the canoe takes on water.

d)  Turn the canoe 30 degrees to the waves and rudder to hold the course.

5.  You are canoeing in a strong tailwind.  Suddenly, the canoe begins to surf and pick up speed.  What to do?

a)  Back-paddle hard! The surf wave will soon pass, and you’ll be fine.

b)  The bow person should paddle while the stern person holds a strong rudder to keep the canoe on course. Canoes don’t surf well for very long; the danger will soon pass.

c)  Turn the canoe sideways to the waves. This will break the surf and save the day.

d)   Do nothing; the surf won’t last long.


6.  When your canoe encounters rough water (waves or rapids), it is best to:

a)  Kneel in the canoe.

b)  Sit in the canoe.

c)  Lower the center of gravity. Whether you sit or kneel depends upon the height of your canoe seats and the width of your paddling station.

d)  Sit down on the bottom of the canoe.


7.  Which of these are GOOD canoeing practices? a)   Standing in a canoe that is half on land, half on water.

b)   Lifting a canoe for portaging by raising one end off the ground.

c)   Tying your canoe to a tree when you are ashore.

d)   Dragging your canoe up a sand beach that has no rocks.


8.  Which of these is NOT essential for safety on a canoe trip?

a)  A ring buoy.

b)  Grab loops or short lines attached to each end of the canoe.

c)  Individual PFD, whistle and knife.

d)  First-aid kit. 


9.  You are canoeing a rapid. Which statement(s) is FALSE? a)  If you see an upstream vee in the water, there’s a rock below it. A  downstream vee indicates safe passage.

b)  Best way to get around obstacles in a fast-moving river is to steer around them.

c)  You should paddle through rapids as fast as you can.

d)  It is usually best to paddle through rapids slowly, while maintaining control.


10.  Which canoe building material(s) will best take the abuse of rapids?

a)    Aluminum.

b)    Kevlar.

c)    Royalex.

d)    Polyethylene.

e)    Proprietary materials: IXP (Northstar); TuffStuff (Nova Craft), T-Formex (We-no-nah).


11.  You are paddling stern, on the RIGHT SIDE of a tandem canoe. Your partner is paddling bow, on the LEFT SIDE. You perform the following strokes in unison.  Match the strokes to the canoe’s performance:

a) Bow draw + stern draw.

b) Bow draw + stern pry.

c) Bow pry + stern pry.

d) Bow pry + stern draw.      


1. Canoe side-slips to the right.

2. Canoe pivots clockwise.

3. Canoe side-slips to the left.

4. Canoe pivots counter-clockwise.


12.  Two 14-year-old kids want to canoe a river that has Class II rapids. They have never canoed in moving water. What is your advice? a) Tell them to pick an easier route; these rapids are too tough for beginners.

b) These rapids are easy; they should have no trouble.

c) If they scout the rapids before they run them, they will be fine.

d) They should portage every rapid.

13.  Which of these are canoeing mistakes? a)   Wearing polarized sunglasses while canoeing a rapid.

b)   Paddling barefoot.

c)   Tying your spare paddle to a thwart so it won’t be lost if you capsize.

d)   Setting a bent-shaft paddle on the ground with the bend pointing down.

e)   Scouting a rapid you have run many times.


14. The fastest current in a river is always found: a)   On the inside bend.

b)   In the middle of the river.

c)   On the outside bend.

d)   At the bottom of a rapid.

15.  Which of these are unsafe? a)   Wearing something around your neck on a string while canoeing.

b)   Wearing an unzipped lifejacket (PFD).

c)   Wearing high-top shoes while canoeing a difficult rapid.

d)   Wearing a rain poncho while paddling in waves or rapids.

e)   Wearing gloves while paddling rapids.


16.  What should you do if your canoe grounds on a rock in a strong current? a)   Lean downstream and try to push the canoe off the rock. 

b)   Lean upstream and try to push the canoe off the rock.

c)   If the water is deep, get out of the canoe and into the water on the upstream side and push the canoe off the rock.

d)   If the water is deep, get out of the canoe on the downstream side and try to pull the canoe off the rock.


17.  If you capsize in a rapid you should: a)   Hold on to the downstream end of the canoe and try to swim the canoe to shore.

b)   Hold on to the upstream end of the canoe and try to swim the canoe to shore.

c)   Leave the canoe: swim to shore as fast as you can!

d)   If the water is very cold or there’s a dangerous obstacle (falls, strainer etc.) just ahead, leave the canoe immediately and swim to shore.


18.  True or false: If you capsize in a rapid, do not try to stand up in water that is more than knee deep. 


19.  You have capsized in a rapid (naturally, you are wearing a PFD) and have become separated from your canoe.  What should you do? a) Get on your back, feet held high as possible and pointed downstream—use your paddle to ward off rocks as you swim (backstroke) to shore.

b) Let go of your paddle.  Use a strong crawl stroke to swim to shore.

c) Swim after your canoe and catch it; hang on to the canoe, it is your best life-saving device!

d) Most rapids are fairly shallow; see if you can stand up and walk to shore.


20.  True or false: It is safe to run a dam that has a drop of less than two feet.



A "find" along the Kopka River, Ontario.



1. (a) A slightly heavy bow makes for better control, but (c) level trim is an equally good plan.  Give yourself credit if you checked (a), (c) or both.


2. (b) You should stay on the inside of river bends, except in low water where the canoe could ground on rocks.   Learn how to “back ferry” your canoe around a bend and practice it until you can do it without thinking. Every canoeing book shows how. You must master the back ferry to safely canoe rapids with a loaded tripping canoe.


3. (b). This is an example of a “back ferry”.  Ever watch ducks cross a current?  They paddle upstream, body angled towards the opposite shore.   The current whisks them straight across the river with no downstream slip.  You are doing the same thing as those ducks except the canoe will be going backwards, not forward.  If the current is very strong, it is unlikely you can hold a 30-degree angle while paddling backwards.  In which case, the “forward ferry” is better.  Procedure: Turn the canoe upstream with the bow pointed towards the shore (where you want to go!) at about a 30-degree angle to the current.  Maintain this angle and paddle hard; you’ll scoot right across the river.


4. (b) is the classic answer; (c) is better. Why?  Because it takes a powerful, experienced team to “quarter” large oncoming waves.  One misplaced stroke and the canoe may broach and swamp.  Unskilled paddlers are better off to attack waves, head-on. In any case, paddling too hard may cause the canoe to take on water; not paddling hard enough may result in broaching and a capsize. Score (b) or (c) as correct.


5. (b) “a”  and “c” will result in an almost certain capsize. 


6. (c)  Sit if your canoe has a low seat that could trap your feet in a capsize, or if your canoe has a narrow bow that limits you from spreading your knees wide on the floor for stability.   Give yourself credit for either (c) or (a), or both.


7. (c) The “end lift” grinds the bow into the ground.  It will damage a fine canoe!


8. (a)


9. (b) and (c)


10. (c), (d) and (e) take abuse best, though well-built Kevlar canoes can be very strong. Aluminum canoes are strong but the metal sticks to rocks and the deep keel can catch on obstacles. Score correct if you had two of the three correct answers.


11.  (a) = 4;  (b) = 3;  (c) = 2;  (d) = 1 (Mark “incorrect” if you get any wrong)


12. (a). Many guidebooks use the International River Rating scale, which runs from I (Easy) to VI (limit of navigability).  Class II rapids may have low ledges and waves up to three feet.  River speed sometimes exceeds hard back-paddling speed. Beginners will have problems with Class II, even low Class II. It may be difficult to portage every rapid. Portages aren’t always easy to locate, and in high water, may be dangerously close to the head of a rapid.  For this reason, the advice to portage every rapid (d) is unwise.


13. (b), (c), (d).  Rationale: Barefoot paddlers may hurt their feet if they capsize in a current; spare paddles should be available in an emergency, not tied in; you’ll break a bent-shaft paddle with the blade tip down if you step on it. River conditions change: always scout rapids that you’ve done before. You must get all three right to score “correct”.


14. (c)


15. (a, b, d).  (c) is subject to debate as many wilderness paddlers do wear flexible, high rubber boots when paddling rapids. Still, if you capsize and a foot becomes trapped between two rocks, you can more easily “exit” a low shoe than a high one.  Ponchos can be dangerous in a capsize: wear a two piece rain suit instead! Score correct if you also checked (c).


16. (a). Always lean downstream when your canoe is broadside to a current.  Don’t get out downstream of a grounded canoe unless you can stand on a rock.  Don’t get out upstream of a grounded canoe if the water is more than knee deep—the current may pull you under the boat! 


17. (b) and (d).  You must get both to score “correct”.


18. True.  If a foot becomes trapped between rocks, the current will mow you down and you will drown!


19. (a) is the preferred method for swimming a rapid. The flotation on the back of your PFD should keep you above the waves when you are on your back.  It bears repeating that you should never try to stand up in moving water that is more than about a foot deep.


20.  False. It is unsafe to run any dam, unless part of it has broken away to create a safe chute.



18-20: CANOE GURU—You should be chairperson of the canoe-training committee.

16-17: INSTRUCTOR CANOEIST—You have much to teach and more to learn.

14-15: CIT (Canoeist In Training)—Stick to lakes and gentle currents until you know more.

12-13: CASUAL CANOEIST—Keep learning; your heart is in the right place.

0-11: TIPPY CANOE AND YOU TOO—bring along a skilled partner.

Cliff: 14-foot Pakboat (folding canoe). Poreno River, Norway

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

 *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 - now available as an audio book under the new title PADDLER'S GUIDE: WHAT TO DO WHEN THINGS GO SOUR.

*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!  Now available as an audio book!




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