20 Things Every Paddler Needs To Know

Words: John Doe
Photos: Ryan Creary, Mike Tittel, Aaron Schmidt, Maxi Kniewasser, Rob Casey, Erik Boomer

This story is featured in the Beginner’s Guide 2013 issue of Canoe & Kayak Magazine which can be purchased here.

So you call yourself a paddler? Before joining this hallowed subculture, there are a few key lifestyle skills that you should look to work into your arsenal to distinguish you from other waterman wannabes. Here are a few to get you started.

Paddler basics
photo by Ryan Creary
Run Shuttle: Just leave a vehicle at the takeout, right? If only it were that simple. First off, the eternal question: Should everyone meet at the put-in and then shuttle a car or cars down to the takeout, or just meet at the takeout and pile everyone and everything into one put-in rig? The solution will depend on seat space, rack room and comfort with your fellow boaters (e.g., lap space). Don’t forget straps, and to leave your dry clothes in a vehicle that will be at the takeout when you get there. There’s no one way to run shuttle, and there are hundreds of ways to botch the process, including forgetting to fill up with gas (nothing worse than arriving to a car on E at the takeout), not having a spare tire, or, worst of all, leaving your car keys at the put-in.

Portage a Canoe: You can always double carry, but for real backwoods cred learn to hoist your boat solo. Stand adjacent the center thwart, facing the canoe. With your knees bent into a high squat, grip the gunwale closest to you and pull the canoe up so the hull is resting on your thighs. Reach across the boat to grasp the far gunwale with one hand, and then slip the other arm under the hull. Now, in one fluid motion, kick up with one knee and swing the canoe overhead. Allow the center thwart or yoke to settle onto your shoulders behind the neck.

Photo by Mike Tittel
Seal a Drybag: A drybag is only as good as the person who closed it. To ensure water-tightness, first pack it right—no bulgy items, with soft things toward the top, and not too full. To seal, match up the flaps, press down to purge the air, and then fold the closure tightly at least three times. “You want to fold it rather than roll it,” says NRS rafting guru Clyde Nicely. Use your knee to keep the bag’s seal from unrolling as you close the buckle.

Steady Your Boat: Here’s a trick to steady your kayak when getting in or out: Place your paddle across the kayak just behind the cockpit, with one end extending to shore. Now grasp the paddle shaft and cockpit rim with one hand—creating an outrigger for added stability—as you ease in, or out, of your kayak.

Change Clothes at the Takeout: Sometimes (as in, almost always) there are no changing rooms at paddling takeouts. Here’s how to cope: Open two car doors to create a three-walled barricade, wrap a towel around your waist and then discretely disrobe under the cover of said towel. Key: Lay your clothes out beforehand to minimize potential exposure time, scan for errant passersby, and act natural.

Photo by Aaron Schmidt
Take Your Turn at a Play-wave
“The way an eddy system works for a playspot requires you to follow the same person in a continuous line,” says 2009 women’s World Freestyle Champion Emily Jackson. “If that person gets out, follow the person who was ahead of them. If there’s an eddy on both sides then you should alternate. Different locations have different rules, but generally always being polite and asking where you are in line if you’re confused will keep the eddy moving and everyone happy.”

Learn a Proper J-stroke: This stroke essential is a simple-to-learn technique that separates good canoeists from everyone else. It’s a forward stroke that ends with a steering input, allowing the stern paddler (or a solo canoeist) to keep the boat tracking arrow-straight without scrubbing speed. The key, says expert instructor Gordon Black, is keep the paddle’s power-face engaged throughout the stroke. “As the forward stroke finishes, twist your torso toward the paddle. Let the paddle blade travel behind you then twist your top hand down, pointing your thumb toward the water,” he says. The power face will now serve double duty as a rudder to subtly correct the canoe’s course. Lever the paddle by pulling the top hand toward the center of the boat, while pushing the shaft hand out away from the boat. Pick a point ahead, and use the J-stroke to keep your bow pointed straight toward it.

Roll: Rolling a kayak is the perfect parlor trick—a simple maneuver that never fails to impress. It’s much easier to do than to explain, so learn from a qualified instructor who will guide you through a progression of skills and confidence-building drills at a pace that’s right for you.

Bootie beer
Photo by Maxi Kniewasser
Drink a Bootie Beer: Here’s something you need to know about kayaking tradition: If you swim, you might be asked to drink a beer out of your wetsuit booty. To pour, fill the booty as you would any fine stein: tilt the ankle opening slightly to avoid foam and try not to gloat. When drinking, hold toe outward, purse lips around ankle lip and enjoy.

Monitor River Levels: At camp, when you’re away from hydrographs and online flow reports, there’s only one way to see if the river you’re on is rising or falling: place an upright stick in the sand right at water level. In the morning, check to see if your stick is high and dry, or underwater.

Support Your Paddling Community: You’re a paddler now, and that means you’re part of a community. Do your part by joining a group like American Whitewater, a nearly 60-year-old nonprofit protecting the interests of whitewater boaters. “Our love of whitewater makes us fierce defenders of rivers,” says AW Executive Director Mark Singleton. “At the core of our river stewardship program is the understanding that conservation and healthy human-powered outdoor recreation are mutually dependent.”

Find a Paddling Club: Meet like-minded paddlers through your local paddling club.

River story
Photo by Rob Casey
Tell a River Story: A proper boatman’s tale starts with “No shit, there I was,” and evolves over time.

Use a Tumpline: Developed by Native Americans and romanticized by fur-trading Voyageurs, the tumpline is the best way to carry heavy loads, including canoes, across long portages. The reason: It puts the weight in line with the spine. What it is: a 2- to 4-inch-wide leather strap with two long tails—usually five to 12 feet long—to tie to the load. Carry the load high so doesn’t interfere with your hip movement; and make sure the headpiece is on the top of your head rather than your forehead. If you feel your neck muscles straining, it’s too far forward.

Bag a Swimmer: “The most important thing with a throwbag is practice,” says river safety expert Charlie Walbridge. Grab the top of the bag with your throwing arm and draw rope with the other hand. Concentrate on a smooth arm motion. Without taking your eyes off the target, throw the bag underhand, releasing it when your throwing hand comes into your line of sight. Aim right for the swimmer. “The argument about whether you should aim upstream or downstream of your target is nonsense,” Walbridge says. “The best way to get someone’s attention is to lay the rope right in their face.” If you miss, pull the rope back in, coiling it loosely in your non-throwing hand, then fill the bag with water to weigh it down and toss again.

Know the Tides: Understanding the tidal cycle is an essential sea paddling skill. A local tide chart is a good start. It tells you how high and low the tide will be, and when. Applying that information to real world questions however, such as whether now is a good time to paddle from here to Sleepy Cove, requires a little more thought. Nautical charts show tidal currents, and you can predict their strength based on the time and the day’s tidal range. Remember that the strongest currents occur in the middle hours between high and low tide, while slowest currents coincide with high and low tides.

River signals
Photo by Erik Boomer Steve Winter
Know Your River Signals: On the river, where distance and the roar of rapids can make it impossible to hear, hand signals are crucial. William McGinnis, author of the iconic handbook Whitewater Rafting, advocates these universal hand signals. Stop—hand up, palm toward receiver in halt position; Are You OK?/I’m OK—tap finger tips on top of head or helmet; Eddy Out—circle upraised finger; Look—with index and middle fingers forming a V, point to eyes then twist and point; Scout—horizontal hand at brow, often combined with a stop signal. In rapids, a paddle held with the blade straight up means take the center route; a paddle or arm angled 45 degrees to the left or the right means you should run the rapid on the indicated side of the river. Always point in the direction you want someone to go, never in the direction of danger.

Pack a Kayak for an Overnight: Erik Boomer knows a thing or two about packing a kayak. He’s done countless multi-day whitewater trips, and a 104-day sea kayak circumnavigation of Ellesmere Island. “To me, this is what kayaking is about, going into the wilderness to live simply and creatively,” he says. Boomer’s advice: “Put all your gear into three piles—things you need, things you think you need, and things you want. Now take all of the first pile, none of the second and one of the third.”

Kayak Re-entry: If you capsize and swim, getting back inside your sea kayak is paramount. If you’re with another paddler, help your rescuer to drain your boat over their cockpit and then put it alongside theirs while they stabilize it and you climb in from the rear. If you’re solo, fasten a paddle float to one blade and wedge the shaft under the deck rigging to create an outrigger. Climb in by kicking with your legs and pulling yourself into the cockpit.

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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