by Louis Bignami

Canoes put you on the water for less money, less effort and less risk than you probably expect. Most experts feel canoes rank with bicycles as effective "people-powered" transport. Best of all in this too often loud and confused world, canoes relax and refresh the mind without overtiring the body.

All you need to do to enjoy this splendid recreation is to overcome unfounded fears about canoes, locate a rental agency on an easy river or sheltered lake and go for it. Then, when you get hooked, it's nice to know that you won't bust your budget as you enjoy optional motor, sail, single paddle, double paddle or oar power.


Lou Bignami in his big Grumman aluminum canoe, "Tommy Tomato".


I started canoeing years ago. Today, my wife and I pack our canoe with camping gear and enjoy remote boaters-only campsites. We paddle or sail to prime spots to fish rivers and lakes. I add a camo cover and shoot ducks and geese from our boat. When tides ebb we canoe to clam flats. In the spring we often spend an afternoon floating down moderately frisky whitewater. Even a short trip across the lake in the front of our home to a shore picnic more than repays our effort. Best of all, we pay no slip rentals, and need neither a boat trailer nor a launch ramp as we launch and retrieve our canoe down banks without much trouble.

You can learn to paddle on a lake to gain confidence, but after you master basic paddle strokes, move to rivers where currents do 80 percent of the work. You can plan tidewater and flatwater trips so you take advantage of tides and/or winds.

Try to start on a nice 75 to 80 degree F day, on water at least 60 F degrees, so you stay warm and comfortable. Note: safety experts say you need wet suits if the sum of the air and water temperature isn't at least 100 degrees.

Once you locate or reserve a canoe, pick paddles long enough to come up to your armpit while you stand -- paddles run short at rental agencies so you need to search -- to more easily reach the water. Note: before you buy single paddles for your own use, try double paddles which get you there faster and seem easier to use.

Make certain that you have and wear the life jackets its now politically correct to call "Personal Floatation Devices" or PFDs. Frankly, life jackets tells a better story. Sit on flotation cushions to pamper posteriors if you like, but wear life vests or jackets. Children need special jackets with straps under the legs or other attachment arrangements. It is lots easier to fish out gear in case of an upset if a jacket keeps you afloat!

A good way to see this is to deliberately dump empty canoes in warm water on warm days to practice getting back into and emptying water out of the canoe. Pick a calm spot with little current upstream from a shallow. Realize that, in current, you should always be on the upstream side of your canoe so you do not get caught between the proverbial rock and hard spot.

Do cover up. Sun reflects off the water and the bright inside of the typical aluminum rental canoe and those who wear bathing suits or shorts fry fast! Long sleeve shirts and long pants, a broad brim hat and tennis shoes -- bare feet mean bone bruises when you hop in and out of your canoe -- do the job. Add a windbreaker if you plan an all day trip and always bring bug dope. We find Ben's 100 and other 100 percent DEET effective. Add an extra set of dry shoes and socks -- a complete change of clothing if pessimistic! -- and you are just about set.

Bring a lunch to break up a three or four hour trip during the middle of the day when the weather's warm. A small ice chest -- we like the new Coleman model -- tied into the canoe keeps things dry even in the unlikely case of an upset. You might want to add a short length of line, just in case you want to tie up or an anchor if you plan to fish.

Try to start around nine or ten in the morning when the weather's warm. On moving water figure three to four hours actual paddling time. Most beginners paddle a mile or two an hour and you can add another mile or two per hour for the current on rivers. Don't forget to add in time to portage or enjoy lunch or fishing breaks. The key to first day enjoyment seems minimal effort for maximum fun so a short route seems best.

Do realize that the key to upright canoeing remains a low center of gravity. If you sit on the bottom of a canoe it's almost impossible to upset it. If you kneel -- a padded cushion protects knees -- your center of gravity is lower than if you sit on the seat.

However, upsets are not likely if you gradually build skills. For example, like many long-time canoeists who fish, I sometimes stand to flycast and to pole my Coleman Scanoe® upstream on fastwater. Poling, a traditional east coast method, moves a canoe upstream faster than paddles, but it requires special skills best learned by more experienced canoeists. Don't try this to start!!

Two paddlers fit canoes best; three's a crowd but you can stash kids or duffel amidships. If you plan to paddle a canoe alone, sit facing the rear on the front seat and you keep the center of gravity more in the center of the boat. You may need to add a rock or full water container at the opposite end of the boat for balance even here.

Don't get too ambitious to start. A slow stroke, pause, stroke glides you farther for the same amount of effort. Try paddling in a straight line and some easy strokes to each side. You will find two should paddle on opposite sides of the boat and that changing sides from time to time reduces arm fatigue.

As a rule the "captain" sits in the stern and adjusts his or her stroke to the bow paddler who's responsible for noting underwater hazards. TIP: if traveling downriver, put the heaviest paddler in the bow so the canoe stays in line with the current.

If you take these simple measures, review a canoeing book if you have time and start your first trips with rental craft on safe waters, there's little question but that you might want to own your own gear. Tip: try lots of rentals first. Consider canoe classes at your local YMCA, think about joining the your national Canoe Association or your local canoe club and you can learn skills that let you paddle a canoe for years. How long? I regularly share downriver trips with a couple in their late 60's! With the canoe carrying the load you can relax and enjoy, that's the reason you should find you too can canoe.

Once you've mastered the basics all sorts of opportunities open. You can use canoes as fishing or hunting tools, as a means to get to isolated camping spots on the other side of a lake or down the river. You can travel hundreds, even thousands of miles. You can learn to sail canoes. You can race canoes in flat or moving water. We've even used "Canogagons" to race down ski slopes, but injuries and insurance regulations killed that. You can, however, learn to pole canoes upstream instead of portaging them. Canoes are, after all, one of the most efficient watercraft anywhere. Models in wood, hide, canvas, aluminum, kevlar, Ram-X and other materials exotic or historic are found all over the world. There's a good reason for that. You'll see it if you, too, try a canoe.

Good Reading

INTRODUCTION TO CANOEING; Angier & Taylor; good inexpensive introduction. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds of canoe guides to easy waters world wide.