Canoeing Myths

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, "The New Way of the Wilderness" (The Macmillan Co. 1958):

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 Rutsturm, it will keep the canoe upright and stable, and the stern headed into the running sea.

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 down-wind!) 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!


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 four feet apart; sterns 6 feet apart (to keep water from piling up between).

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, even with a spray cover. 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 rock-solid 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.

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 $200 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.


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.


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 side-walls, under the inside gunnels. This is a very stable position for running rough water.


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 "back-country boat permits" told us to trail a 15 foot rope behind our solo canoes-if we upset in the icy glacier 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.

Cliff Jacobson is a professional canoe guide and outfitter for the Science Museum of Minnesota, a wilderness canoeing consultant, and the author of more than a dozen top-selling books on camping and canoeing.

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