To paddle a canoe in a straight line there are a number of innovations. You can power forward and then change sides every time the boat begins to veer slightly away from your paddling side. But unless you have a bent-shaft paddle, this technique is considered the most degrading technique in the paddling community and will get you laughed off the water in no time. Then there's the process of twisting the paddle blade toward the canoe after completing each forward stroke, treating the paddle somewhat like a ship's rudder. But this has been labeled the "goony stroke," and for good reason; every time you twist inward you put on the brakes. Next is the J-stroke, which is the ultimate steering stroke. You twist the paddle outwards (opposite of the goony) to form the letter J, which forces the canoe back on course while still keeping your forward momentum.
The definite steering stroke for canoe trippers, however, is the Canadian Stroke. It was actually the Americans who came up with the name (originally it was called the Knifing J Stroke). Canadians just didn't bother changing it back because, according to the experts, a well-executed Canadian Stroke is the pinnacle of perfection in motion, a skill that only comes after extensive canoe tripping.
It starts off the same as the J stroke, but rather than pull the blade abruptly out of the water after the J is complete, the paddle is "knifed" forward under the surface of the water until about halfway through the recovery. This saves both time and energy since you have to place the paddle forward for the next stroke anyway. The power face of the paddle faces the sky and the main trick is to get the proper angle while the blade is being pulled forward through the water. Too much and the paddle will burst out of the water and too little and it will dive deep below the surface like a submarine. The pressure given to the paddle while being pulled up through the water and the length of the time it's kept below the surface is what determines how much the canoe veers back the other way.
In simpler terms, the Canadian Stroke is just an extended J stroke, and in fact the original name, the Knifing J, is a better label for it. And to master the stroke takes a lesson or two; either that or about a week of canoe tripping (in Canada of course) will suffice.
A good paddle also makes a difference. My preference with any tripping stroke (not whitewater play) is a Beaver Tail design. It's a good general use, a trip that takes you from lake to lake. And it's made from a solid piece of wood (usually maple, ash or cherry) and has a rounded end to it, like that of a beaver's tail. For the Canadian Stroke, however, I'm more partial towards using the Otter Tail paddle. It's similar in design to that of the Beaver Tail but extended somewhat, has a narrower blade towards the tip, and has a shorter shaft length.
Either choice, the grip on both the Beaver Tail and Otter Tail designs should be oval in shape and tapered slightly from the throat (where the blade reaches the shaft) to the grip. This makes the paddle far more comfortable and maximizes its strength than if had a rounded top. Just make sure that the long axis of the oval is perpendicular to the plane of the blade. If it's opposite to that, then the shaft will be very weak and most likely the paddle will break.
Kevin Callan is the author of eight books including 'The Happy Camper: An Essential Guide to Life Outdoors' and "A Paddlers Guide to Quetico and Beyond." He is a recipient of the National Magazine Award and a regularly featured speaker at North America's largest paddling events.
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