This year is shaping up to be one of our best. As well as teaching and racing at various locations, we will be starting a series of short whitewater technique videos to help people improve their paddling. Stay tuned!
In white water, maintaining momentum is essential for catching must make eddies. When crossing the grain, say during a ferry, using bow control stokes will drive your canoe across currents and preserve precious momentum. If you’re gliding downstream and planning on eddying out, the river’s provides momentum to counter the friction of steering from the stern. Choosing to steer form the bow or stern will be determined by where you are travelling and the whether you are moving with, or across, the current.
Use Bow Control for Crossing the Grain
Steering from the bow, called Power Steering, relies on adapting your forward and cross-forward stroke so they control your boat angle. The advantage of Power Steering is that your paddle strokes always add to your momentum. The efficiency of using forward strokes means that you don’t wind up fighting the drag caused by friction strokes like stern prys and rudders.
Picture yourself planning and “S” turn across some pretty fast water. Your move begins with your canoe facing upstream and travelling against, then progressively across, the current. Any drag from stern strokes will slow your momentum and possible blow the move. Power Steering, with control coming from the bow, is your best method of building the needed momentum.
Use Stern Control for Going with the Flow
Stern strokes, like prys, rudders and draws, are the traditional steering strokes used by all canoeists. Their strong suite is that they work incredibly well for steering. Anytime you need to turn you canoe in a hurry, the leverage created by these strokes is practically guaranteed to work every time. The down side of these friction strokes is they all slow you down – some more than others. Be warned; use stern control when you have enough momentum to counter the drag of the stroke.
So, when’s the best time to use stern control? Anytime momentum is not a concern for making the move. Imagine you’re cruising down a drop and want to eddy out at the bottom. You’re carrying loads of downstream momentum and facing a whooping 180 degree turn coming at you, fast! The only thing that’s going to make that eddy turn happen is a stern control stroke. Heck, friction is not an issue, your going downhill building momentum as you approach the turn.
Making the Move Every Time
Making your move every time will depend on matching your paddling technique to how you plan on using the current. Your strategy has to account for the momentum gained or lost from both stokes and the river current. Think of bow control as having less friction and higher efficiency, while stern control gives you leverage and security at the cost of friction.
It’s All About Bouncing in the Right Direction!
Cresting a horizon line recently, the thrill of running a steep creek was heightened seeing that I would be following a path of mostly water – the best part, though, would be bouncing off a series of rocks which, if all went well, would direct me toward my next eddy.
Running steep, low volume rivers draws on both traditional water reading skills and a host of unique tricks designed to take advantage of the many exposed rocks. Using rocks to guide your canoe through rapids is one common trick used on creek runs, but not so much so on deeper rivers. When river running, canoeist who strikes a rock may state “I meant to hit that”. At best it comes off as weak justification for drifting off line. However in creeking, doing so is all part of the game.
A pioneer of many first descents of creeks in the Southern U.S., Dave “Psycho” Simpson coined the phrase that went something like, “it ain’t if you hit a rock or not, it’s if you hit the rock and bounce the right way”. In low flow steep creeks rocks often are not to be avoided, rather, they are used to assist boat placement. Some of the best lines use of mix of channelized water and boulders to descend a steep run. Besides, rocks offer that quick change in direction that no stroke could ever match.
Hitting rocks may also help to stabilize your canoe. Often when water piles onto boulders it builds a pillow wave with an upstream seam of descending water. Getting caught here may pull your paddle deep upsetting your balance, or perhaps cause you to catch and edge. Either way the risk of capsize is increased. Better to cross the seam and hit the rock. By reaching out a hand you can reduce the risk of capsize further by using the rock for stability.
Things to remember while developing your rock hitting skills:
- Lean and tilt into rocks
- Consider using your hands to cushion and guide your boat’s path
- Account for friction after slamming into rocks and prepare to speed up after impact
- Strike using the front half of your canoe as striking past midships can cause pin wheeling out of control
- Although not essential, a plastic boat is both the toughest and slipperiest for bouncing off of rocks
- Elbow pads!
Steep, creeky, low flow runs often require striking rocks. Bouncing the right way is key to holding your line and definitely adds to the excitement of your run.
Author’s Bio: Andrew Westwood is an open canoe instructor at the Madawaska Kanu Centre, member of Team Esquif and author of The Essential Guide to Canoeing. www.westwoodoutdoors.ca. Article first appeared in
Choosing to run whitewater, and doing it successfully, can have a significant impact on your next canoe trip. Jumping in over your head and running a rapid that results in an overturned boat, or worse, can ruin your trip, or at least your gear. Often your choice, and success, comes down to your ability to read water, the language of rivers, and understanding all that the river is trying to communicate to you – its’ paddling audience.
The language of rivers is composed of two main visual characteristics; texture and colour. As you moving water winding its’ way over rocks, ledges and around outcrops and around bends in the river bank, you’ll see a veritable kaleidoscope of changing colours and wave patterns. Each obstacle leaves a visual marker to it’s’ presence. By looking at the changing textures and colours you can decipher the river bottom, the level of difficulty of the water features, and ultimately, make a choice as to whether you ought to run, or not run, a rapid.
The Vocabulary: Colour and Texture:
As water tumbles over rocks, ledges and gravel bars, the distinctive roughness of each disrupts and slows the water down. Each collision alters the water surface with vortices, boils, waves, and when air mixes into the current, changes it’s colour to lighter shades of blue, green, black and brown. Every change signals a river bed or water feature that might have to be avoided by your canoe.
Reading the texture of the water includes looking at everything from large standing waves and dramatic rooster tails, right down to the small swirls and bumps often found on eddy lines. Each can be equally significant. For many, however, a rapid is first judged by the roller coaster of waves they’ll ride during their run. Beyond looking at size, navigable waves usually occur in groups, or families. Standing waves should have a minimum of three similar, evenly spaced waves decreasing in size as you look downstream. Lone wave should be approached with caution – chances are it is hiding a rock. Also, waves positioned across the flow of water are much easier to “punch” than waves that cross the current at an angle.
Other than waves, rivers create a fascinating display of textures visible as bubbles, swirls and boils. Each is a clue to changes in current speed and potential obstacles to be wary of. Look for water which appears rough and bumpy in texture, almost like gravel, and you most likely are witnessing an eddy line – the abrupt division between two currents. Knowing where eddy lines are is crucial for planning canoe placement to enter or exit an eddy pool and for timing your strokes for stable eddy turns.
The most common colour patterns on a river are long parallel bands of similarly shaded water. Each band indicates a speed of current with neighboring bands being either faster or slower. No set rule applies that one shade of water is quicker than another; you’ll have to be the judge as sometimes an eddy effect will be dark, while other times deep fast flowing currents will be dark. Suffice to say that it is the alternating dark and light bands which show changes in velocity.
By recognizing current speed, pick out the slow bands of water and determine if the currents are caused by submerged rocks that may have to be avoided if you select to run the rapid. If you’re planning to cross the river in a front ferry, adjusting your ferry angle to match the changing speed of the current will aid efficiency, and possible avoid an unfortunate loss of balance mid-stream when crossing from one current to another.
Reading whitewater is a lot like learning a language. The more you practice the better able you will be at quickly deciphering the message. Fluency comes once you can glance quickly at a set of rapids and “read” precisely where to paddle your canoe. Building upon the basic vocabulary of texture and colour will allow you to scout a safe route down your next rapid, or even more importantly, recognize when it would be safer to portage around it.
MITH describes the technique used to carve your canoe smoothly through eddy turns, S turns and peel outs. Carving maximizes the benefits of hull features to control the arcing path of the canoe and maintain its stability.
Momentum is necessary to move the canoe in an arcing path toward, and across, the eddy line.The skill of a carving taps into two types of momentum; forward and turning momentum.Momentum comes from either forward strokes or from gaining speed from descending the gradient of the river.ﾠ Regardless of where you get your Mo, youﾒll need momentum to cross the friction of the eddy line.
Initiating a turn can be as straight forward as using a turning stroke (ex. stern pry), or as subtle as carving an inside circle and allowing it to tighten into a carving arc.The critical product of this step is that the canoe should be traveling a curving path toward the eddy pool.
Only canoes that are tilted on edge will carve turns. Canoes that are paddled into a turn flat will spin out! A tilted hull presents the bottom of the canoe partly on its side so its digs into the water. This ﾑedgingﾒ effect grips the water and helps push the canoe around a carving arc.
Traveling form point A to point B takes time. So, during an eddy turn you must hold your tilt throughout the duration of the maneouver.The moment the hull is allowed to flatten out, your carve will be lost and you will spin out. If you spin out you will lose your momentum and your eddy turn will stall.Holding the tilt is your key to success.Practice gripping your canoe’s outfitting with your legs for long periods of time. In whitewater, holding your boat is as vital as holding your paddle! Only when the turn is complete can you relax your tilt and allow the canoe to level out.
The 2 X 4 refers to the use of the two forward strokes (the onside and the cross forward) and four stroke elements to provide complete control of the solo canoe.
The skill builds on the concept of carving, or paddling an arcing path. Picture the canoe in motion with the bow cradled by bow waves. By using the 2 X 4 technique you can control how these bow waves direct the canoe’s path (much like the reins on a horse). The 2 X 4 makes paddling a solo canoe easier by maximizing forward speed, providing directional control and reducing the reliance on steering with momentum robbing friction strokes.
Summary of the 2 X 4 elements:
Stroke 2 X 4 Elements Tightens Inside Circle Straightens or Switches Inside Circle
Forward stroke and
Cross Forward Stroke
1.Timing Slow or pause your stroke. Increase your stroke rate.
2. Stroke Position
Paddle in front of your knee. Paddle toward your hip.
3.Paddle Angle Hold your paddle vertical. Hold your paddle inclined over the canoe.
Tilt the hull.
Level the hull.