A canoe is a great platform for wildlife viewing. Many species come down to the water’s edge. Some, like otters, beaver, muskrat, and mink are aquatic by nature. With a little practice, it is also easier to paddle quietly than to hike quietly, providing an even better experience. So, it’s good to know how to control the canoe well and quietly to have a good opportunity to see all the wildlife available.
Getting to a descent level of paddling ability is not hard. I am no expert. My wife and I learned a few techniques for flat water and mild white water that have proven incredibly valuable in all paddling conditions. We learned the basics from a Maine guide during a trip down the Allagash Wilderness Waterway years ago. I hope these basic techniques will help you to enjoy this wonderful activity.
First, there is little more painful to watch as a moderately experienced paddler than a couple of people in a canoe paddling 3 strokes on a side then switch sides, then back again, usually in a path that goes back and forth across and entire river, often with collisions on both sides. So, the most important thing is first to know that it is possible to paddle a canoe in a straight line, and even to steer in either direction, without ever switching sides. Just knowing this will help make it a reality.
So, if you’ve paddled a few times, you probably know that, whoever is in the back (stern) has a greater effect on the steering than whoever is in the front (bow). If this is not the case for you, switch positions. This means that your bow paddler is significantly stronger than your stern paddler, a bad idea. Even if the bow paddler is a bit stronger, the stern paddler will likely have the greater effect on steering.
You also probably know from even just a few hours on the water, that in the absence of special strokes, when you paddle on the right, you go left and vice versa. This effect can be minimized by keeping the paddle as vertical as possible and as close to the canoe as possible throughout the stroke. This will not be enough, but is a good start to efficient paddling.
The paddle stroke should start with the lower hand as a fulcrum and the upper hand doing something like a bench press pushing away from the chest. Once the stroke is started, twist your body toward the side with the paddle. This will let you paddle using your back, shoulders, and even your abs a bit, instead of just shoveling with your arms. Using larger muscle groups will help you paddle longer and stronger for more of the day than attempting to use only your arms. Note that twisting in this way results in perfect position for the return. When bringing the paddle forward, the paddle blade will naturally be positioned in a horizontal way, thus cutting through the wind. This is known as feathering the paddle and is more efficient for reducing wind resistance.
The above applies to both the bow paddler and the stern paddler. Now I will begin discussing paddle strokes that differ for bow and stern. First though, you should be paddling on opposite sides of the boat. This will make steering a lot easier for the stern paddler that will not have to overcome the rotation of both his/her own paddle strokes and that of the bow paddler. Later I will discuss the rare case when this may become briefly untrue.
For the stern paddler, while in the middle of a relatively large area of still water (preferably a lake or pond), attempt a few of the following. First take your paddle and make a wide sweeping stroke to whichever side you’re paddling. The blade of the paddle should still be perpendicular to the water. But, the shaft of the paddle should be around 30 degrees from level with the water. You will find that this wide sweep (actually called a sweep for obvious reasons) will steer the canoe quite dramatically toward the opposite side.
Next take the paddle, put it in the water with the shaft parallel to the body of the canoe (still with the blade perpendicular to the water) and the shaft nearly level with the water so that the blade is well behind you. Pry the paddle off of the boat pulling the top handle toward the middle of the boat and the blade away from the boat (this stroke is called a pry). This should produce a powerful steering force in the opposite direction. So, your paddle may be on the left side of the boat and you have just steered the boat left, thus proving that you can steer in either direction from a single side of the boat.
Now for the stroke that the stern paddler will be using for the vast majority of all paddling strokes. This one is called the J stroke. Learn it and love it. This one will allow for slight corrections and keep you moving in a straight line. Using a normal paddle stroke as described for either paddler above, add a slight pry off the back of the boat at the end of your stroke, producing a J shaped stroke. The slight pry at the end will cancel the rotation caused by the initial part of the stroke.
With practice, you will easily learn to make minor corrections in the amount of prying in each stroke. Some strokes may even have a slight sweep at the end after an overly strong pry. This is no big deal. Further, once you take these strokes onto a windy river, you will find that you can paddle on a single side through many S curves. You will sweep to go around turns one way then pry to go around turns the other way. Among other things, being able to paddle on one side until one of you gets tired and wants to switch will help keep the boat dry by not crossing a wet paddle across the boat every third stroke.
Important note: Changing the direction in which the canoe is pointed will NOT change the direction the canoe is going. Canoes can travel sideways quite easily, especially if you are paddling downstream with a current. Once you steer the canoe, you will need to paddle some power strokes to get the canoe moving in the direction to which you just pointed it. When paddling downstream, this means you must steer in advance then power across to avoid obstacles.
For the bow paddler, the most common stroke will not be used to make any intended change in direction at all. It will be the stroke described at the very top of this post. However, when navigating a windy river, especially if it is narrow as well, it may be very helpful for the bow paddler to know these two steering strokes in order to steer the front of the boat.
A draw stroke means putting the paddle out away from the boat as far as the bow person can reach and pulling toward the boat. This will obviously pull the bow of the boat toward the side on which this is done. A cross draw may be useful when the same level of steering is required but the bow paddler happens to be paddling on the wrong side for performing the draw. It is done without taking the time to switch hands. The bow paddler reaches the low hand across the bow twisting sideways to face the other side and puts the paddle blade in the water with the shaft at about 30 degrees to the water and draws toward the boat.
If any of this is not clear from a description, this site has videos showing more paddling techniques than I know.
It is probably also a good idea to go over some of the basics of reading a river. Since wildlife viewing is not likely to take you to white water, I’m going to stick with fairly simple flat water types of obstacles of the sort that can be paddled in both directions.
In general, any obstacle in flowing water will produce ripples in the water. Unless the obstacle breaks through the surface of the water and is thus visible, these ripples will always be downstream of the obstacle. If you are paddling downstream you must avoid hitting bottom by steering around a point above where the ripples are. How far above? Is there enough water to float over the obstacle? Only experience, judgment, and sometimes the obvious scrape of the canoe will teach you that. If you can see it through the water and cannot float over it, it will likely be painted in various colors like silver, red, green, and blue. This paint is put there to warn canoeists. In order to be clear that this is a warning to canoeists, they use the colors of canoes. In other words, these are the scrapings of the canoes that came before you that failed to float the obstacle.
Beaver dams are always good to come across, especially when they’re in good repair. They indicate the presence of beaver. Unfortunately, your canoe will not likely float over a well maintained beaver dam, especially if you’re paddling upstream. Downstream, if you see a spot with a strong flow over a relatively low dam, you might make it. It’s worth a try. Upstream, you will likely have to get out of the canoe, walk on the dam, pull the boat over, and then get back in. An inflatable canoe is likely so stable that this will be easy. Once you drag over the dam, you can sit with your feet in the water to wash off the mud before putting your feet in the boat. I don’t know whether cleaning one’s feet this way can be done with a hard shell canoe. Otherwise though, the technique would be the same. Take your paddle with you when you get out of the boat. If the handle has hooks on the grip, you may be able to use it to pull and drag the boat over the dam.
Anchors are another thing to consider for wildlife viewing. When you want to stop to watch an animal or bird, a canoe adrift will likely either get farther and farther from the sighting or get too close and annoy the animal or bird. Having at least one anchor in the boat will give you a way to hold position. We carry two anchors. We use one for each end of the boat since the boat swings around quite a bit with only one anchor. Anchors are also good for when you first spot wildlife. Especially if you’re going downstream, they may be the only way to stop short and be able to avoid disturbing the wildlife. Then, once you can evaluate the situation, if heading downstream or downwind, you can even get a bit closer just by paying out some anchor line. In the other direction, remaneuvering will be a tad harder, but still easier with anchors than without.
If the goal is to see wildlife, paddling more slowly and quietly will get you more sightings than attempting to cover more mileage. So, while you may find that, in a pinch, you can paddle up to 3 miles per hour, 1 to 1.5 miles per hour will get you to a lot more wildlife. And, pay attention to how the paddle dips into the water to see how quietly you can do it.