• Happy National Pin-up Day! 📌🧀🎂

How did you learn?

Aug 10, 2018
Reaction score
Blairsville, PA (about 30 mi E of PGH)
My curiosity has been piqued by Glenn's post on techniques (https://www.canoetripping.net/threa...el-line-vs-following-the-gunwale-line.127218/) and some of the comments there...

I started canoeing as a kid in the Scouts and learned (I think) sweeps, draws and the j-stroke for a canoeing merit badge but, after that, it's been pretty much paddling by the seat on my pants. By that I mean that I tend to paddle wherever and however gets my butt going in the right direction... literally!... I am very intuitive and paddle from my backside, "skootching" the canoe where I want it to go by using a paddle (typically with pretty good results).

I've always wondered, however, if I would benefit from formal instruction... What level of instruction (if any) have you had?
I trolled the internet, then watched a LOT of videos, asked many people on message boards and took a class at Rutabaga Paddle Sports. To that end, I can make a canoe where I want, but I do not think of myself as a great canoeist. I do try to paddle efficiently so I can explore and fish the back country. This summer I am going to try to get more comfortable with the Northwoods stroke.

I benefited from white water instruction. Our school club did some instruction, but it was mostly about different strokes. When I took the white water course, I was taught the basics, such as eddying out skills, S turns, C turns and a bunch of very useful things that I began using immediately on my trips. When I was in my 40's I took on a lot of stuff that I probably should not have, and only got trashed a couple of times. I'm more cautious now, and haven't really run anything challenging in five or six years.
I was fortunate to have parents that were canoe trippers, they did a little of the training but knew their limits and shipped me and my brothers to whitewater courses at MKC throughout our teens. I’ll be doing the same with my kids.
Id highly recommend professional instruction, you can’t beat learning from the best in the business and you’ll learn a lot more than just paddling technique.
Im with Mem tho, I don’t use much of it now days, most of my paddling is remote with big loads so I’m a bit of a pussycat.
I was required to take phys ed in college. I had two choices. Golf or canoeing. There were no left hand golf clubs so I chose canoeing. That gave us pretty good basics for flatwater. We did a number of lengthy canoe trips over the next 20 years.

Later on much later I became a member of the Appalachian Mountain Club and they had many whitewater and sea kayak clinics and trips.
I took a WW course at Nantahala in the early 90's . Intense week. I took some lessons from Collinsville Canoe ( before the kayaks moved in)
and after I got my solo boat in 1996 wanted to learn more and attended a FreeStyle symposium.( with a tripping boat with little rocker). Then I wanted a more playful boat so I could canoe every day in my neighborhood ( we have a lot of small ponds in Connecticut where I was then) and just Mess Around. More FS symposia happened and 18 months after I enrolled in my first class I was a teacher ( eek).
I tried videos and books and its a PITA to try to read a book and memorize it on the water. I was getting frustrated as things were not working. I thought I was doing what was in the pictures. But I wasn't. In person instruction showed me what I was ACTUALLY doing, not what I THOUGHT I was doing.. And the feedback immediate. ( yes sometimes immediate feedback is taught by the upside down canoe, but the cause remains elusive)
After I had been paddling for a while decided to take a class at Riversport on the Yough in PA. No one else showed up so in a fact my wife and I had private instruction for a day. Learned so much eddy hopping in the middle section that it really boosted my interest in canoeing. Later took 3 days PI at NOC…GREAT.
Got interested in solo and eventually FreeStyle and served as an IT for ACA FS for many years.
Instruction from qualified people is very valuable even if you have been paddling for decades. We often had students who were long time paddlers who readily admitted they learned a lot from instruction. Good instructors won’t denigrate you for what you don’t know but will only add to what you do know. I was lucky to have such instructors all along and tried to emulate it when I taught.
(BTW yellowcanoe was a fine instructor despite her “eek” 🙂)
The best thing Kathleen and I ever did soon after buying our first canoe was to join the Beaver Canoe Club in the Vancouver, BC area. The club scheduled a Sunday paddle, pretty much year-round, primarily on whitewater, usually including some Class II Or low Class III. This gave us weekly leadership, demonstration and instruction from very experienced and skilled whitewater paddlers. We also took a course at a local community college, again with a focus on whitewater. I also took a course in northern BC, again with a focus on whitewater, specifically Class III. The instructor filmed us doing our various moves, which was very revealing, as we often were not performing as we thought. As an aside, on one of our club trips, a new paddler showed up, and joined the group Kathleen and I were leading. He said he was a pretty good paddler, as he had watched all the Bill Mason videos many times. Turns out that watching videos doesn’t translate directly into paddling like Bill Mason.

Kathleen and I pretty much practiced every week, always pushing ourselves, as we wanted to paddle far northern rivers and rapids with confidence. On these northern trips, we generally paddled to our known limits, even with our boat fully loaded with 3-5 weeks of food and gear. I think virtually everyone can benefit from professional, qualified instruction. My feeling is that most of us have less than excellent skills. That means, not knowing how we could improve, the more we practice and paddle, the more we perfect our mediocre techniques.

Our first wilderness trip was on the South Nahanni River in the Northwest Territories. We began at the Moose Ponds, just above the stretch known as the Rock Gardens, two-and-half days of pretty much continuous whitewater, rated to Class III and IV.


Here we are on the first day in the Rock Gardens. I had become pretty confident with my high brace, sometimes claiming, incorrectly, that I could never capsize away from my paddle side. Kathleen had become darn good with her low brace. We were a good pair. (Photo by Robson/Power)


Still in the Rock Gardens. Looks like Kathleen is drawing right. I am probably getting ready for a forward stroke. We had often been instructed, even when uncertain what to do, to just go forward somewhere, which is almost always better that just sitting there, letting the river take over. On day trips with our Beaver Canoe Club, we would often surf/ferry across rivers in troughs like this. If you hit the trough just right, with lots of momentum, you could get across the river with just one, good, powerful forward stroke. (Photo by Robson/Power).

As has been suggested in previous posts, we are all capable on flat water and Class I or II, at getting the canoe to go pretty much where we want. But seeing on a weekly basis, what a few other paddlers could do, Kathleen and I wanted much more. Instruction provided that, and allowed us to paddle rapids on northern wilderness rivers with confidence and success. In fact we have never capsized.
Last edited:
Boy scout canoe trips starting at age 11. We used to paddle up the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and then down the Potomac River.
I took canoeing in summer camp. We had a hard-arse instructor. We took a paddling test solo and the wind came up. Most kids did not shift their weight forward enough. I was the only one that passed the test. It was a boost of confidence.

When I was young I was tangled up in horses and backpacking.
Around age 30 I got serious about canoes and started buying them and fixing them up. Reading Cliff Jacobsen and Bill Mason.
Leading river trips. For every 1,000 hours we spend with a paddle in our hands, their is some increase in skill.

I met Jerry Nyre in Denver and bought a Wenonah from him. We paddled the S Platte River a few times and he was amazing because he could control the boat from the bow seat. He helped with crossing eddy lines, finding eddies and doing peel outs. Rapids became more comfortable.

My progress kind of stopped because my paddling companions have not had much skill. It is easy to get people in over their heads.
I found a guy from Pennsylvania that ran the local fish hatchery for the USFWS. We ran a local river that nobody every paddles. He was very skilled and it was a lot of fun. Now I am 71 and don't do hard whitewater any more at all.
Never capsized? Yikes. You must be good and lucky.
Most capsizes are caused by:
Knocked over by waves.
Inundated by waves.
Hitting an obstruction like rocks or vegetation.

I have capsized few times with a loaded boat a long way from help because I am more cautious then.

I remember paddling the John Day R in Oregon at flood stage. My brother and I paddled ashore once with the boat totally full of water from big haystacks. We were still upright. Once I had to put him and my dog on shore. It took 45 minutes to walk around the rapid. The biggest waves of my life.
Last edited:
Never capsized? Yikes. You must be good and lucky.
To be clear, we did capsize on day trips with our club, when we were pushing ourselves. But my mantra is that one should never capsize on a wilderness trip, particularly when all alone, like Kathleen and me.

Sometimes I ask those who have capsized while wilderness tripping, what caused the capsize. They often say they didn’t know. This always surprises me, as there is always a reason that the capsize occurred. It’s important to know why, so as to avoid future capsizes in similar situations.
The one time I got trashed good and hard was on a two week trip, about half way through. I was solo and feeling pretty cocky, ran a short nasty thing that I didn't even bother to scout, had a yard sale in the eddy at the bottom, had to swim to even retrieve the canoe. Chainsaw started up right away again though, got lucky with that one. Chainsaw was the only thing i tied into the canoe, lol.
I grew up paddling and fishing on our local river (slow with no whitewater) so I thought was knew pretty much everything there was to know about paddling. I got into kayaking and began to take it more seriously and slowly it dawned on me from reading online that there was a lot I didn't know.

I started trying different things, which were confusing at first, but slowly they started to make sense and my paddling got better. I got into solo canoes and kept learning single stick skills and I kept getting better. I'm no pro by any means and realize there's still a lot I don't know but I feel I'm competent and I keep playing with new techniques.

Nothing wrong with classes or courses but I know from life experience that it's not the situation for me to learn in. So I plug away on my own.

I learned while in Jr. High from a teacher and ex Green Beret with extensive outdoor experience. Most of it was from a 650 mile canoe trip on the Albany River and then a lot of paddling in the Daks. From there it was learning new stuff on my own. I've never paid for a class and don't feel like I'm missing out due to that. Like Alan said, just plug away at it on my own!
For a while I blissfully goonstroked along until Bill Mason's book "Path of the paddle" fell into my lap. I never had any formal training but think that, in hindsight, I should have taken lessons early on (had they been available) before bad habits or form develop and get ingrained into muscle memory.
I started out at girl scout camp.
Then there was a long hiatus.

I started learning white water. Jerry Jenkins took us under his wing and got us out on the upper Hudson River, over and over again. He often said you just have to put in the time.

Then we took a day of private instruction at Nantahala and spent the rest of the week running the river there. This was back when you could camp for free on the other side of the river and you could practically hitch a ride to the put-in.

I recently did some more private instruction at Nantahala, enough to figure out I couldn't solo whitewater in a wilderness situation.

And of course, spent a lot of time with the Mason books and videos.

I have never capsized in a wilderness situation. My wilderness rule is, when in doubt, portage. For the good of the trip.
I bought my first OT Laker 14 in 1983 as I live along the southern NC coast. Most paddling in my area is flat, slow, winding smaller rivers. I admit my addiction was fly fishing for bluegills not my paddling technique. Sculling with a cut off paddle I’m fairly skilled. I had an idea to go paddle and camp some rivers with Cl 1 or maybe 2. I took lessons to learn the J stroke recently and I want to teach the grandkids better skills than I have. The instructor was my age (71) and was very skilled. Now I own a Pathfinder, the Laker, an Explorer. I’ve owned an Advantage and an Argosy both needed a more skilled paddler but my Lab and I made them work until I traded them. I waited late to learn new strokes but I’m not ready to stop yet. I have zero friends with this interest, growing up in saltwater they and I are all fisherman first. Looking forward to more paddling instruction in the spring. Happy trails
I got into rafting around age 40. It really helped my understanding of how to read white water. For awhile we were running a lot of Class IVs and some Vs. Then bad stuff started to happen and we eased up. I got back into canoes later. Now I mostly do Class III runs in a drift boat which is very relaxing.
my dad taught me. He was a part- time ranger doing backwoods patrols all summer, I started as a baby riding in the centre and trying to spear lily pads with my little 20" paddle, by the time I was about 4 I could do most strokes while sitting on a pack, by 5 or 6 I was occasionally in the bow seat and running white water, by 12 I had my own canoe.
I took a phys ed class in college that included canoe instruction, culminating in an over night trip on the Susq. We used the Red Cross canoeing booklet and learned the major strokes and sculling strokes, I thought I knew it all.

I had one trip under my belt before taking the class and a couple more after that, but my education didn't really take off until 1990 when we took a three day WW course on the upper Hudson to prepare for moving to Ak. where we planned to do a lot of tripping. I continued my education with Bill Masons "Path of the Paddle." I also got a copy of Jacobsons "Expedition Canoeing" for more technical info. It wasn't until I got a copy of Masons "Song of the Paddle" that I transformed from a guy who used a canoe for fishing and camping to a "Canoeist"

That was followed by almost thirty years of tripping during which time I worked more on tripping skills than paddling skills. My paddling education took off again about 4 years ago when I started spending a few months or more on a lake in Pa. paddling empty canoes almost daily. I had the time to work on strokes and boat control in general and learned a lot more including traveling over and through ice and poling.

For the future I would like to learn more freestyle techniques and try things like rigging a catamaran and sailing.
I pretty much picked it up on my own as a young lad during my summers at a friend's place in Cobden, Ontario. ("young lad" is a term that always brings me back to those wonderful summers of my youth back then in Cobden)

I guess the goon stroke was my go-to stroke, later in life I picked up a book or magazine and learned to paddle somewhat better. I never had any formal instruction, no doubt I would have benefitted from it.