After many years of paddling on rivers and creeks, up to Class II + – and more than a few multi-day Canadian canoe trips – I figured I knew how to paddle a canoe pretty well.
Some time ago I came across FreeStyle Canoeing, more or less by accident. My first exposure to FreeStyle was a short demonstration of what I later learned is called “Interpretive FreeStyle”, which involves paddling a choreographed routine to music. I was thoroughly smitten, astonished even, at the complete control the paddlers had over their boats, and the almost effortless, subtle, and in some cases nearly imperceptible ways they were using their blades and bodies to bring about dramatic responses from the canoe. They were “as one” with the boat. I wasn’t particularly interested in the music and “dance” facet of this activity, though it was fun to watch, but I sure did want to learn how to handle a canoe like that. It was the skill level, the utter at-homeness in the boat – call it the “Advanced Touring Techniques“ – that caught my attention.
I soon took some FreeStyle paddling lessons, in all four “quadrants,” as they are known, and learned a bit about these advanced paddling techniques. I had expected that these maneuvers –“tricks” if you want to call them that – would be cool and fun to do, and indeed that is certainly the case. But I was not at all prepared for another aspect of learning about FreeStyle paddling, which aspect became apparent to me the first time I paddled a creek back home soon after my first lessons. And that was, just how useful the techniques I had been learning can be to one’s “every day” paddling, on whatever kind of water one may find oneself. I tried using them on a gently moving creek; and then on rivers that were moving more quickly; in small riffles and larger rapids. I just consciously applied the techniques wherever I was paddling, and found they really worked. I was hooked; as I learned more, I found just how versatile and effective all of this was in any and every paddling situation. As time and practice have progressed, all of it becomes part of one’s paddling repertoire, one’s paddling vocabulary, and I’ve found that in a given situation I just respond, without thinking about it consciously much at all, including with a canoeload of trash, on a river cleanup. As someone has said, “most FreeStylers do most of their FreeStyling on the rivers and creeks back home they paddle all the time.”
It is often the case that FreeStyle paddling is seen in the broader paddling community as a quiet water only activity. It is certainly the case that the FreeStyle Instructional Symposia are conducted on small and sheltered ponds whenever possible. There’s good reason for this, but it’s not because such conditions are the only place you can use FreeStyle; it’s because quiet water is simply the best arena in which to first learn these techniques and maneuvers. Any time you paddle, there are numerous forces acting on your canoe – you as the paddler of course are one of those, but there are also other things like wind, waves, and current. Because these FreeStyle techniques involve a high degree of communication between paddler and boat, and a strong emphasis on precise and efficient use of the blade, they are simply best taught and learned in a situation where all other forces are minimized, as much as possible. In that situation, a paddler knows that whatever the canoe does, it does because of whatever s/he did to influence the boat with blade and body position. How better to learn paddling skills, than when you have nothing to blame but the paddler?
And then there’s the “Interpretive FreeStyle” end of a spectrum, where folks experiment with the various maneuvers to see just how far one can take them, what ways you can make the canoe behave, and how smooth you can make it all look, while paddling a rehearsed routine to music – sort of like figure skating, with the not inconsequential advantage that the water doesn’t hurt as much when you fall over. These are the folks who are exploring, pushing against the boundaries of just what a paddler and canoe can do together… a small group of folks who are driving the sport to its limits, and thereby re-defining those limits. But the simple fact is that most people who learn these techniques never do, nor do they ever intend to, try the Interpretive side. They just want to learn to paddle better, have less muscular pain at the end of the day, and become a better partner with their boat. The techniques learned in trying to perfect those more dramatic moves work equally well in real life, and FreeStylers use them all the time, though generally they are not carried to the extremes one sees in exhibitions. There’s rarely any need to heel the canoe down to the rail for instance, or pitch it as dramatically as one sees in Interpretive FreeStyle. One usually doesn’t need to do a 180 – except eddying out perhaps– 90 or 120 will do just fine in most real-life paddling. While using these techniques on a river, one can glide gracefully from one side of the river to another as the current or obstructions suggest; sweep into a stopping position parallel to the shore, rather than have to shove the boat bow first and damage your hull. In turns on the river you may be heeled over a bit to help facilitate the turn, but the gunnel is not even close to the waterline, and yes, you’re still just comfortably, normally, kneeling with your backside perched on the canoe seat. You may sometimes find yourself exploring some serpentine channel, only to find it to be a dead end, too narrow to turn around. This is where those weird Cross-Reverse maneuvers actually have an application – you just move your body into the transverse position, and simply paddle back out, no problem. And if you should come upon a tree stump or rock in the middle of the river, you’ll know how to sideslip gracefully aside, without ever breaking your rhythm or stride.
All paddling instruction is ultimately about boat control, and FreeStyle is one of several paths to that goal. Yes, some of us dabble a bit in Interpretive FreeStyle, because we’ve discovered it’s just a whole lot of fun. Beyond that, pushing the limits – both yours and the canoe’s – is about the best learning tool there is. It’s just another in the already lengthy list of “Ways to Have Fun in a Canoe.” The fact that these techniques so greatly enhance the enjoyment of our “every day” paddling back home, is a bonus.
Bruce Kemp, Paul Klonowski, Marc Ornstein