Chapter 2: Humility & the Forward Stroke

by Neil E. Miller|Published 07-31-2008


Humility and the Forward Stroke

     The first day at Madawaska Kanu Centre dawned with a slate gray sky and cold rain.  When we exited the tent at seven, the temperature was 4°C and the falling rain was steady.  This precipitation was to continue on and off all day (Saturday) and into Sunday and on this first day, it never warmed up beyond 8°C.


     We had walked to the river’s edge when we had first arrived the day before and we knew that the water levels were high and the water volume was huge.  I thought of this and the cold wet weather as I walked down the hill to the lodge to ferret out some coffee.  My stomach had that slightly uneasy feeling which I knew was anxiety tinged with a little fear.  My comfort level with both fast water and canoes was high, but my fear was out of anticipation of failure to execute the white water techniques, namely eddy turns and ferries.  That I would struggle with some of the more basic canoe techniques never entered my mind.


     After breakfast we were assigned boats, paddles, safety and cold weather gear. Then we were transported to the put-in just below Bark Lake Dam.  The current there was no more than swift and this is where our two instructors assessed our paddling and boat handling abilities.  The first thing they asked us to do was to paddle the Evergreen Starburst in a straight line. Almost immediately we had problems. 


     First of all, I realized that my partner and bow paddler had a stronger paddle stroke than I did and this tended to manipulate the bow in ways I had not anticipated.  To counteract his powerful forward stroke, I found myself performing more pries, draws and (what white-water instructors considered to be) the accursed rudder “stroke”.  And to make matters worse, without conscious effort, both of us would follow the curvature of the gunnels with our forward stroke instead of reaching straight out and pulling straight back.  This further created the need for constant correcting strokes in order to go straight across the flat water.


     The head instructor slipped alongside of us in his 12 foot Mohawk Probe and began teaching us the proper forward stroke. Both my partner and I found this humbling.  In hindsight, this was only the first of many humbling moments in white-water school. 


     The proper forward stroke has the paddle held vertical and the T-grip hand over the shoulder as the paddler twists his on-side torso forward and with the shaft hand straight out yet slightly bent; the paddler plants his paddle and then pulls his hips forward until the paddle shaft is opposite his hips, then finishes with a clean blade removal to set up and start all over again.  This is neither easy nor comes naturally and I was doing roughly the polar opposite of the proper method.


     I was reaching out with my shaft hand and then punching forward with my T-grip hand, finishing with the blade still submerged but behind my torso.  I didn’t have my hips or torso engaged in any of it – nothing but arm muscles.  This punching action also set me up for the other somewhat common error of following the curvature of the canoe’s hull which set up the need for more correction strokes.


     As we worked through this basic exercise the rain was falling fairly hard and the temperature remained unchanged at 4°C.  I was right on the edge of being uncomfortably chilled and I had the physical sensation that I had to go to the bathroom which I simply attributed to anxiety.  I wanted to tell my bow paddler that he should dial down his power, but I just wasn’t sure that he wasn’t the one in the right and that I needed to dial up.  Either way, we were definitely not coordinated in our forward strokes. This was somewhat ironic in that we had been each others only paddling partners for the last five years. 


     We had both picked up bad paddling habits and in mostly flat water paddling. Without a professional to point out our flaws and mistakes, we just merrily went about our business.  As they say:  ignorance is bliss.  The other factor that impacted us is that we had done 90% of our tripping in solo canoes, allowing us to be as sloppy as we wanted as long as we got down the river or across the lake.


     For the next four days we would really work hard at trying to paddle the canoe properly.  We learned that it isn’t always power and speed that keeps you in control in fast water; that sometimes slowing the boat down gains you more control.


     We’re still working on those forward strokes and all the rest of the strokes that make up the whitewater paddlers repertoire.  We came to the camp so smug and then the river “spanked” us.  Late in the morning on the first day of whitewater camp after working for three hours to master the skills in the giant Grade 3 rapids, we got out of synch on an eddy turn and dumped the boat spilling all contents (ourselves) into the icy cold river.


     After a canoe-over-canoe rescue in the center of the river, we pulled our soaked and bedraggled selves ashore to catch our breath and I realized that it wasn’t anxiety after all – I really did have to go to the bathroom.


Neil E. Miller

Copyright © July 28, 2008