The canoe. Now that’s Canadian. They have been part of the landscape from since native North Americans plied the waterways to now being one of the most economical and accessible ways to get out on the water and explore. They seem simple enough – grab a paddle and go. Eagerly purchased, usually incompletely outfitted and almost never really understood or mastered. After a season or two, many a forgotten canoe can be found behind garage’s, under porches at cottages or at the boat ramp, gathering critter droppings and moss. But every once and a while a desire to get out on the water arises and someone remembers the Canadian icon, ignominiously hidden away. They haul it out, grab a paddle and go. Not usually a well-planned event but how much planning has to go into paddling a boat. No fuel or engine, no sails or wind to worry about and certainly not venturing afar – this is simplicity. The village idiot can handle this one.
Back in 1981, the village I came from almost lost their village idiots. It was a typical May 24 weekend and time for the boys to get together and spend the weekend fishing on a remote lake in the wilds of Nova Scotia. You can’t be more than 50Km from the ocean in Nova Scotia but it was freshwater we were looking for. No ocean swells, no fog, no supertankers, no wake from power boats, no nothin’, not even girls. May in Nova Scotia is a special month. You might have 25 degrees and bursting buds on the trees or -5 degrees and a blanket of snow – or both. Regardless, lake water is not warm; mindful boaters consider this factor and dress (or at least prepare) for the water temperature versus the air temperature.
Camp was struck and before long most of the fellas were casting from shore. My buddy Rick and me figured that getting away from the traffic of bobbers and banter abounding from the shallows would give us better odds. So we got the canoe down to the water’s edge, the canoe someone had dragged from their backyard and paddled our way to the far reaches of the lake. Regulation-speaking back then, we should have had a bailer, paddles, lifejackets (PFDs) and not much else – definitely not beer. Logically, we had a couple of paddles and even 2 PFDs; but I doubt we had a bailer, we might have had a couple of beers – and definitely no canoe smarts.
After a few minutes gliding across the glistening, flat water, we exchanged paddles for rods, sat up on the seats, baited the hooks and started casting. Rick saw fish jumping to forward, I to stern – one of us twisted around so we were back to back in either end of the boat. Cast after cast after cast, back to back and not really paying attention to each other. It wasn’t long before our casting synchronized, not only in time but also in direction and force from the extreme opposite ends of the canoe. All that effort in one direction had a grand effect.
Like we have all experienced, as things go south it seems they do so in slow motion, while thoughts continue on at light speed. Thoughts such as: “what the… – oh crap – this is going be wet – hell, really cold too – don’t lose the rod – where’s the godforsaken surface – forget the stupid rod – this is not like swimming in a pool – boy, the canoe is quite a shocking colour red – so is that PFD floating right in front of me – whoa, that’s better – where’s Rick?”
In hindsight, we lucked out. Not sure what Rick was thinking or what the target of his cursing was, but we ended up face to face, each with a PFD within our grasp, beside the canoe and not far from shore. Thankfully, no bashes on the head from the boat and no involuntary gasps of water as we crashed beneath the surface, just the cold racking our bodies; I think we even recovered our rods. Keeping our wits about us, we stayed with the boat and eventually swam it to the nearby shore, got our feet under us, turned it over and splashed out the water. Soon, we were paddling like the dickens back towards camp, PFDs worn snuggly in case of another dump and keeping us that much warmer. As the gravel beach grinded against the hull, we lumbered ashore and forced our numbing extremities to get us towards the fire, the tents and warm dry clothes. We made it.
Years later I found myself on a canoe course – coincidentally back in Nova Scotia – what an enlightening experience. It is amazing how stable a canoe is, how used properly a paddle can make the boat do magic. You learn where and how to sit, that an extra paddle is a given and how to handle the wake thrown up by those other boaters. As sailors and powerboaters, we often forget the beauty and tranquility of the basic and graceful canoe. Maybe those are reasons paddleboats are such the rage these days – be it a canoe or a kayak.
However, with more canoes and kayaks on the water and with most paddlers foregoing any training, fatalities from these small open boats are starting to surpass fatalities from other boats. The biggest segment of paddlers by far contributing to the stats are unfortunately those who, after a few beers, remember the canoe under the porch and venture forth on the lake, usually alone. The lucky ones make it back to shore, that much smarter for the endeavour – but being lucky is less likely when it’s dark, when there are no PFDs or safety gear and when there’s been too much partying.
So, whether you are new to canoeing or are planning to become a paddler, take the right steps. Where a PFD at all times, get all the safety gear (more today than back then), check the weather, stay in protected waters, stay low in the boat (don’t cast in synchronization), no alcohol and most importantly, take a course. What you can do with a paddle in a canoe will amaze you. Can you canoe? If you take these steps – indubitably.