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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Moving On

Part 2: Going Against the Flow

by Tamia Nelson

Today's the day! You're about to move on—to put your boat in moving water for the first time. And you're going to do it by yourself.

As I explained in last week's column, this isn't a good idea. Rivers and streams can be dangerous places for canoeists, and moving water is no place for a lone novice. In fact, it's almost always safer to paddle in company. There are times when having experienced companions can make the difference between life and death.

Still, not everyone can find a nearby paddling club. If the mail that I get is any indication, a lot of folks don't have a single friend who shares their interest in canoeing. Some people work swing shifts or seasonal jobs. They're working when everyone else is playing. When they're ready to take time off, everyone else is back at work.

Play it safe, or go it alone? It's not an easy decision. Prudence and common sense tell you to be patient. Sooner or later, you'll almost certainly hear about a club or find a couple of paddling buddies. And maybe you will. But a lot of life can go by while you're waiting for something to turn up. Perhaps you've run out of patience.

OK. You're not a fool. You don't want to die on a river. But you're ready to move on. What do you do?

First, you have to find a good place to learn. This won't be easy. It may be just about as hard as finding someone to paddle with. But let's say you've done it. You've found your river. It's a pool-and-drop stream, with a gentle gradient and no ledges, falls or dams. It's mid-summer. The spring floods are long past. There's been just enough rain to keep the current flowing through the pools at something less than a walking pace. The water's warm enough to swim in. And—this is the real miracle—the river's clean. It isn't full of junked cars or sewage, and it isn't criss-crossed with barbed-wire fences.

And you. What about you? There's no doubt that you're as ready as you can be. You've already mastered your boat in flat water. You've got a good life jacket, and you always wear it. Your boat has a short painter (15-25 feet of one-quarter-inch nylon or dacron line) attached at each end, snugged down under a length of shock cord. You've tied a couple of inflated truck innertubes securely under the seats. (Remember that you're alone. You'll be kneeling just aft of the midship thwart. If you had a companion, the innertubes would be lashed in the center of your boat.) You've got a good knife in a hard sheath, strapped to your leg or life jacket. There's a spare paddle in the boat, along with a bailer (a cut-down bleach bottle). Your car keys are clipped into a pocket of your life vest.

So there you are—standing at the put-in at the foot of a pool in your river. You're alone, of course, but that doesn't keep me from talking to you, does it? Before you put your boat in the water, let's wade out together, just to get the feel of the water.

You walk out into the pool until the water is almost up to your waist. Damn! It's really moving, isn't it? Didn't look this fast from shore! With every step you take, the water's tug-tug-tugging at you. You stumble a little on a stone (the pool has a sand and silt bottom, sprinkled with small cobbles), and before you know it you almost go in—the river just snatches your leg away, and you can feel the sand washing out from under the one foot that's still planted firm. You flail about for a few seconds, but you get your balance back and then decide you've done enough wading. You've got a much better understanding of the power of moving water than you had three minutes ago.

It's time to launch your boat. No! Not that way. Bow upstream! You always launch bow upstream on moving water, and you keep your boat parallel to the shore until you're ready to start out. Yeah. That's right.

Ready? Is your paddle on the "outside"—the side toward the river? Draw the bow out into the main current. Just a bit, now. OK. Paddle gently forward. Forward? Yes, forward! Head upstream.

Careful! The bow's starting to get away from you. Draw the stern in to straighten the boat out, but keep paddling steadily forward.

Good. You're on the river. Congratulations! You're actually moving upstream—going against the flow. Now ease off a bit. Look right. Look left. Just holding your own against the current? Good. Angle the bow toward the side of the river across from the put-in. Use your pry. Good. You're holding an angle of about 30-45 degrees off the current. Paddle just hard enough to keep from being swept downstream.

Look left. Look right. Damn! What's happening? The put-in's way the hell over there. And the other bank's a lot closer. What's wrong?

Nothing! Nothing at all. You're doing an upstream ferry: crossing from one side of the river to the other, and letting the river do most of the work.

Before you know it, you're there! You've crossed the river like you were on wires. Now try it going the other way. Ready? Nudge the bow out into the current. Set the angle. Look right. Look left. Paddle just hard enough to keep from being pushed downriver. Hold the angle. That's all there is to it.

Good work. You're back where you started from. Now do it again, but this time, play the river a little. Vary your angle and change the power of your forward stroke as you go. See what happens. Drift down a few feet, then regain what you've lost and make some progress upstream, still working your way across.

Back again already? Let's try something else. Angle the bow out as before, but let the river swing the boat until you're headed downstream. Whoops! Feel the upstream gunwale dip? You've got to lean into the turn a little if you want to keep on an even keel. You're on your way downriver. Not for long, though. Start back-paddling. Harder! You want to hold you boat against current. Good. Now point the bow—Yes, the bow!—at the bank where you started. Same angle as before: 30-45 degrees to start with. Keep back-paddling. Look left. Look right. How about that! You're moving across the river. Way to go! You're doing a back-ferry. (Back-ferrying is also known as "setting.")

As you approach the bank, swing round until your bow is pointing upstream again, and glide into shore. Then head back the same way. Push the bow out. Let it swing around. (Don't forget to lean!) Point the bow toward the bank you're leaving. Back-paddle. That's all you need to do. The river will take you across.

This is a good trick to remember when you're headed downriver and you find yourself going somewhere you don't want to go—toward a sweeper, perhaps, or straight at a big rock in mid-stream. First, put the brakes on. Back-paddle. Then point your bow AT the thing you want to avoid. Set the angle and hold it. Just like magic, you'll move away from whatever it is that you don't want to get closer to. Take the ferry out of trouble. Sounds good, doesn't it?

Damn, look at the time! You've spent two hours already, and you haven't gone more than 100 yards from the put-in. Let's head upstream a couple of hundred yards, toward that big rock at the top of the pool.

Almost there? OK. Slow down. Head right at the rock. See that slick of quiet water just downstream from it? That's an eddy. Paddle into it. Easy! Back-paddle just a touch! Don't want to split the rock in two, do we?

Bow nestled up against the rock? Good. Just keep your paddle in the water to give you a brace if you need one, and look around. You're parked in the eddy. The river's flowing by on both sides of you, but you're not going anywhere. That's another thing to remember. In rapids, the eddies below rocks can be places to rest and scout. Rocks can be your friends. Comforting, that.

Ready to leave? Poke your bow out of the eddy, into the current. Drive forward. Paddle upstream fifty yards or so. Pivot your boat around. Point the bow at—Yes, at!—the rock. Set the angle with a quick draw (or pry). Back-paddle. See how you move away? Take the ferry out of trouble.

Now, paddle forward. Soon you'll be coming down the river on one side of the rock. Catch the eddy with your bow. Sweep the boat around, leaning into the turn. How 'bout that! You're back in the eddy. Parked.

Time to go. You've got to stop at the store on your way home. Look around one last time. Hear that rattling call from the sycamore on the bank? It's a kingfisher. See it dive! That's one trout that didn't get away.

OK. Peel out. Head downstream, toward the put-in. Almost there. Nose the bow in toward shore—there's a weak eddy along the shore, too. Swing round, leaning into the turn. Made it!

After you pull your boat out, you take a minute to look back at the river. It's been a good day. You were on the water for three hours, but it seems like only three minutes. You were never more than 300 yards from your put-in, but you went a hell of a lot further than that. While you've still got a lot to learn, you've definitely moved on. That's what happens when you go against the flow!

Verloren Hoop Productions 1999

Canoes and kayaks have a lot in common, but they're not identical. Next week, Farwell gives some advice to folks just starting out in kayaking. In the meantime, we'd like to hear from you. Send your comments and questions to us at sameboat@paddling.net. (No attachments, audio clips or family snaps, please!) We won't promise that we'll answer each letter, but we can promise that we'll read every one—and we will. 'Nuff said.









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