How to paddle a canoe in Texas

The turquoise water pooled against the limestone cliffs, then riffled brown on the shallow Mexican side. I pushed my yellow paddle in straight, leaning far forward in the canoe, then watched it pull past me, as I turned towards the paddle. When the blade reached the back of the canoe, I twisted it out, thumb down, feathering the same power side of the blade out to the side, straightening the boat.

This is the classic J stroke of the Canadian Voyageurs and Tony patiently taught it to me, reversing my straightening action from an energy-wasting backwards pry to an elegant J. It worked best without broadsiding wind. Often the river was shallow enough that I could simply use my paddle to pole along the bottom, shoving the boat forward.

We had signed up for a 33-mile river trip, over 4 days, from Rio Grande Village, deep in Big Bend National Park, to a take-out at La Linda, outside the park near the Black Gap Wildlife Management Area. Tony and Patrick with Far Flung Adventures led the trip, providing boats, tents, food, and a yellow metal box for our solid human waste.

There is a zen to any simple, repetitive action, perhaps especially if you are paddling a boat down river. Simple statements of how to live a good life seldom really work in messy reality, but when you are paddling a boat, the world clarifies to one where aphorisms tell. Only a paddle in the water will move the boat forward. The longest strokes take you the farthest. Straighten the boat with every stroke, your eye on the horizon. Choose your path; ride the current. Keep México on your right.

Then there are also the simpler technical tips. Twist your thumb down, not up, to straighten the boat with an outward riffle. Sit to the side you paddle, letting that edge form a slight keel. The J works best at the farthest stern reach of the paddle. Use your core to paddle. Push down with the upper cross hand, guide with the lower hand. If there are two of you in the boat, paddle in unison.

You can play with your paddle, dipping it in and out, when progress is optional, the wind and current light. The boat will move forward. But if you need to hit a spot between two rocks where the river surges forward, or cross a windy lake, or keep up with your party, then you will want to discover how to become one with your paddle and canoe.

The trip’s leader was Patrick. He put us in our boats, made sure everything was lashed down, that life jackets were nearby, then pushed us off to discover our paddles for ourselves. He paddled off in lead, hunching forward, digging deep in the water, then prying the boat straight, levering his paddle against the side. He had discovered his own style, using brute force to thrust the boat forward.

Tony, usually in red, took up the rear, with his apparently effortless Voyageurs strokes. Neither taught us anything until directly asked. They seemed to think that we needed to get the feel of the paddle, the water, the boat before we could be taught. Once we had played with the elements, seen what they would and would not do, then we could be taught. Is all learning like this, impossible until you have played with the elements? I suppose I see the point, but I also imagine I could have put that thumbs-down J into play a day or so earlier, and maybe paused to see a few more birds.

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About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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