SameBoat Shorts: First Strokes

First Strokes

Starting Out or Coming Back? You’ve Come to the Right Place

Whether you dream of descending mountain torrents in far‑distant lands or just want to spend quiet evenings drifting on a nearby beaver pond, you’re ready to take the plunge. But what are the first steps? That’s Tamia’s subject today, in her second SameBoat Short.

by Tamia Nelson | November 28, 2017

The Dream has you in its grip, and you’re impatient to get started. You’ve made your first purchase: a good‑quality life vest — the type known to bureaucrats and graduates of wilderness education courses as a “personal flotation device,” or PFD. Why should this be the first thing you buy? Because borrowed or rented life vests never fit well, that’s why, and getting a good fit is vitally important. Don’t buy your first boat before you have a few dozen miles under your keel, however. Borrowing or renting a boat makes perfect sense for beginners.

What’s next? That’s easy: Go paddling! Books can help you prepare for your first day on the water, of course, and some folks also find instructional videos useful. Read (or watch) whatever catches your eye or tickles your fancy. Just don’t think that any book or video can make you an expert. There’s simply no substitute for experience, and experience doesn’t begin till you dip a blade in the water. So get started. Right now. And the best way to do that is to make a date with an experienced paddler who can show you the strokes.

Make it a day to remember. Pick sometime when the weather’s invitingly warm — a sunny day in late spring or early summer, say, with little or no wind. (Hint: If you’re not already a swimmer, winter is a good time to learn. Check out the local college or Y.) Make sure the water is comfortably warm, too, in case your baptism in the sport culminates in a good drenching. A nearby lake may be just what you’re looking for. And to reinforce the holiday atmosphere, be sure to pack a good lunch.

You say there are no lakes near you? No problem. Small is beautiful. Even a farm pond will do fine, if the water’s clean and there aren’t too many weeds. In fact, if the lake nearest your home is big enough to warrant a boat ramp, look around for someplace quieter — or at least pick a sheltered bay with little or no powerboat traffic. Are there other places to avoid? Yes. The obvious suspects: fast streams, big rivers, shipping channels, and shorelines with heavy surf or rip currents. Beginners have no business on such waters.

OK. You’ve decided on a destination. But what if you don’t know any experienced paddlers who can “show you the strokes”? What do you do then? Well, you can learn on your own, by trial and error. A lot of folks have done just that, including Farwell and me. It’s not a very good idea, though. For one thing, it’s dangerous. Farwell nearly drowned while practicing in a farm pond. And since you’re likely to keep making the same mistakes again and again unless you have someone to set you straight, it’s easy to become discouraged. When that happens, learning stops being fun and becomes a chore. So it’s better by far to take your “baby strokes” under the watchful eye of an old hand, someone more knowledgeable than you.

And how do you find this knowledgeable someone? First, make some new friends. There’s probably a canoeing or kayaking club near you. Ask around. Search online forums, too. No luck? What about the local chapters of organizations like the Sierra Club and Appalachian Mountain Club? Many offer formal courses of instruction in canoeing and kayaking, and these are always worth considering. The company is good, the cost is reasonable, and there’s often an empty space in someone’s boat, if you don’t yet have a boat of your own. Nothing doing? Then check out the noncredit offerings at nearby colleges. If you find a canoeing or kayaking course listed, your search is over. You’ll have to pay tuition, but the college should provide all the equipment you’ll need, and the instructors are usually well‑qualified. Still no joy? See if a local outfitter offers one‑on‑one instruction. This is often the best way to learn.

No matter how frustrating the search, don’t give up. You’re sure to find a teacher sooner or later. The rest is up to you. Experience starts when you begin, and once you’ve mastered the arts of the waterman, you can go as far as you want. You may be perfectly content to potter about on Golden Pond, or you may decide to light out for the Territory with some latter‑day Huck Finns. The choice is yours. But be patient. You can’t learn everything at once. Take it easy. Have fun. Go with the flow at first. Savor the magic to be found where the world of air meets the world of water. Make every day in your boat a picnic. Take a nap on a sun‑warmed promontory. Watch a momma mallard and her brood dine on blackfly larvae scraped from rocks in a riffle. Listen to a lonely loon. Enjoy the ever‑shifting play of light and color on the ripples. Or dance by the light of the moon.

That’s what it’s all about. And it’s why you’re here, isn’t it?

Read more: Thinking of going paddling? | SameBoat Shorts | Starting out and moving on

Les Périssoires by Gustave Caillebotte (1878)

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