Go from novice paddler to expert canoeist with these 7 steps


For beginner paddlers, it’s easy to master the basics of canoeing. But while knowing the standard forward stroke and J stroke is great for getting from point A to B on flat water, canoes are capable of going so much further.

“The canoe has a unique shape in the boating world, which allows it to be both a forgiving and a high-performance craft,” says long-time canoe instructor Andrew Westwood. “To tap into its full potential, a paddler needs a variety of strokes, each with their own advantages, to move the canoe with grace and precision.”

By learning new techniques, you’ll be able to explore previously unchartered waters around your cottage, including rocky sections, marshy areas and even—for the truly adventurous—whitewater.

If you’re ready to take your canoeing to the next level, here’s how to go from newbie to canoe god.

Perfect your timing

While this may a beginner-level skill, the importance of learning to paddle in time with your partner can’t be understated. Remember: the bow always sets the pace.

Practice solo

When it comes to practicing new skills, Jessica Fleury from the Canadian Canoe Museum suggests first heading out solo. “When you effectively and confidently manoeuvre a canoe all by yourself, it’ll feel like a breeze when you go back to tandem paddling and have a buddy to help you out,” she says.

Turn the boat with just one stroke

For this, you’ll need to hone your bow cut, which is also called the draw stroke. “The bow paddler can control turns by holding a vertical paddle ahead of their hip with the blade twisted to ‘cut’ the water and draw the canoe into a turn. Momentum comes from the stern paddler,” explains Westwood. The pry stroke can also be used for sharp turns, which involves placing the paddle vertically in the water with the shaft braced against the gunwhale and pushing outward.

Learn some new strokes

There are a range of advanced strokes that may be useful in different water conditions, including gooning, pitch stroking, and sculling. However, Fleury recommends first learning the cross bow draw and the reverse J stroke. The cross bow draw has a similar effect to the pry stroke, except that it’s much stronger. The paddle is inserted in the water on the opposite side of the canoe a distance from the gunwhale facing towards the canoe. It’s then pulled inward, while the top hand pushes outward. Meanwhile, the reverse J stroke can help paddlers back ferry on fast moving water. It begins with a reverse stroke and ends with a J, where the blade pivots away from the bow.

Blend your strokes

Like a skilled painter, once you’ve nailed some new strokes, the next step is learning to blend. “The J stroke may morph into a slight C stroke when conditions allow. Adding a slice recovery leads to the classic Canadian Stroke,” says Westwood. If you’ve gotten this far, then you’re no doubt well on your way to being a pro.

Carve your own paddle

The Canadian Canoe Museum regularly hosts “carve your own paddle” workshops. Apart from bragging rights, having your own paddle customized to your height and needs can actually up your canoe game. “The grip of the paddle is carved to perfectly fit the user’s hand and no one else’s,” explains Fleury.

Try canoe poling

If you truly want to impress your friends, maybe it’s time to give up your paddle altogether. Popular in New Brunswick, canoe poling involves exchanging your paddle for a pole. Although it may be counterintuitive, you stand up in the boat, similar to a gondolier. In addition to improving your core body strength, it also allows you to access waterways that you wouldn’t be able to with a paddle or that you would have to portage through, including shallow marshy areas.