by Ward Swann, Winston-Salem Staff


Many people don’t see it. Perhaps many people just assume that it is so clear that it bears no remark. But, water behaves differently in winter. The chill settles the water molecules to an uninviting thickness that would make John Wayne sing soprano. The cooler the water is, the longer it takes to drip off the paddle or returns to the lake from sliding down the hull of my boat. The languid waves, stripped of the summer optimism, coat the shoreline rather than slap.

Into this aquatic sobriety I prepare to launch. By the shore I assemble my tools; two paddles, a bottle of water, pads for the bottom of the canoe, and the canoe. I am already wearing enough Immersion Research clothing to look like an IR poster child. Also on me is a comfortable Astral Buoyancy pfd (more increasingly called a pdf, “that’s right; you must have Adobe software to wear it”). And Under it all, beside my heart, is my Suunto heart rate monitor. This is to be a workout. Not a workout of distance, but of intensity and form. I practice a type of canoeing called Freestyle.

The word freestyle is so overused that it still doesn’t tell you much about what to expect. It’s been called dancing in canoes. It’s also been described as “obedience training for your canoe.” Most people who have seen it think of it as a performance art that is best left to others. Those descriptions get you pointed in the right direction, but are not very satisfying to me. Form and technique are relevant but not for the reason of showing off. If you feel competitive showing off can be part of the activity. Like the innovations of NASCAR that make it to the factory and on the street, the skills that one develops here will inform the rest of your paddling, both canoe and kayak. We’ll talk more about this but first let’s get on the water.

The transition from land mammal to aquatic beast is not without uncertainty. I have borrowed a high performance solo boat for this first outing of the year. As with all boats that are described as “high performance”, the “getting to know you” phase is a little shaky. The first couple of minutes would have gotten me banned from stages in many states back in the 1950’s. Once, Elvis had left the building, we warmed up as we moved to my favorite little cove out of the wind. Pardon me; it’s hard not to say “we.” Each boat has such different temperaments that they feel like paddling partners. This is also the time to drown out the barks of dogs on shore with music. Dogs will bark at canoes and kayaks but not boats and jet skis. Perhaps the dogs are jealous. Music serves as another purpose too, Motivation. The H2Oaudio encased iPod starts by finishing the last song I was listening to, “Mr. Blue Sky” from ELO.

Most of the freestyle maneuvers involve building momentum in a relatively small space then changing the direction of that momentum while sustaining as much momentum as you can for the next change. That requires strength and finesse. The strength comes in two forms; building the momentum and then holding a static position while the boat performs the dynamic maneuver under you. Think of that static position part as waterborne yoga without the tights. No doubt some will under appreciate the strength portion of freestyle canoeing, I’m guilty myself. Truth is, while it is an adequate cardio routine, this is my BEST work out for the front of my legs!

My Suunto trainer is telling me that I need to pick up the pace a little. That will be easy because “Cantaloop” from US3 just came up on shuffle.

The finesse part is what you have to learn. Finesse does two things. It keeps the momentum going and makes the maneuver most productive. In each maneuver there are 5 parts; Setup, Boat Lean, Pitch, Paddle Placement, Conclusion. The setup is what paddle stroke you do just before you go to do whatever it is that you are going to do. I’ll give an example later. Most people who have seen this sport associate it with the boat leans. When you change the shape of your boat in the water by leaning it you get much more of turn without losing much energy. Most of the time, to be effective, you don’t need to take it all the way down to the gunwales, but it shows boat control if you do. Pitch is a tricky one to explain. A paddler in this case is kneeling and leaning on the seat of the boat. By lifting up off the seat into a forward kind of kneel you put more weight on the bow then on the stern. The more weight you have on the bow then the stern, the easier it is to turn. By the way, that is why the heavier paddler traditionally sits in the back of the boat. The weight distribution makes the boat easier to go straight—er. Just changing your weight from approximately over your heels to over your knees will make a big difference on how the boat handles- in your favor. Paddle placement is fairly obvious. The trick is to not jab the paddle and catch a lot of water with it. If you did the first three things right then your boat is already doing the maneuver, you just have to bring that into focus a little sharper with the paddle. Lastly the conclusion is what little activity you do with the paddle to complete the maneuver. This is an oversimplification. When one sees all of this one can imagine that it is quite difficult. Truth is that if you want to get a better effect then average it is pretty easy. But when you do it all right you feel it through your whole being. It’s like when you really connect with a baseball. It’s like when you see that light of understanding after teaching a complicated concept. Well, it gives me more of an instant gratification then some exercises at the gym.

It’s time to put this all into action. Three hard forward strokes, on the last one correct it with a vigorous J stroke. Tilt the boat towards the paddle as far as I dare while getting up on my knees. And slice the paddle forward to just before the knees in the water with the front edge of the paddle away and ride it around. Finish with a conclusion that sweeps the paddle to the front of the boat and viola, an Axle. Oh well, that one was weak. I applied the paddle with a heavy hand, killed all momentum and stalled the turn halfway around. Try another Axle, better. Then do the same things but lean the boat away from the paddle and you get a Post. Try the same Axle as before but let the paddle hang out at the back of the boat after the J stroke and sweep it around to the front and you get a Christie. We work in the forward quadrant like this on the dominate side (for me the left) through Big Country’s, “In a Big Country.” When some tunes from the Dixie Diaspora come on I am starting to work the off side. One, two three forward strokes and a…. Post; except, since it is done with my hands set up for the left but the activity is on the right (off side) then it is called a cross post. One, two, three, Cross Axle. One, two, three, Cross Christie. That one’s tough. You have to be forward in the boat and keep your paddle towards the back of the boat. While twisted up like that you are leaning towards a side that you have no support on. If this is yoga on the water, perhaps the tights might help.

Somewhere along the way I have switched paddles. Put away is the warm up paddle that is as thick as two sheets of note book paper and as light as a dream. Brought out is the BEAST. Often mistaken for a tool in a Pizza kitchen, this is a paddle I made. Serious freestyle paddles are wider than your average paddle and have a beauty that hides the kick’n acceleration that you can get with it. When I made my paddle I got half of that right. It will move some water! When I brought it out at a gathering of freestyle enthusiast (yes we gather and yes it is nerdier then you can imagine) even these guys were stunned by its ugly, brutal implications. During training I was NOT encouraged to wield the beast. But when I am doing this for exercise it is the perfect tool.
The Suunto heart rate monitor points out that my workout is getting to the 3.5 area out of 5. I am in a zone that means my general fitness is improving. It’s my own fault that rarely a workout in a canoe gets me into a training effect of 4.0 or more. I tend to stop and think about how I can do a stroke better rather than focusing on the intensity. Tunes from Louis Jordan like “Choo Choo Ch’boogie” and “There Aint Nobody Here But Us Chickens” can pass for inspiration.

Some great things about this little outing are that it is not about being an outing. All of the rewards are internal. I don’t have to drive to the coast or mountains for grandeur or adrenaline. I’m ten minutes from the house by car and within sight of the ramp on the water. Yet the adventure of water is internal and universal. The experience is physical, intellectual and spiritual. Where else can you feel the forgotten warmth of a road kill sun glinting off water like silver mercury? Still water records the movements of my path with bubbles like sound recorded on vinyl. At this moment there is only the movement and the surrounding environment all awash in “You Can’t Touch This.” So it’s not perfect. What can I say; I am a child of the 80’s.

As we paddle back to the ramp I have switched back to the “smaller” paddle and am working strictly on boat control. I am satisfied with the workout. I am satisfied with the boat. While leaning the boat during maneuvers I was routinely getting it down to the gunwales with few bobbles. On my boat (a converted tandem) that would be unlikely. On the iPod comes on what happens to be the last song I will play before getting out. As the Talking Heads sing I hit the beach: “We’re on a road to nowhere, Come on inside, Taking that ride to nowhere, We’ll take that ride.” David Byrne is inviting us all to find that space that lets us be who we really are.