Smiling man paddling on a lake or river in the Boundary Waters

Canoes, paddling
and portaging

Choose the right canoe, paddle it efficiently and carry it with relative ease through America’s premier canoe country.

To the uninitiated, all canoes might look the same. But like bikes or skis, there are different canoes for different occasions: Canoes to maneuver quickly in whitewater, canoes to carry big loads — or big families — canoes for racing, and so forth.

Most of the canoes used in the Boundary Waters can carry a couple weeks’ worth of gear and are designed for traveling on flat water, meaning they are relatively easy to keep straight. Because there are no shortages of portage trails in the Boundary Waters, a light canoe is a must.

The canoes you’ll probably see weigh about 40-50 pounds, and are made out of a tough, lightweight material called Kevlar. These boats will make you wonder how anyone ever managed to carry those 80-pound aluminum canoes.

Many people opt to rent canoes from Boundary Waters outfitters. Doing so avoids the cost of purchasing one and the hassle of transporting a canoe to the entry point. The downside with Kevlar is that, while it is tough, it is not as tough as those aluminum workhorses or the Royalex boats you still see around (granted these boats are significantly heavier).

Take Care of Your Canoe on Trail

  • Don’t drag the canoe over the ground to get it into the water. Lift and place it in the water so it floats and isn’t grinding against rocks. Don’t be afraid to get your feet wet!
  • Especially don’t drag the canoe over rocks if it’s loaded. Always load the boat when it’s floating in the water.
  • When you stop for lunch, grab a stick of wood, put it under the bow of the canoe on shore. This will keep it off the rocks.
  • At night, bring the canoe all the way on shore, turn it over and tie it to a tree or a pack. A strong wind can lift a canoe!

Paddling that Canoe

If you stay on flat water, there are three paddle strokes you will use 90% of the time in the Boundary Waters: The forward stroke, the J-stroke and the draw.

The first thing to keep in mind is that you want to paddle on the opposite side of your partner. Paddling on the same side makes for an unstable ride and is the sure sign of a rookie who didn’t listen to more experienced paddlers! Sync with your paddling partner by calling “switch” or “hut” to switch sides.

Forward Canoe Stroke

For the forward stroke, the key thing to remember is to engage your core. Twist your torso and reach forward with your lower hand. You get the most power from the first half of your paddle stroke, so really try to maximize your reach and follow through. Twist with your torso to pull your paddle through the water. Recover by taking your paddle out of the water and again planting it in front of you, as far as you can.

Canoe J-Stroke

The J-stroke is used by the person in the stern — the back — of the canoe, and is by far the best steering, or correction, stroke out there.

The first two-thirds of the stroke is done like a forward stroke. At the end you slightly turn the paddle and pry away from the boat, turning the boat to whatever side you’re paddling on. The overall path of the paddle creates a “J,” hence the name “J-stroke.”

Canoe Draw Stroke

Whitewater paddlers use the draw stroke all the time. In the Boundary Waters, you’ll mostly use it as a way to help steer the boat into a landing. To perform a draw stroke, reach out from the canoe, plant the paddle and pull the canoe to the blade. Simple, right? Like anything, the best way to master these strokes is to paddle, paddle, paddle. Ask others to help with your technique!

Portaging the Canoe

It takes more than brute strength to carry a canoe from one end of the portage trail to the other. Getting it on your shoulders takes technique, not muscle. Here are the steps to properly lift a canoe onto your shoulders.

Starting with the canoe on the ground, step alongside the middle of the boat and turn the canoe on its side, so the hull — or bottom — is facing you.

  • Hold the top of the gunnel and lift so the canoe is on your thigh.
  • With your right hand, grab the middle of the yoke. With your left hand, grab the far gunnel.
  • Take your right hand off the yoke and slide it under the canoe.
  • Rock the boat a few times to build momentum and pop it up so the yoke rolls onto your shoulders.
  • To take the canoe off, you essentially do this in reverse. Roll the canoe off your shoulders and onto your thigh. Move your hands from the gunnels to the yoke and place the boat in the water.

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