Monday, August 23, 2010

Summer Times - Valuable Canoeing Tips"

In order to go on a canoe trip – and get out of camp and eat steaks grilled over an open fire – it was necessary to complete a swimming proficiency requirement. A successful completion of this test meant you were able to swim a certain distance in the Swimming Area without touching the dock. Or drowning.

Why was this test necessary? I am about to argue that it wasn’t. The explanation we were given was that, if you’re on a canoe trip, and your canoe tips over, you’ll be a proficient enough swimmer to be able to make it to shore.

The problem with that explanation is:

There is never a need to swim to shore.

“What do you mean? You just stay out there forever?”

Listen to me. I have taken Canoe Instruction.


All right. Your canoe has tipped over. You are in the water. You would rather be in the canoe, but that option is no longer available to you. The canoe is upside-down. If you were in it, your head would be facing the bottom of the lake.

So you’re in the water. You can see the shore, maybe half a mile away. You could swim there. It might take a while, because if the canoe has tipped over, it means the water is very rough. Canoes don’t tip over on a whim.

“I’m tired of being right-side up. Let’s ‘topsy-turvy’ it for a while.”


Canoes tip over because of turbulent waters that strike the canoe from the side, rather than the front. (This may be more about canoeing than you were bargaining for, but like a canoe trip in turbulent waters, I have started this journey, and I’m determined to see it through. You, of course, have an option. But if you check out now, you could be missing out on some life-saving canoeing tips.)

If your canoe is facing the waves – and we’re not talking Perfect Storm waves here, it’s a camping park lake, not an ocean – the front (or bow) of the canoe will rise up in the air, and then come slamming back down, as the wave passes through, an event generally accompanied by the occupants of the canoe going “Whee!”

However, if the canoe is “broadsided” by the wave, and the wave is powerful enough, “Whee!”, at least at a Jewish camp, very quickly becomes “Oy!”

Least worst-case scenario: It’s a Disneyland ride.

Less than worst-case scenario: The canoe tosses around like crazy, and water comes splashing into the boat.

Worst-case scenario: The canoe tips over, and you’re in the lake.

At which point, if you’re going by the camp’s proficiency test, you are expected to start swimming towards shore.

Don’t. Do it.

Reality would suggest that if the waters are turbulent enough to overturn a canoe, you really don’t want to do a whole lot of swimming. Swimming is harder in turbulent waters. You start swimming towards shore, and turbulent waters can keep you exactly where you are. Result? You’re still in the same place. And you’re tired.

If the waters are extremely turbulent, you start swimming towards shore, and the turbulence carries you in the other direction. Now, you are not only tired, you are going the wrong way. So on top of it all, you feel stupid.

As stupid, I suggest, as the swimming proficiency requirement itself. Why it the proficiency test stupid? Because it is never taken in turbulent waters. Turbulent waters are invariably accompanied by driving rains and biting winds. Nobody wants to go outside on those days. They want to stay in their cabins, reading comic books under the covers. And take their proficiency test when it’s nicer.

The proficiency tests are only scheduled when the waters are calm. To which I ask: What is that value of that? If there were calm waters on the canoe trip, you wouldn’t be in the lake.

The swimming test is irrelevant. They may just as well have had a spelling requirement to go on a canoe trip.


And here’s the main point, the point they drummed into our heads during every single Canoe Instruction class we ever had. The point is:

You should never leave the canoe!

Why? Because



That’s a helpful thing to know. You’re scrambling around in the water, desperately searching for some flotsam or jetsam to keep from going under. Don’t bother. Hold onto the canoe.

Rather than swim for shore, the correct approach is to keep hold of the canoe till the turbulence subsides, flip over the canoe, and pull yourself back in.

And how do you do that?

Aha! A Canoe Instruction cliffhanger!

You’ll just have to come back tomorrow.

I really ought to promote this on Twitter. This could finally be the post that causes me to go viral.


PALGOLAK said...

I think Earl is being a bit disingenuous here.

It is my personal experience that canoes are the tippiest watercraft in the history of mankind, which is why being able to swim is so important.

Even getting into or out of a canoe carries an approximate 40% risk of ending up 'in the drink' (as my dad would say.)

Hence, the importance of being able to swim.

PG said...

I agree wholeheartedly with every single point you make having survived several birchbark adventures in Algonquin Park as a counsellor and relative non-swimmer. It's all for show, if you ask me.

I practically drowned during the compulsory 'swim test' and they gave it to me anyways, since they couldn't possibly send the campers out in the bush without staff. On my last trip, common sense told me that it was probably unwise to head out into the middle of Opeongo (a very large lake) in a thunderstorm on a last day just to meet the scheduled pick-up back to camp, but our stalwart 'tripper' insisted we give it a shot. I guess he was away when they taught the stuff about crossing open water during an electrical storm in four canoes filled with 12 year old lilydipping girls. I ducked my head down in the stern of the canoe, trying to hide from random thunderbolts (they strike the highest point, don't they?) and paddled furiously, my short life flashing before my eyes. Never again.

As for tipping, one of our favorite 'activities' on a lazy hot afternoon was taking canoes out into the middle of Lake Placid (renamed from Hurricane Lake which it is called on Ontario maps) and deliberately tipping them by 'gunwalling', ie. standing on the ends and teeter-tottering until you spill into the lake. Flipping the canoe in deep water was a skill achieved for your first canoeing badge.

Like Earl says, folks, never leave your canoe! Either literally or even sometimes, metaphorically.

Gary said...

Always wear a life jacket and never leave a boat that's still afloat, unless it's on fire, then it might be a good idea to paddle yourself towards shore.