How to Pilot a Canoe in Whitewater

On our life list of must-learn talents: pilot a canoe in whitewater.

Aug 31, 2010
Outside Magazine

   Photo: muppetofdestiny via Flickr

For Overachievers: Canoe with Your Spouse

It's called a divorce boat for a reason. But the problem isn't the canoe—it's you. More specifically, your natural instinct to yell things like "Right! More right! More right!!!" and "That's not a !@#$ draw!" To avoid such situations, start on very mellow stretches of whitewater. Ahead of time, work on your tone. Say things like "You're doing great, but honey, we really need to get right of that hole" in a calm voice. And never, ever promise that you won't capsize. It's a promise you can't keep.


Shoot the rapids

Back in the 1990s, on North Carolina's famously crowded Nantahala River, my buddy Luke and I were among the rare canoeists on the water. I fondly recall plowing our tandem Dagger Ocoee into the brightly colored kayakers bobbing in eddies. "God damn," I remember one guy remarking. "I only shoot ducks out of those things!" That's the beauty of a canoe. You can stroke them in flat-­water, load them with weeks of supplies, and, if you know what you're doing, shoot them down some pretty serious whitewater. A few pointers on the latter:

1. At a minimum, you and your partner should be able to catch eddies and peel out in swift current. At least one of you should have a rock-solid low brace. Not familiar with these terms? Take a class (
2. Prep the boat. Make sure your "painter" (bow and stern) lines are ready to self-deploy. If you dump, these are what you'll use to grab and land your boat.
3. Stow away all loose gear and make sure the boat is well balanced, both fore-to-aft and side-to-side.
4. When scouting rapids, look for the sneak route, especially if you're running the rapid "open" (with no spray deck). You've got your food and clothing on board, so you're not looking for the most exciting line.
5. Plan your moves early. A fully loaded 17-foot canoe doesn't pivot like a playboat.
6. Slow down. Talk your way around obstacles. Learn how to back-ferry above rapids to get a better read on the situation.
7. Punch it. Speed equals safety. When you hit the pile, the bowman needs to lean forward—and dig in!

Filed To: Canoeing