As an instructor I encourage people to learn the basics of solo paddling if they want to lead canoe trips or teach others how to paddle a canoe. The question often comes up - why? In the end I think it is a matter of safety on a canoe trip and convenience when teaching. The ability to paddle solo makes you a better, stronger, canoest overall with a close and intimate understanding of how the boat moves through the water and how different forces, such as wind and current, affect the canoe.
When tripping, whether it is only a short paddle down a nearby creek or a longer wilderness trip, the ability to solo can be a matter of group safety. If there was an accident or illness that forced you to paddle the canoe by yourself the solo skills that you have learned and practiced might save a life. Many people learn how to solo in an empty boat on calm water; there is a vast difference between paddling a empty canoe and one filled with with a trip worth of gear and food (not to mention possibly another person). If your interest is in wilderness tripping I suggest that you load up a canoe at least once a season and go paddling to see how your canoe, which might be sprightly and quick when empty, becomes a wallowing barge when loaded. Also spend at least a little time in all kinds of conditions (wind, waves, current) to see how the canoe behaves. Not only will this improve your paddling skills it will give you a head start if you have to bring someone home.
As an instructor I solo in about half of my tandem courses - just the way the numbers work. The truth is I prefer to solo since I can move between different canoes and focus on their skills rather than on both their skills and my tandem partner. Solo I can demonstrate body position, maneuvers, and strokes as both bow and stern. This is the reason that I strongly advocate that a canoe instructor should be comfortable with soloing a canoe - even if they never teach a solo course.
Getting in a canoe by yourself without any background or experience can be frustrating and possibly dangerous, but once you understand the basics of paddling going solo is a fast teacher; you are in total control, anything you do is not off-set by another person in the boat. You don't need to take a course, it helps though, but spend time to figure out the best paddling positions and stokes that are needed before heading off on an adventure. I would recommend reading through Path of the Paddle by Bill Mason or get, and watch, his instructional videos by the same name. Classic Solo Canoeing from Becky Mason will also give some ideas on body position and strokes. When first starting out find a sheltered bay or calm (still water) creek to practice.
Although I have enjoyed many trips on my own I am not going to advocate a completely solo trip, going out with a group (one or all) solo can be a rewarding experience. In some ways it is similar to kayaking trip; slower but easier to portage. The trip can be both a personal and social event. Enjoy the company, additional support, and safety of others while continuing to meet the world as an individual.
The following are some thoughts and ideas for the content of a clinic on solo paddling. The clinic is intended for people that already have some solo paddling skills and want to hone or add to their skills; it is geared toward flatwater paddling. Since this is clinic rather than a course the focus will be almost purely on skill development. Participants will still be expected to wear a properly fitting PFD and have the appropriate required safety equipment in the boat.
The skills covered in this clinic are what I think of as classic Canadian solo. Typically this style is done in a moderate to small (16 foot) tandem canoe with some rocker.
The following links go to some of my pages that you might find interesting or helpful.
How to Solo Flip a Canoe for Portaging
Solo Starting and Stopping
Going sideways solo
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If you have any questions or comments please send me Email: burc...@cc.umanitoba.ca