Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Weekend On The Water With The Applachian Mountain Club

Over the last few years I’ve kayaked several times while on vacation, enjoying the relaxing activity of an hour or two’s paddling on beautiful lakes while taking in the stunning scenery and imagining what it must have been like to live in a time when travel by canoe was one of the major forms of transport.

It’s an activity that I’ve often thought I’d like to follow up on so when I received an email from The Applachian Mountain Club offering a ‘Basic Canoe Instruction’ weekend, I jumped at the chance to sign up. After all, surely there couldn’t be that much difference between kayaking and canoeing?

Well, actually… yes there is.

 My kayaking had been limited to solo paddling sit-on kayaks. The canoes we used were capable of carrying two or three people and all the gear needed for an extended trip. Even empty, the boats were substantially heavier than I’d expected.

Photo by Sheldon Luberoff
Kayaking uses a double bladed paddle while that for a canoe only has one blade. In a tandem canoe (two people) each person paddles on a different side, requiring a degree of co-ordination which can be hard to achieve especially as a beginner.

Photo by Richard Breton
In a kayak the paddler usually sits with legs extended out in front, in a canoe you either kneel or sit upright. Kneeling seemed to be the preferred method, but I don’t have much call to sit on both knees in everyday life—cramp and the inability to stand back up being the usual result—so I was pleased to discover that kneeling on one knee was perfectly acceptable too. And surprisingly comfortable.   

The weekend was held at the AMC’s Mohican Outdoor Center which sits alongside Catfish Pond in New Jersey.  It started on Friday evening at our lodge for the weekend, Blueberry Cabin, when all fourteen attendees and six instructors got to know each other over dinner and an introductory chat.
Photo by Johan Martin

Saturday morning, we headed for the lake where, after a brief talk on equipment, technique and knots we hit the water. On the large, calm surface of Catfish Pond paddling didn’t seem that difficult—for me it was more a question of getting used to working in tandem rather than going solo. By lunchtime I was feeling quite confident, even felt I was beginning to understand the principles behind steering the canoe—not as easy as you would think given that the required actions for moving to the right or left depend on which side you are paddling.

Saturday afternoon proved to be a different story. In order to test our new skills, the instructors placed some buoys in the water—buoys which we were supposed to steer around.  For some reasons my partner and I just didn’t seem to be able to get it right. The frustrations level built up. We tried again and again, constantly ending up on the wrong side of the buoy. Others seemed to be able to do it, why couldn’t we?  

The answer, it turned out, was miscommunication! As we approached a buoy, if we agreed we would go right, I assumed that meant going to the right of the buoy and turning left around it, while my partner assumed we were aiming for the left of the buoy to turn right. (Just goes to show you should never assume anything.) This meant we were both working against each other which probably explains why we kept going round in circles! 

Of course, when the exercise changed to one which required us to paddle in a circle around a particular buoy… well, let’s just say we didn’t do too well with that one either. And that’s despite the help of several different instructors. I think by this point they must have been rolling their eyes.

Photo by Richard Breton
We redeemed ourselves a little on the final game where we had to head straight towards an instructor’s boat until, at almost the last minute (brave man), he lowered his paddle to indicate which direction we were supposed to go.  Three times we tried it and three times we got it right, which left us ending the day on a more positive note. Especially since one of the other tandems (they shall remain nameless) managed to capsize in the process, giving us an unexpected introduction to boat-on-boat rescues.

On Sunday we progressed from still waters to ‘moderately moving water’ in the form of the Paulins Kill River. It’s a narrow, shallow and scenic river with lots of bends, ideal, apparently, to further hone our paddling technique. To say I was nervous was an understatement. My partner and I even discussed changing partners in the hope that we would end up with someone a little more capable than we were, but our instructors assured us we would be fine—and guess what?  We were.

Photo by Richard Breton

There might have been several occasions when we were actually going backwards (our canoe seemed to have a preference for this) or had to duck to avoid low branches protruding from the riverbanks because our steering was a little off, but we twice managed to navigate narrow gaps created by fallen trees which all but blocked the route and, to our surprise, arrived at the take-out point without having gone swimming. To my mind, a successful day.

Photo by Thomas Doo

All in all, it was a wonderful weekend, lots of fun and laughter both on and off the water. A chance to learn a new skill, face fears, meet a great group of people and, perhaps most importantly, spend time outdoors getting physical exercise in a beautiful setting.

Would I do it again? When I first came off the river, I thought not. Kayaking on lakes seems an easier way to get exercise in the great outdoors. But now, having a chance to reflect on the experience, I can see that, with further practice, canoeing offers an amazing opportunity to go to places and see sights that might otherwise be impossible. And who knows where it might lead to in story lines!  

Many thanks to Richard Breton who organized the whole weekend, the instructors who voluntarily gave up their weekend to introduce us to this wonderful outdoor opportunity and all the other attendees for making it such a friendly, fabulous event. 



  1. Thanks for capturing in words a fun weekend experience!

  2. Thank you Wendy for helping to make it such a fun weekend!