So, You Wanna Go Canoeing?
Fact: Wild Women Expeditions was conceived and born in a canoe.
That’s right, 30 years ago, founder Beth Mairs was inspired to start this company on a canoe trip with other female friends in Northern Ontario. Over the years, the roots of Wild Women have been firmly planted on the quintessential Canadian canoe trip, and thousands of women had their first Wild Women experience with a paddle in their hands.
I’ve been very lucky to be a part of the Wild Women Expeditions community for almost twenty years. In 2001, I guided my first white water canoe trip on the French River in Ontario, Canada, and over the years have led many many (many!) canoe trips through the spectacular wilderness of Northeastern Ontario.
It’s been a tough couple of months for all of us living through a pandemic. Some are staying safe by remaining close to home, others are heading to work because they are heroes and provide an essential service. But on the bright side, spring has arrived, summer is on the horizon, and there's hope in the air! We are itching to venture out a little further and explore our backyards. In Canada, parks are slowly reopening and local and provincial governments are easing restrictions on participating in outdoor recreation.
If you are like me and can’t wait to get that paddle in the water for that first day trip or overnight canoe camping trip, it’s important to minimize any risks. The best way to do this? Be prepared.
First and foremost, if you have never canoed before, I highly recommend taking a lesson or two before venturing out onto the water. Organizations such as your local canoe club (this is mine) or a national organization such as Paddle Canada offer introductory programs that will teach you how to paddle safely. When you’re confident on the water, you’ll enjoy it so much more!
So you’re just going out for a day trip...
How much preparation is really necessary and what gear do you actually need? There are a few things you should have by your side, even if you’re just heading out for an hour or two on the lake. Before we even get into the obvious pieces of equipment like a canoe and a paddle, what’s even more important is the gear and the planning to keep you safe. Check out these tips below. And no, I'm not a brand ambassador for MEC (you'll see a lot of links to their site) but they are a great resource for us nature lovers. Other brands on the go-to list are REI, Patagonia, and Arcteryx. Also, support your local outfitters!
Personal Floatation Device
Paddling without a PFD is uncool. Yup, gone are the days of paddling topless. If you want to lose credibility as an organization, adventure company or retailer, advertise by using an image of someone paddling without a PFD. It’s just not acceptable anymore. So many drownings can be prevented by simply wearing a PFD. Even if you are a strong swimmer, if you capsize, hypothermia can set in quickly and put you at risk of drowning, especially if you are in cold water. PFD design has come a long way. They are comfortable to wear and look pretty stylish! Make sure your PFD fits properly.
Mandatory Safety Equipment
If you live in Canada, there are items you need to have while paddling (It’s the law). In addition to a PFD and paddle (i.e. your ‘propelling device’), you must also have at least 15m of buoyant heaving line, a bailer or hand pump, a sound signalling device such as a whistle attached to your PFD, and a waterproof flashlight.
Stay Energized + Hydrated
Enjoy your time out on the water and minimize risk. Ever heard of the mumbles, stumbles and grumbles? Pack your favourite snacks and a bottle of water to keep your brain happy, your spirits up, and make sound decisions! Also, never drink directly out of a lake or river. The water may look clean and pristine but there is always the chance of consuming harmful little bugs you can’t see like giardia. There are many ways you can safely treat water for consumption such as using tablets like Aquatabs, or filters such as the Grayl system (good for individuals) or the MSR Auto Flo Gravity Filter (good for larger groups).
A basic first aid kit is a great item to carry along on any day trip (and a must on an overnight trip). Sunscreen and insect repellent are also your friends.
Make sure you dress appropriately in layers for any outdoor activity. Avoid cotton, especially as bottoms. Jeans? No! Quick dry fabrics (synthetics) work well and it’s best to bring an insulating layer such as a fleece or wool sweater. Always pack your rain gear and don’t forget a sun hat and sunglasses. Bring an extra dry bag to ensure your extra clothes stay dry.
A few additional things that are handy to have along include fire-making supplies (matches or lighter, fire starter), a tarp and extra rope, a repair kit (duct tape, multitool), and a toilet kit (TP, trowel, hand sanitizer, ziploc bags).
Planning Your Route
It’s important that you are as familiar as possible with the area you will be exploring. Plan your route according to your experience level. If you’re a beginner, don’t go far, stay close to shore and avoid big open water as well as moving water. If you’re headed somewhere new, be sure to review a map of the area and bring along a map and compass (and know how to use it!) Never fully rely on electronic devices for navigation. It’s also a good idea to have a back-up plan in the event your original plans cannot go ahead. Always be prepared to stop or turn back if the situation becomes unsafe (weather, illness, injury, equipment breakdown).
Local Regulations + Permits
Become familiar with local regulations (parking, launching, etc.) and if you require a permit for where you will be paddling. During this pandemic, ensure you are following any newly established regulations and social distancing protocols.
Find a Buddy, or Two... or Three!
The image of solo canoeing is very romantic, but for safety reasons, it’s always a good idea to head out with another person and ideally with at least two canoes.
Sometimes things can go wrong...
Someone gets hurt, bad weather blows in, equipment breaks down. Always make sure you tell someone your plans including where you are going and when you expect to return. Know who to contact if you run into trouble, depending on the nature of the emergency. If you are travelling within a park, contacting the park authorities may be your best course of action as they have rescue protocols in place. If you rented equipment from a local outfitter, they may also be able to provide assistance. If the situation is urgent and requires immediate evacuation, be sure 911 or the local emergency services can be contacted.
How the heck do we communicate in the backcountry? Although many of us prefer to ‘disconnect’ when we head out into nature, the fact that cellular service is reaching further into remote places really is a good thing when it comes to contacting someone for help. Make sure you charge your phone before leaving and that it is stored in a waterproof bag or container. If you are heading deeper into the wilderness and out of cell range, you should consider carrying satellite communicators + locators that can send a message in the event of an emergency. Satellite phones can also be rented for this purpose.
Leave No Trace
Please take every effort to minimize your impact on the environment. Leave No Trace is a great organization dedicated to promoting and inspiring responsible outdoor recreation and works to build awareness and respect for our wildlands. The seven principles of LNT include:
- Plan + prepare ahead
- Travel + camp on durable surfaces
- Dispose of waste properly
- Leave what you find
- Minimize campfire impacts
- Respect wildlife
- Be considerate of other visitors
Choosing the right boat for the type of canoeing you will be doing will, again, help you enjoy the experience that much more. Canoes are expensive and it is recommended that you try out a few before you invest. Local outfitters are great resources for helping you choose the canoe that is right for you. You may also consider renting a canoe each time you head out if it is more convenient. Whether it’s lightweight Kevlar for backcountry canoe tripping and portaging, durable ABS laminate for whitewater river paddling, or a beautifully handcrafted cedar strip canoe that will only see the water from the cottage dock, there is much to consider. If you're like me, you have at least one of each. Hail the canoe!
This is a piece of equipment that could become your close ‘friend’, especially if you have the opportunity to make your own personal paddle. Paddles come in many shapes, sizes and materials and each type of paddle can fulfill a specific purpose. Here is some good advice on how to choose a paddle. Check out our feature in Paddling Magazine.
As we head into the summer of 2020, many of us have had the time to reflect on what’s really important in life. For some it may be connecting more with Mother Earth and treating her with the utmost respect. It is also more important than ever to minimize our risk while enjoying outdoor activities. I hope these tips and tricks help you safely get out into nature and canoe with confidence. Happy Paddling!