Sunday morning, 6:30: the lake is still. The beach, enclosed by a pair of long wooden docks and overlooked by a semi-circle of canvas platform tents, is littered with canoes. A small group of us, bleary-eyed, stands in a circle and we each introduce ourselves- where we’re from, what we hope to learn. Caleb Davis, who lives in the Adirondacks, has been a canoe instructor since the 1970s. I usually dislike introducing myself in such circumstances, the nugget of biography that probably says more about how modest or full of yourself you are. But this time I take a kind of joy in telling the group I’m a beginner. Sure, I canoed when I was younger, and I do a bit of sea kayaking, but this weekend is the first time I’ve been in a canoe in a good while. I’m a beginner and loving it.
The Maine Canoe Symposium is a good place to be a beginner. Over the weekend, the symposium, now in its thirtieth year, offers a buffet of paddling opportunities, with instructors touting a range of canoeing styles- different ways to paddle, and even different ways to propel the boat, like poling or sailing. There are classes in safety, obstacle courses and on-land demonstrations about trip planning for specific areas and even tomahawk throwing. The evening entertainment includes presentations on canoeing expeditions and a campfire where the kids roast marshmallows and sing the same songs that kids have been singing at campfires for a long time.
Although this was Rebecca’s fourth symposium, she joined me in several of my intro classes, partially so we could work together in tandem canoes. This morning though, we were gathered by the water for Caleb Davis’ class in traditional solo canoeing. We’d taken a tandem class with him on Saturday, and I felt like something clicked; I liked his peaceful manner and the way he talked about timing your breathing with paddle strokes. Plus he was able to manage the range of beginning to more experienced paddlers, with plenty of concise individual feedback.
For this style of solo canoeing, you kneel with one knee in the chine so the canoe is heeled onto one side- much more stable than it looks and it reduces the wetted surface to enable quick turning. With Davis standing knee-deep near the beach, we all get some feedback as we make circles between the docks. Then we head-out for a leap-frog style obstacle course between canoes. I return to shore with a hankering to refine this new skill, but also glad to get off my knees.
Inevitably, a sea kayaker or a canoeist will compare the two craft or sports, but for the weekend I just focused on having fun in canoes. It is a different craft, but still a paddlesport, and skills certainly transfer from one to the other: blade awareness, the sense of how a boat moves and how to move it. Also, beneath it all is the desire to get a boat to perform as an extension of yourself, and the joy of moving over the water like you belong there.
The canoeing and kayaking scenes are another matter. I was asked a couple of questions and heard a few comments that seemed to reveal a lack of understanding about sea kayaking- there were a couple of short rec boats there, and I was asked “but you don’t go offshore, do you?” But my goal was to understand canoeing better, and I learned that there is a huge range of paddlers with a huge range of approaches- from neoprene to animal skins and hand-built wooden craft to high-tech racing boats. Some tool about on ponds, while others follow treacherous northern rivers through the tundra. And after a weekend of canoe-immersion at a century-old camp, I also felt unequivocally arrived back in New England.