Monday, June 8, 2015

Maine Canoe Symposium

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.

This all takes place at Winona Camps, on the shores of Moose Pond, in Bridgton, Maine. The camp is the perfect place for such an event. Founded in 1908, the summer camp for boys has a long stretch of waterfront overlooked by Pleasant Mountain, including several beach and dock areas. Campers live in canvas platform tents and congregate in rustic, bark-sided buildings. We arrived Friday afternoon after driving from Georgia and pitched our tent in the baseball field, where all manner of other tents were also sprouting. We didn’t spend much time hanging-out at the tent though; starting at 6:30 each morning we went from one class to another, punctuated by meals in the mess hall, complete with bug juice. We opted for all on-water instruction, which could be a bit tiring when you do it all day. 

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.


John Foster said...

Love your second and fourth photos. Love Maine this time of year also. . . . except the bugs.
Looks like a great weekend.

Michael Daugherty said...

Thanks John- Rebecca took those shots. Bugs haven't been bad so far... of course the symposium was a bit cool.

John Meader said...

So glad you had a good time at MCS, it's always a good weekend to be on Moose Pond surrounded by friendly people who are willing to share what they know with you and learn what they can from you. I hope you return again next year, I've been coming since 1992 and have been one of the organizers since 1999 and we work hard to provide a fun, safe and worthwhile weekend, thank you so much for the kind words. In the end, it doesn't matter whether it's a canoe or a kayak or sailboat, you summed it up wonderfully in your blog when you said, " 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." ~John Meader

Kim Gass said...

Thanks for posting! I missed MCS this year but we do plan on doing some kayaking out of Stonington as we usually do each year.

Paddling is paddling and canoeing and kayaking have many similarities. We will do a North Maine Woods Canoe Trip next week and kayak in Newfoundland in's all about what sort of trip you are doing

Maria said...

Looks like a great event, a nice place to learn about canoeing. Nice