question on canadian stroke


Curious about Wooden Canoes
Hi all

I'm new to the forum, just bought a skin-on-frame kayak that I'd like to paddle canoe style (single blade) before I attempt reskinning it in winter. I'll post some more info on the kayak when I got some images of it.

I haven't done a lot of paddling so far and nobody ever showed me how to do it properly. I read about the Canadian and Northwoods stroke which are supposed to be quite similar. I understand that you "slice" the paddle through the water on the recovery but I don't know which way to turn the paddle on the transition from stroke to recovery. Does the outside edge of the blade or the inside edge become the leading edge (see first attached image)? Both is possible but you have to hold the grip differently. Which is the "correct" way to do it?

Another thing I'm not sure about is regarding your position in the canoe. When paddling solo, you'll probably sit or kneel amidships. But that makes the leverage for a correction with the paddle very small compared to when you sit in the stern (second attached image showing j-stroke, lever marked in red). Isn't it much more difficult to do a correction when you sit amidships? What are your views on this?

Any information and advice is very welcome as I'd like to avoid getting into bad habits.



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How to . . .

It's more difficult to describe the Canadian stroke in words than to watch it in action. On the recovery slice, the outboard paddle edge is the leading edge (you are inverting the blade). The angle of the slice and the power applied affect movement of the canoe. Yes, if you are in the stern your stroke has more influence on direction than amidships - assuming your stroke is exactly the same. What happens, of course, is that when you are in the middle of the canoe you exaggerate the path of the paddle in the water to some extent (a wider C, for example) and steepen the pitch to get the same result. Everything is facilitated if you are leaning the canoe (i.e., paddling Canadian style) because you've dramatically shortened the water line, making the canoe much easier to turn.

Once you get into a canoe and try it out, you'll have a much better understanding of the mechanics of the paddle in the water.

Take a look at this video and you'll see what I mean.
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Northwoods Stroke

You might want to check an earlier thread -- -- for a discussion of the Northwoods/Canadian stroke and Northwoods paddles.

Rollin Thurlow's brochure showing Garrett and Alexandra Conover doing the Northwoods stroke is good if you can find it, but Rollin's Northwoods Canoe Co. site indicates it is no longer available. You might also want to look at Bill Mason's book Path of the Paddle, where he has two pages with demonstration photos on what he calls the Canadian stroke, which seems quite similar to the Northwoods stroke, and/or his video of the same name in which there is a quick demonstration. And also look at Lynn Franklin's "Paddling Like an Ancient" in WoodenBoat magazine no. 55 (November/December 1983), about Alexandra Conover teaching Franklin the stroke.

The opening sequence of the video above referenced by R Thum does show the stroke in the opening sequence, but because of the lighting, is not as instructive as it might be.

Almost any paddle will do, although the stroke will be more difficult with a wide-blade paddle.
Alexandra Conover showed me that it is important not to get hung up on the "right" paddle -- she demonstrated doing the stroke while holding the her paddle upside down -- holding the blade of her paddle with the grip doing the paddle's work in the water. That said, I have one of her Northwoods paddles, and it is a joy both to look at and use.

The steering correction is made during the recovery, and it feels almost as though you are slightly lifting the blade as you bring it forward.

Much of what you read will suggest that it is virtually impossible to learn the Northwoods stroke without being shown by someone who has already mastered it. It can be self-taught, as I am hear to tell you. But it takes patience to first figure out the mechanics of the stroke, and then to coordinate all its parts smoothly, and then to learn it all again with the other hand on the other side of the canoe. Perhaps most difficult for many will be overcoming years of reflexive J-stroking. Bit I did it (as certified by Garrett and Alexandra when I took a trip with them after teaching myself the stroke), and I think it is worth it.
computer woes

Thanks for your replies! It's great to have a place where you can ask such questions.

Unfortunately, I can't watch youtube videos on my computer. For some reason it just shows an empty space wherer the video should be... Still working on it though..

If the weather permits I will try paddling the canadian stroke tomorrow!

Canadian/Northwoods Stroke

Becky Mason shows the Canadian stroke on her DVD, Classic Solo Canoeing, along with demonstrations of many other quiet water canoe strokes and a segment of her "canoe ballet." The DVD as well as short preview segments are available at her website,
pictures of my sof kayak

Thanks for all your advice and recommendations, I'll have a look at those recources!

Attached are some pictures of my "new" equipment. I bought the kayak a few weeks ago and then had to make it ready to put into the water. As you can see it's condition isn't really good (it has been glassed!) and I will try to put on a new skin in winter and re-finish the wooden parts. For now I just want to go paddling and exercising the canadian stroke.

The coaming is rotten and I removed it. Also the deck skin is missing, there are just some small remains at the edge, looks like some jeans fabric to me....

After fixing a few scratched spots on the resin, I put it in the water and it leaks only a tiny little bit, I think I can fix that too. The wood isn't in bad shape except for the main rib which is broken (but it's still plenty stiff and strong without it) and the outside keel/stems which are rotten because a previous owner has glassed over it, trapping water inside afterwards.

It's 12.5' x 29.5" x 11.5"

What do you think of my transportation method? :D The lake is about 8 miles away which is ok, but wind can be a problem! I made the trolley and paddle myself with scrap material (I can't spend a lot of money on it now) so it's a bit crude but fits the kayak!



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back on topic

Last weekend I tried the canadian stroke again.

Keeping the direction went quite well but I found it to be hard on the lower hand arm that acts as a fulcrum. Ok, I'm not used to it, but what do you do? Do you use the gunwale as a support for the paddle? I tried it and it was much easier on the muscles but it adds some noise to the paddling and the shaft of the paddle may suffer also in the long term. Is this a common method or is it a "no go"?

Northwoods stroke

I like your trolley and paddle -- neither look very crude to me, nor do they look like they are scrap material. Nice work. But I get tired just thinking about a 16 mile round trip on a bike towing a canoe.

I wonder how you sit in your kayak. Are you are sitting on the bottom of the boat as would be usual in a kayak, or higher up, using one of the exposed deck beams as a seat? Or are you kneeling on the bottom, resting against a deck beam?

If you are on the bottom of the boat, I would think the Canadian stroke would be quite difficult, because you are sitting so low. The Canadian or northwoods stroke is usually used in a canoe (as differentiated from a kayak), sitting/kneeling on or against a seat that puts the paddler higher above the water.

Double-bladed paddles are more usually used in kayaks, both today and by the native peoples who developed kayaks, but the use of a single blade by native people is far from unknown. However, I do not know what kind of stroke was traditionally used with a single blade in a kayak.

In any event, it is no crime to use the gunwale as a support or fulcrum for the paddle, and if you are sitting on the bottom of the boat, I would think it nearly impossible not to do so, at least from time to time. But as you note, it will wear on the paddle shaft and the gunwale, and does make some noise. If this is how you are paddling, you might consider placing some padding (like foam pipe insulation) on the appropriate sections of the gunwales to provide protection and sound damping. And if you recover your decks when you renovate, you certainly would want to protect the edge of the deck at that point.

If you are sitting higher, however, you can probably position yourself so that your leg is in position to provide support or act as a fulcrum. In "Paddling Like An Ancient" the second picture of Alexandra Conover shows just that -- the shaft of the paddle supported on her thigh, just behind her knee. This happens for only a short part of the stroke -- just after you feather the blade of the paddle underwater and begin to bring it up and forward. There is are similar pictures in "Paddle With Ease and Grace," showing Alexandra at the end of the power phase and during the return part of the stroke.

Alexandra is shown sitting in a classic position for the stroke. While I sometimes sit like that, I more often sit with my knees spread and my ankles crossed, turned slightly toward the side I am paddling on, which leaves my knee/thigh just above the gunwale and in position to act as a paddle support.

The pictures of Garrett Conover, by contrast, show him sitting/kneeling with his upper legs lower, in a way that does not allow his thigh to act as a fulcrum. Having paddled with both of them on a trip, I have observed that his paddling style is a bit different than hers, however, and he has a distinct pause at that point in his stroke where the power stroke ends and the return stroke begins. If he does use the gunwale as a fulcrum, it would be but rarely, I think, and mostly he uses only his arms. Of course, he paddles much, much more frequently than most of us, so I suspect that his muscles have adapted.

If you are kneeling, you might try kneeling on only one knee, with one foot forward (on the side you are paddling). In that position, your raised knee/thigh might be in position to provide support for the paddle.
tailor seat

Good point Greg! Thanks for the tip! I do sit on the bottom of the kayak, cross-legged (tailor seat). At first I tried kneeling, sitting on the inside of my feet (indian style), as described by Robert E. Pinkerton in "The canoe - Its selection care and use" but after 15 minutes or so I had to change position because it's quite hard on the joints if you're not used to it.

If I lift my body up with my arms on the gunwales by just two or three inches, the kayak becomes very tippy so I can't sit any higher at least until I get some more experience.

I made the paddle out of a pole that was intended for the garden but it had about the right size (and was available), just bought some 1/4" plywood for the blade.

The frame for the cart is made from a folding chair. I brazed the axle in place (the wheels with stub axles are detachable and derive from a bike trailer) and attached a chopboard on top with some styrofoam padding cut according the shape of the kayak bottom, then covered with pvc. Simple and inexpensive.


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Gunwale pry

Don't use the gunwale as a fulcrum for stroke recovery. If that is necessary, you're probably sitting too far to the center or too low in the boat. The Canadian stroke works when you sit or kneel close to the gunwale, keep the paddle shaft more or less vertical during the pull (moving the blade through the water close to the hull and parallel to the centerline of the canoe), and slice the blade out and up during the recovery. If you locate yourself properly in the boat and pay attention to the mechanics of the stroke, you shouldn't need to touch the gunwale. Of course, there are situations where a gunwale pry becomes necessary (in rapids, strong stern quarter winds, etc.) - because it moves the stern sideways directly and authoritatively. But pushing off the side of the canoe during ordinary paddling is not really part of the Canadian stroke.

If you are sitting on the bottom of the kayak you posted, you will not be able to do a Canadian stroke. If you kneel, you'll be higher and the Canadian may be possible. Better to paddle the kayak flat with a double-blade and save the Canadian for a canoe you can lean. Think about getting a wood paddle with shoulders and relatively sharp edges (such as the Red River Voyageur or Grey Owl Ottertail). That will facilitate the stroke.
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On the recovery part of the stroke steer the paddle forward with your top hand.That is the hand on the paddle end.
While I don't want to discourage your attempts to learn the Northwoods stroke, I will seriously suggest an alternate course of action -- make a two-bladed paddle.

Kayaks such as yours are designed for sitting low. The bottom of the hull is quite round, and the sides are not high. The hull shape was designed to be stabilized by the ballast of your body sitting on the bottom.-- in fact, one of the chief virtues of many kayaks is their extreme stability compared to canoes. There are kayak hull forms that are wildly unstable, and require quite a bit of skill to paddle upright, but yours does not appear to be one of these.

Your skills are clearly up to the task of building a basic double-bladed paddle, and I think you would find paddling your boat much more pleasurable with a double blade. Going straight becomes a non-issue, and turning strokes are quite simple -- no rudder is needed, although kayaks are sometimes fitted with one. Indeed, smaller open canoes from the 19th century's Nessmuk and his Sary Gamp through today's Thomas Hill and Platt Monfort and their lightweight boats, or Robert Morris and his "Building Skin on Frame Boats" often are, and often have been, paddled with a double blade while sitting on the boat's bottom. See, for example, or or Your kayak, of course, is a classic skin-on-frame boat.

That said, if you are going to persevere with the Northwoods stroke, I think you will do much better if you can lift yourself maybe 5 or 6 inches above the floor of your kayak.

Perhaps you could fit a board across your boat supported by the first stringers that are below the gunwales, to serve as a thwart against which you could semi-sit while kneeling with your feet below the thwart. Kneeling while resting against a thwart puts a good part of your weight on the bottom of the boat, but elevates your shoulders and arms enough so that they can work effectively with a single blade paddle. When appropriate, you can knee up straight, allowing you to increas the reach of your paddle sideways or forward if needed for sudden, large streering strokes. As you note, your kayak will be more tippy, but you will be gaining quite a bit of paddling efficiency in return for the bit of lost stability. And with a little practice, I think you will learn to "balance" the canoe just as you balance your bicycle. Alternatively, maybe you could find a thick, stiff cushion, or even a box, to sit on, so that you are elevated above the boat floor while sitting.

Sitting on the inside of the soles of your feet, as Pinkerton describes, is sheer torture after several minutes -- and in my experience, one does not soon become accustomed to it, as Pinkerton alleges. The issue is not one of simply being in good shape -- the issue is whether muscles and joints have enough flexibility to stay in such an unaccustomed position for any length of time -- and muscles and joints are not likely to adapt in any reasonable time with just weekend paddling. Mine certainly would not.

I did not mention Pinkerton in my earlier email to you, because his description of the stroke is, I think, not crystal clear. He certainly is describing the Northwoods stroke, but he confuses things by recommending the "sit on your soles" position, even though the paddlers in his photos do not sit that way (except in the one photo showing an Indian sitting on the soles of his feet, facing page 53 in my edition). But in the other pictures illustrating chapter IV " The Stroke," Pinkerton's paddlers are kneeling, with their feet under the thwart that they rest their rear ends against. See the pictures facing p. 48. Do as he shows, not as he says.

Also, I'm not sure where you are sitting in your kayak., relative to the fore-aft center of the boat.. It would appear from your photos that if you are sitting just in front on the deck beam that supports two deck stringers (locating yourself where the blade of your paddle is in your photo), you are pretty much right in the center of your boat. While this produces good for fore and aft trim, it is the most difficult place from which to steer a straight course. You might try sitting just in front of the other deck beam, the one that supports only one deck stringer. Here I think you will be sitting a bit aft, and while the fore-aft trim of your hull might not be ideal, I think that your bow will not be in the air and your trim will be ok. Because your paddle is closer to the centerline of the hull, you will find the boat easier to steer straight. This would probably be practical only if your kayak hull is symetrical fore-and-aft, and many kayak hulls are not.

Seeing the close-up pictures of your trolley, I am even more impressed. Not only are you quite a craftsman, but adapting a folding chair shows that you are a creative scavenger of the first order. Most admirable!
While I don’t doubt there’s a central or common form to the C-stroke, I would also guess there’s a range of variability in the form that’s perfectly acceptable. I would think variables that enter into play are the tracking qualities of the boat, its trim, the size of the paddler, etc., etc. For example, I don’t exactly use the gunwale as a fulcrum but I do end up with the lower hand thumb resting and providing a little pivot point at the end of the stroke.

As I posted in an earlier thread (to which this thread has a link), I tried for many years to consciously learn the stroke and made little progress. Then just after many years of paddling solo, I was doing it—almost as if years of muscle memory came into play and took over. The main thing is to get to the most physically economic way of paddling the boat—the way that requires the least effort for the most results and control.
Thanks to all for your contribution! I appreciate the effort you take in helping me!

Ultimately, I'd like to build a canoe but haven't decided on the method yet (wood/canvas or all wood are most likely). That's the reason why I'm using a single blade paddle and why I'd like to learn the canadian stroke. The Kayak is just a temporary way to get on the water this season.

Greg, maybe you're right in that I sould use a double blade paddle with the kayak, I could still start learning the canadian stroke once I've got a canoe. I will try your suggestion with the raised sitting position though as it will also improve my sense for balance in the Kayak.
canoe AND kayak

Like many other WCHA members, we have both a kayak and a canoe. They are much different boats; we find that we just like the canoe better and spend most of our time on the water in it.

But as Ratty to Mole in Wind in the Willows, there is nothing -- absolutely nothing -- half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats . . ..

So it doesn't much matter whether you are messing about with a single or double bladed paddle, or using the Northwoods or Canadian or C-stroke, or whether you are in a canoe or a kayak or your present sort of half-and-half boat (canyak?? kayoe??) -- just keep messing about! And . . . send pictures as you build your canoe and/or restore your kayak.
Great video!


I finally had the time to download the video from youtube on my slow dial-up connection. Time well spent, that's a great video, I especially like the underwater shots! And as you said, it really helps understand the mechanics of the canadian stroke.

Thanks for pointing it out to me! My paddling has improved just by watching it :)


p.s. for those who have dialup: you can use to download videos from youtube.