Launching outdoor fun in canoes and kayaks

Ann Cameron Siegal

THE WASHINGTON POST – Imagine paddling a canoe or kayak in and out of quiet coves or along lake or river shorelines. Beautiful scenery and close-up views of wildlife are often your reward as you glide along just above the waterline.

Beginning paddlers should start in sheltered waters away from speeding boats and blustery winds. There, it’s easier to practice basic forward, backward, turning and stopping techniques.


Kayaks come in solo or tandem (two-person) versions. With knees slightly bent and legs extended in front of them, kayakers use double-blade paddles to reach water on each side of the boat.

Tess Clarke, 10, and other kids at her summer camp kayaked from Belle Haven Marina through the calm waters of Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve, just south of Alexandria, Virginia.

“It helps to put your hands farther apart on the paddle and to turn a little to the side that you’re paddling on,” she said.

To set hand spacing, put the centerline of the kayak paddle on your head, then make goal posts with your arms at 90-degree angles. Lower the paddle, and your grasp should be just right.

The Key Bridge Boathouse is one of several DC-area places that rent canoes and kayaks into November – as long as the water is above 55 degrees
Ethan Schwartz and his dad, Kenneth, try a kayak self-launcher at Mallows Bay in Maryland


Canoes have backless benches, but some people prefer to kneel.

“Kneeling lowers your centre of gravity, increasing stability,” notes the American Canoe Association.

Using a long-handled, one-blade paddle, canoers alternate strokes from one side of the boat to the other.


A properly fitted, Coast Guard-approved life jacket is a must.

Teamwork is important in two- or three-person paddling. The paddler in the stern (rear) controls steering. The one in the bow (front) sets the rhythm and pace.

“In a three-person canoe, the middle guy helps the guy in the bow power the canoe,” said Alvin Song, 16, of Boy Scout Troop 1865 in Fairfax, Virginia.

“A smoother motion is created if you sync your paddle strokes with each other,” said Ruthie Christino, 13, of Alexandria.

Communication helped Ethan Schwartz, nine, and his dad, Kenneth, kayak through the historic Ghost Fleet of Mallows Bay in Nanjemoy, Maryland. The challenge was “manoeuvering through all the boat wrecks and logs,” Ethan said.

Check water conditions. Days after a storm, “the Potomac may look calm on the surface, but fallen trees or strong underwater currents can make paddling hazardous,” said Gabriela Knutson, 22, who works at Key Bridge Boathouse.

As you get more experience, learn rescue techniques in case of capsizing. Try different waters.

“The Potomac is a different river just outside the Beltway,” said Sunny Pitcher, founder of Potomac Paddlesports. “It’s a wilderness to preserve and protect.”


Dyke Marsh paddler Madison Sandy, 12, said, “Canoeing is lots of fun and easier with my friends, but I like kayaking better solo.”

After an hour paddling with his dad near Key Bridge Boathouse, Ben Halter, six, said, “Canoeing is definitely easier.”

Three members of Troop 1865 practiced canoeing for a Canadian trip in which portaging (carrying) their boat over land between waterways would be necessary.

“I have an affinity for kayaks, but when you are traveling over land with gear and friends, canoes are easier,” said Scout George Steene, 16. “One person carries the boat, one carries the packs and one carries the paddles.”