Paddling Your Canoe Upstream: An Expert Weighs In

Paddling a canoe upstream can be not only challenging but in some cases impossible. It’s crucial to know what rivers can be navigated upstream with a canoe and those which cannot. If it’s a navigable river, using the right techniques and approaching the river in the right way can make the difference between paddling upstream all day on the one hand, and calling it quits after 10 minutes on the other.

After 40 years of paddling and consulting with colleagues and friends who often know more than I do, I think I can offer you some very actionable and helpful advice for making your way upriver in an obvious current.

Read the Water

Every river has its own characteristics, so you’ll have to analyze the conditions. If the river is large and slow-moving, your paddling technique and approach will be virtually no different than paddling flatwater or downriver on a large, slow current.

However, if the river is shallow with rapids or has a full spectrum of qualities that change every mile, you’ll need to adjust. For example, you’ll want to stay where the current is the weakest. Often, keeping close to shore will offer you the slowest current flow, but this is not always the case.

I was recently on a large river in Central Ontario called the Lower Madawaska River. Our group (including the guide) was completely taken off guard as we approached the shoreline just before an elbow at the head of a set of rapids. There were no obstacles in the water near the shore and it was difficult to see the strength of the current.

We all found out that the current was stronger near the shore (about 10 feet out) out to around 30 feet than it was through the rest of the river which was quite wide (several hundred feet at that point). Several group members capsized and waded in chest-high water in their zeal to avoid the rapids and to get to shore.

Please note that on parts of some rivers, you’ll find that the strongest current and fastest water movement is directly against one shore – especially if it’s a rock cliff and the river narrows at that point.

Typically, areas with no obstacles, deeper water and (usually) near shore will offer the least resistance.

Sit in the Stern … Maybe

If you are paddling solo, a stern seat position is best in most cases. I own a solo canoe and the seat is very near the middle of the canoe front to back. The closer your position is to center, the more difficult it is to turn the canoe (especially if it has very little rocker) but it’s also more difficult for the current to turn you off your upstream course.

I would bias my position at least a foot astern of center for best control.

Also, be sure to keep your bow mostly pointing directly upstream. It’s best not to even deviate even 45º from upstream on stronger current.

Are You Solo or Tandem?

Paddling your canoe upstream presents a variety of challenges specific to canoes which are significantly different than kayaks. If you are paddling a canoe solo, you’ll need to compensate your technique given that you won’t have help from your partner.

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Paddling tandem allows you to maintain your “side” while paddling and you probably won’t have to switch from one side to the other side of the canoe very often. It’s also important to be sure your weight is balanced for a proper “trim” (level-ness front to back)

One of the first rules of upstream paddling (on rivers with obvious and consequential currents) is to keep your bow facing upstream. With a partner, the 2 of you probably won’t change your paddling style much from flatwater paddling. That is, you’ll both choose a side to paddle and you’ll paddle a bit harder than if you were on a lake. From time to time, you (the stern paddler) MAY have to change sides to make a quick course correction.

If you are solo, it is likely that you’ll have to switch sides while paddling to make course corrections more quickly and efficiently than using corrective strokes like the goon stroke or J-stroke.

After a few strokes – three to six, usually the canoe will start to wander off course, drifting away from the side on which it is being paddled. Switch sides and keep paddling.
… never let go of the paddle. As you take the paddle out of the water in a normal recover, let your hand closest to the water slide up the shaft to the grip, as you release your grip hand to grab the shaft.

– Harry Roberts (editor and co-founder of CanoeSport Journal and colleague of Cliff Jacobson)

Professional writer, teacher, editor and expert on all things pertaining to fast solo canoeing, Harry Roberts, tells us (in Cliff Jacobson’s book The Basic Essentials of Solo Canoeing), that you’ll be served best by using the “sit’n switch” method of paddling for speed and control.

This is a solo paddling technique used by racers (and smart wilderness paddlers!) to maximize directional control and speed. It’s basically the process of switching your paddling side every 3-10 strokes rather than always staying on one side and having to apply heavy corrective strokes to stay on course.

Cliff Jacobson’s book explains all the details on page 38-39 but in a nutshell, you’ll need to know the power stroke, the post and the draw. Essentially, the power stroke is best delivered with a bent shaft paddle, and when the stroke is complete, it’s always good to apply a TINY J-stroke as a moderate corrective measure, but it’s so small, it only serves to delay, not prevent, the need to switch sides to maintain course.

If necessary the post can be used. A post is more of a maneuver than a stroke. It is a STATIC DRAW stroke which more-or-less turns the canoe to the side on which the post is applied. You can pivot the blade to be more or less aggressive.

If you lean to the opposite side while doing the post (and the canoe is moving forward at a moderate speed) it will turn to the post side very quickly because the bow and stern are slightly raised (especially in a canoe with lots of rocker) so they don’t provide turning resistance.

The draw is another maneuver that pulls your canoe sideways as a quick corrective measure.

Angle Against the Current

Here’s a technique I thought should be included because it can work well. I think it’s more of a personal preference issue, however.

I have been mentioning that you need to keep your bow pointing directly ahead. That is what I do. However, a veteran river paddler told me that he keeps his canoe at a bit of an angle (somewhere around 20º – 30º) off of directly upstream.

By doing this, he says that the current helps you to keep your stroke on ONE SIDE of the canoe, and by doing this, you’ll save the time it takes to switch your stroke from one side of the canoe to the other, so you’ll move faster.

I know that is true, but you might get a bit tired and worn on that side if you’re paddling really hard.

The other potential issue I can see is that if you let that 30º get away on you so it becomes a 50º – 90º angle, you could lose control entirely and be turned backward by the strong current.

Whatever works for you is what you should use, and a bit of experimentation will guide your decision.

Take Advantage of Eddies

Eddies are calm areas of water behind obstacles, such as rocks or bends in the river. Paddle into these eddies to take a break from fighting the current and regain your strength before proceeding further.

The process of using eddies and moving properly and effectively from one eddy to another is a huge topic on its own, but here are some essentials;

As you proceed upstream, eddies will appear as pockets of calm water hiding (on your side) of an obstacle like a big rock. If you’re paddling with a group, be sure to move away from the eddy line (the area where the calm water meets the main current) so others can enter the eddy.

Before you leave the eddy, be sure to have a plan and know where you are going precisely once you leave it. If not, you may end up fighting the current trying to decide what to do and you’ll be pushed downstream on a strong current.

Also, note that the stronger the current, the easier it is to see eddies. However, if you can identify them easily, the rapids around which they are located may be too large to navigate and you may have to portage.

Consider Poling, Lining, or Portaging

I know this is an article about how to paddle a canoe upstream, but it would be incomplete without a mention of the other skills and options that can and should be used in the right conditions to help you get upriver effectively.

Poling is pretty self-explanatory. You will grab a “pole” in the form of a sturdy branch or even a paddle in a pinch. The pole is used to push yourself and the canoe in water that is shallow enough to use the pole.

While poling is a powerful technique that can possibly eliminate any backward loss of gains, my preference is to simply use deep, powerful strokes when I can, and only consider poling when the water is too shallow to accommodate the full depth of my paddle blade. Even then, if the water is so shallow that I can’t paddle efficiently, I will most likely get out of the canoe and either walk with it or line the canoe (pull it upstream with a rope).

On rivers like the Madawaska in Springtime, you’ll have to portage nearly every set of rapids, but the trails are easy to find and the sections of river between rapids are quite navigable and conquerable for upstream paddlers.

Poling is powerful, but you need ideal conditions and you need a near-perfect pole to maximize efficiency and minimize frustration.

Consider the Type of Canoe You’ll Paddle

I’m not a big fan of prospector canoes that offer a pronounced rocker. The reason is that canoes with rocker are harder to paddle in a straight line but are easier to steer. If you are moving downstream and mostly just have to steer (using your paddle as a rudder), then a rocker is good because it allows you to steer around quickly approaching obstacles like rocks and logs.

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On this trip, my partner and I had an Esquif whitewater canoe made for running rapids. On the few sections where we had to paddle upstream to return to our group base, it was far more challenging than it would have been with an ultralight Kevlar tripping canoe.

However, if you are traveling slowly upstream against the current (especially if you are solo paddling), having a canoe that steers easily is not really an advantage. It means that you’ll have to correct your direction very often and you may spend more time trying to stay on course than you are spending on your power stroke!

If you know you’ll be portaging rapids, you can use a sleek, narrow, efficient Kevlar canoe, but most likely, if you’re paddling upstream, you’re getting ready to paddle downstream too. That means you’ll want a whitewater canoe made of Royalex or TuffStuff. This type of canoe will be a “pig” to try to paddle upstream because it will have lots of rocker and will be ultra-heavy.

Key Takeaways

Paddling upstream is a learned skill that develops with experience. You’ll need to learn to read the water so you don’t get swept downstream, and you’ll need to perfect a few strokes, use the right canoe and have some alternate plans in case you encounter insurmountable obstacles.

It’s a learning process, so give yourself some grace as you learn!

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Pete Stack

After 40 years of experience canoeing, camping, fishing, hiking and climbing in the Ontario wilderness, Pete is eager to combine his love for the outdoors with his passion to write. It is our hope that his knowledge can be passed on through this site and on Rugged Outdoors Guide on YouTube.

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