The canoe silently slipped through the translucent water, the calm broken only by drips from an occasionally dipped paddle. A line of tall sycamore trees stretched beyond the morning river fog. Bluffs rose unseen while mussel shell-dotted gravel bars made faint outlines at the river’s edge. A slight chill offset the substantial summer humidity.
Ahead, a ray of morning light pierced the mist, reflecting off the water, lighting the opposite bank, where a heron silently stalked the shallows. Onward, a kingfisher darted across the water, making its frenetic call. Below, shallows revealed crawdads lying still, contrasting with minnows darting through the aquatic wonderland.
With a silent knowing glance, my brother raised his head and turned back toward me with a smile, acknowledging the sublime scene. It felt great to be alive and canoeing the gorgeous Green River through Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave National Park.
When traveling by canoe, whether floating with the current or advancing by the stroke of a paddle, you fluidly move on water through eye pleasing surroundings, glissading atop waters far flung from our land-based lives.
Our country is blessed with canoeing waters aplenty, from slow-moving blackwater streams drifting into the Atlantic coastal plain, spring bordered waters cutting through rocky canyons, silent ponds lying below towering evergreens, massive lakes with seemingly no shore and protected coastal areas, where nothing but water, land and sky extend to the horizon’s end.
So what’s better, a canoe trip to Michigan’s Sylvania Wilderness, which is primarily still water lake paddling, or a float down Florida’s St. Marys River, where you let the current do the work? Or do you go to British Columbia’s Bowron Lakes Provincial Park, to paddle your canoe on lakes and float with moving waterways? Or perhaps cruise the canyons of Colorado’s Green River?
Paddling a variety of waters is but one of the many joys of canoeing.
Today’s canoeist follows the wake of ancestral North Americans, who pioneered canoeing in our hemisphere. Small canoe-like boats were independently developed worldwide thousands of years back. The name “canoe” is the derivation of the name for dugout boats — “kenu” of ocean-going peoples first encountered by European explorers in the Caribbean.
While dugouts were used elsewhere in continental North America, what is often thought of as an Indian canoe was the birch bark boat used in the Great Lakes area and points north in the massive interconnected network of waterways stretching from Great Slave Lake in Canada’s Northwest Territories to the St. Lawrence River, reaching the Atlantic Ocean.
Of course, farther north still, natives used what today is known as a kayak, but that’s another story for another article. While paddling modern-day canoes, we follow the routes of aboriginal Americans, whether it is the mangrove-lined waterways traced by Calusa Indians of the Florida Everglades or the lakes and rivers plied by the Chippewa of Minnesota.
A canoe is considered a narrow watercraft, tapered on both ends, and propelled by the people floating within its confines. The passengers face the direction of travel of the canoe and use paddles to propel and steer the boat.
Today’s canoes are generally one- or two-person models, but the Canadian voyageurs of the 18th century, engaging in the fur trade, used massive canoes up to 40 feet in length paddled by more than a dozen men. Still-larger ones were made from massive hollowed-out logs in Central America, the American northwest and other places.
Now, canoes come in all shapes and sizes, but what has changed the most over time is the material from which canoes are constructed. The first canoes were wood based, whether dugouts, steam-shaped slats or birch bark. Hides of animals and later canvas was stretched across wood frames. In our time, canoes are oil-based plastics, molded in specific shapes for specific purposes, whether for whitewater, flatwater or something in between.
Canoes are renowned for their quiet mode of travel. Canoes silently engage the natural world, with attendant benefits, such as spotting a muskrat determinedly swim alongshore, or a deer warily drinking from a sandbar; otters playfully swimming below a rapid, an osprey diving to a river, or a smallmouth bass gulping a bug from the water’s surface; a moose chomping a mouthful of waterweeds in the shallows; dolphins powering up tidal rivers.
More visual delights await the canoer, whether it is autumn colors reflecting off an Adirondack lake, a crashing falls spilling from an Appalachian tributary, a wood-woven beaver dam on a North Woods waterway, shadows spilling onto a gloomy cypress-lined stream down South, or a sloping gravel bar lying beneath a sandstone promontory overlooking an azure Ozark waterway.
Canoes have a practical side, too, especially for the wilderness traveler. Canoes can haul large loads for self-propelled explorers endeavoring in extended adventures. When on a river, travel may simply be a matter of staying in the current, while on a lake large loads impossible for landlubbers can be transported long distances via paddle power.
In other instances, ultralight canoes can be portaged between bodies of water, making the connection between lakes or being carried around impassable rapids, extending travel possibilities. Canoes need no motor, or gas or oil, and thus don’t sustain mechanical breakdowns. Canoes generally don’t need a trailer and can be transported by almost any vehicle.
Canoes are used by hunters, anglers, bird watchers and other nature enthusiasts. Since paddlers are on the water, it is only natural canoes would be used for fishing, whether it be small creeks, fast rivers or estuarine waterways. Hunters silently stalk ducks and other waterfowl in season. Birders ply aquatic stopovers on migratory flyways to observe winged creatures.
And if you are looking for pulse-pounding excitement, canoeists can tackle whitewater. Situation-specific boats challenge Tennessee’s Ocoee River or Maine’s upper St. Johns River and a host of other waterways. Milder whitewater awaits boaters on brawling torrents (and some not so brawling) throughout the continent, from Texas’ Rio Grande up to Indiana’s aptly named Whitewater River.
Yet the pleasures of canoeing can be as simple as taking your child on a small lake to spot dragonflies, or simply exercising the notion of propelling a boat from here to there. Or you can feel the sun’s warmth overhead while waving back at friends on shore. Simply stated, a canoe gets you on the water, to enjoy aquatic adventures as diverse as the waterways upon which we paddle. I rest my case. Now get out there and canoe.