Washington Evening Journal
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Neighbors Growing Together | Nov 23, 2014

Adventures on the Water

By Pamela Holz | May 17, 2012

You cannot parallel park a canoe.

However, if the wind is strong enough and from the right direction, you actually can get pretty close. But then, that’s usually not on purpose.

Teaching canoeing, I find, is always an adventure. And I don’t even have to get out on the water!

Most of my canoeing programs occur at Marr Park, on the large pond. At 5.7 acres, it provides a nice area to introduce canoeing to children. It has enough space for six to 10 canoes out practicing but small enough for safety (and usually, I have students remain – or try to remain – just on the south half). When any issues arise, it does not take me long to get to anywhere on the pond, by water or by shore.

As much as I enjoy canoeing, most times I find it preferable to stay on shore. When students have problems canoeing, what generally happens is that they bump next to the shoreline and can’t get back out into the open water. If I’m on shore, I can still give them directions and have a more stable substance to brace myself against to grab the canoe and get it pointed in the right direction. Doing so on water is a bit more awkward.

Plus, if need be, I can have one of the students hop out and then hop in myself, and commandeer the canoe back to the boat ramp (usually because we are out of time). Such rescues occur more often on windy days.

The wind is probably the most frustrating aspect of intro to canoeing for students. We can have an otherwise nice, sunny day, but if the wind is too strong, then I cancel the activity. Besides the obvious safety issues, if the students battle the wind the entire time, canoeing will not be a positive outdoor experience for them.

When the wind is borderline, I let the students know that they will get frustrated and that is OK. Sometimes I think that students enjoy canoeing more with such a fair challenge. Maybe because it gives them such a big sense of accomplishment when (if) they make it back to the boat ramp. And if not, they have a story to tell about having to be “rescued.” (Outdoor writer Patrick McManus, I believe, would call this a “fine and pleasant misery.”)

Perhaps this ties in with another canoeing phenomenon that I have observed: kids improve their canoeing skills more when they have something secondary to focus on. In the above case, it would be fighting the wind. However, I first noticed it in regard to a game.

During an extended canoe program, I might introduce “canoe basketball.” Basically, you have a ball that floats and the object is to get it into another’s canoe (the “basket”). They then become “it” and must do likewise to someone else’s canoe. If you miss, you need to retrieve the now wet ball.

Several times now I have played canoe basketball with groups who struggled with canoeing. I had done my on-shore introduction, got them out on the water to practice the skills, and then cringed as they spun in circles or got trapped along the shore. Some groups just seem to have a harder time grasping canoeing.

The first couple of times I saw this, I hesitated to bring out the ball. I envisioned it idly floating away while the canoes floundered. Instead, I saw a sharp spike in capability as the “it” canoe attempted to close in on another canoe and the other canoes fleeing from them. Canoes I had thought would need help to return to the boat ramp were now merrily, but intently, chasing each other.

If, when we were done, the kids wanted to canoe more. Or if they wondered aloud how to convince their parents to get a canoe. Or if they ask me when I’ll take them again. Or even, just if they hop out of the canoe with flushed, smiling faces. Or if they explain to me breathlessly and nonstop what happened out on the water, well, then, I knew it was a success.

And I begin to count the days toward my next canoe program.

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