Anyone can move a canoe, kayak or stand-up paddleboard over the water, but precious few have savored the joy of paddling efficiently.
When you see paddlers zigzagging up the Thorofare to Upper Priest Lake, bumping into logs and frittering away calories, they probably don’t have a clue that there’s a better way.
Most of us figure we learned everything about paddling at summer camp when we were 9.
Even Brook Swanson had that mindset, to some degree.
“My parents were canoeists and I’ve paddled all my life, but I didn’t realize how much I did not know until I started hanging out with really good paddlers,” said Swanson, who’s been dipping into competitive paddling in recent years.
It’s no accident that Swanson and his wife, Lisa, were the top tandem team in the Spokane River Classic on Saturday.
They’ve become students in the art of muscle-powering a boat.
“I don’t consider myself a great paddler, but I’ve improved enormously by joining up with members of the (Spokane Canoe & Kayak) Club,” he said.
Brook teaches biology at Gonzaga University and has special interest in physiology and biomechanics. Lisa is a physical therapist. They’ve been married and boating together for 14 years but were spurred into another level of enjoyment when they noticed other canoes blowing past them eight years ago in a Spokane River Canoe Classic.
“Part of going faster is getting a better boat,” Swanson said. “But we were motivated by people flying past us.
“Jim Bauer, Tim Ahern, Stan Mrzygod,” he said, listing some local paddling gurus. “I’ve spent a ridiculous amount of time watching them or being in a canoe with them to learn,” Swanson said.
Bauer, one of the local deans of marathon paddling, is an elite canoeist who doesn’t worry about car shuttles because he paddles up and down the Spokane and Little Spokane when he works out.
“Jim always emphasizes the mechanics of the paddle stroke, rotating the torso, reaching with the lower hand. Even after decades of paddling, he strives to be better,” Swanson said.
Megan and John Roland say they realized how much more they had to learn when they enrolled years ago in one of the Spokane Canoe & Kayak Club’s annual spring classes. The Rolands, who won the citizens division of the Spokane River Classic last weekend, went on to become paddling instructors.
Looking at photos of them paddling in the Classic, the Rolands and Swansons had a common response: Instead of beauty in motion, they all saw flaws in the 1/1000th of a second of paddling technique captured in the frames.
“My elbow is bent,” Megan said, reacting to the photo of her applying a stationary cross-bow draw to go around a U-turn buoy in the race.
“Note that she used that stroke only briefly to get the turn started to avoid losing our momentum,” said, John, who was applying a sweep stroke from the stern to aid the turn while applying power.
The Rolands say they have at least 10 different strokes in their tool box, “and we probably use them all every time we go out,” John said.
“The top elbow should be straight,” continued Megan, a physical therapist. “A bend loses energy that you absorb in your arms rather than in your torso.”
The Rolands say they’ve enjoyed teaching and watching people get the feel of efficient paddling.
Open-mindedness is the most important thing a student can bring to a paddling class, John said.
“Most folks are so comfortable that they can propel their craft over the water. They’re so happy with that; they don’t get around to appreciating there’s so much more they can do with their craft.”
“The forward stroke is the last thing we teach in a class,” Megan said. “We spend most of the time on turning strokes like the draw and pry. There’s so much joy in being able to maneuver efficiently.”
“That’s the fun part of canoeing,” John said. “Getting your boat to go in circles, sideway, backward and off at any angle you want to go.”
“The hardest thing to teach is an upright paddle,” Megan said. “When it’s in the water, it should be perpendicular. People want to do a long stroke from their feet back past their bottom. We teach a more efficient short stroke, with the paddle shaft perpendicular in the water so it’s not pushing down or up.”
“Another tendency is to follow the hull of the boat with the paddle stroke,” John said. “But rather than following the line of the boat (which curves), you want to paddle a straight line forward to where you want to go.
“Those little things can add up to make a big difference.”
Good paddlers have an appreciation for subtlety.
The Swansons take turns in the bow and stern, although Brook takes the bow in races because his heavier body weight trims the canoe more efficiently.
Once underway, the Swansons switch sides every few strokes to keep the canoe going straight rather than having the stern paddler apply a J-stroke. “We do it even when we’re just cruising,” he said. “It seems natural to us now to do as little with the paddle as possible that isn’t pushing the boat forward.”
Their fascination with paddling has propelled the Swansons into good showings in races from Spokane to Sacramento. They joined a six-person team that won the voyageur canoe category in the 444-mile Yukon River Quest endurance race last summer.
They’ve learned to recognize a stroke of genius and apply it, whether it’s in the old 80-pound Royalex boat Brook has kept since childhood or the dagger-like 24-foot OC2 canoe that’s so sleek it sports an outrigger for stability.
Once efficient paddling becomes second nature, distance melts away, Swanson said: “There’s a big difference in how far you can go at 5 mph as opposed to 3 mph.”
His epiphany came in the transition from cruising to trying to go faster, he said.
“That was the biggest realization to me. You can work real hard paddling. It’s good, aerobic exercise.”
Paddling can be casual – indeed, you can go fishing and bring a cooler of beer in a canoe. People of virtually any fitness level can do it.
“But it also can be an athletic endeavor,” Swanson said. “People who want a workout tend to think of sports such as running, bicycling and swimming. We look at paddling the same way, as an outdoor fitness sport.”
The Rolands say efficiency eventually becomes second nature.
“We strive for perfection in every stroke to the point that we don’t realize it anymore,” John said.
“When we paddle out on lakes, we get into a rhythm similar to being out on a long run or striding out on cross-country skis,” Megan said. “It’s really feels nice, especially in tandem, when you’re gliding along.”
Contact Rich Landers at (509) 459-5508 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.