A Case for the More Experienced Paddler to Sit in the Bow

By Mikaela Ferguson

I hate to admit it, but when it comes to canoe trips, I can be a bit of a control freak. I like making lists and coordinating the gear, planning the route and choosing the campsites. Most importantly, I like to be firmly seated in the stern of the canoe, steering us down the river.

The stern of the canoe is where I feel the most comfortable, and I’m sure this comes from years of canoe guiding when I sat in the stern exclusively. During those trips, my co-guide and I would always take the stern seats of two boats and have our campers rotate canoes and positions throughout the trip.


Canoeing down the river

Humbled on the Coulonge River

That all changed in 2019 when I joined members of the Wilderness Canoe Association for an autumn paddle on the Coulonge River. For the first time in years, I wasn’t the most experienced (or second-most experienced) canoeist on the trip.

In fact, I was perhaps the least experienced paddler in our group. At 24 years old, I’d been paddling more than half my life. My fellow canoeists were between 39 and 65 years old; almost all of them had been paddling longer than I’d been alive.

For the Coulonge River, I had expected to sit in the bow seat the entire trip. My canoe partner had planned the whole trip and we were using his canoe. Surely he would want to be sterning for the duration of the trip.

To my surprise, upon arrival at the put-in, he told me to put my gear in the stern. “We’ll alternate each day, and you can start.”

I don’t know why I’d been surprised. As two experienced whitewater paddlers, this was the best way to do it. Both of us got opportunities to steer the boat down rapids and both of us got to work on our skills in the bow.


Canoeing down the river

Giving Up Control on the Spanish River

Although the Coulonge River prepared me for bow paddling, nothing could have prepared me for what I would encounter on the Spanish River.

After a pesky pandemic and its travel restrictions forced my dad and me to cancel our trip to the Nahanni River, we opted for a guided trip on the Spanish River instead.

My dad was scheduled to paddle the Dumoine River with my brother on a guided trip later that summer. Sharing a boat meant that one of them would need to know how to stern the canoe and that responsibility would fall on my dad. As such, we took the Spanish River as an opportunity for him to learn how to steer a boat in rapids.

So that meant I was to sit in the bow… with a novice paddler steering my boat… for seven full days.

Now, one of the major differences between whitewater and flatwater canoeing is that, in whitewater, the bow person has a greater ability to steer. Draws and cross-bow draws at the front can help the boat sneak by obstacles. When the bow and stern person work together, the canoe can move laterally. But it is still the stern person who is responsible for setting the line and their stokes have a greater impact on the direction the canoe will travel. You can’t fully steer a canoe from the bow.

Canoeing down the river

But man, did I try.

For the first few days on the water, I had a hard time calling out the strokes my dad should paddle while simultaneously paddling my own strokes. I found myself trying to overcompensate for his strokes from the front of the boat, with little-to-no success. I’d get a little frustrated when we missed the line or got beached on a shallow rock bed.

I wanted to be frustrated at my dad, but really, this was all on me. How can I say I’m an experienced whitewater paddler if I can’t navigate a rapid from both positions? My dad is still new to whitewater paddling. This is all on me.

Keeping this in mind, I got better at articulating instructions. I also got better at articulating why certain strokes were needed. In turn, my dad got better at intuiting what the boat should do, so much so that by the end of the trip he didn’t need many instructions at all.

He steered us down all but one rapid on the Spanish River. And later that summer, he steered down every rapid on the Dumoine River too, even navigating down some challenging Class III rapids.


Canoeing down the river

You Can’t Teach by Doing

My trip on the Spanish River revealed something about the way I’d been “teaching” my campers on previous trips.

When I would canoe through rapids with campers, I thought they were learning how to paddle whitewater. I now realize that they didn’t learn as much as I thought because I was always able to compensate for their stokes.

If they didn’t cross-bow draw when they needed to… no worries. I could draw harder in the back and right us. If they were startled by a big wave and took their paddle out of the water... all good. I could keep us upright while sharing words of encouragement to keep paddling.

Sure, they still learned to paddle whitewater, especially on the days when they were in the stern with another camper. I think they could have learned more, however, if I’d let them sit in the stern while I coached them down the rapids from the front (when it was safe to do so, of course).


Canoeing down the river

When was the last time you switched positions?

When I see photos and videos of my friends paddling - especially my friends who paddle with their life partner - I notice a consistent pattern. The same person is always in the bow; the same person is always in the stern. This is true both for whitewater paddlers and flatwater paddlers.

While there is nothing wrong with having a preference to where you paddle (I still prefer the stern!), I do wonder if where they sit is a conscious or subconscious decision. Is one person the more experienced paddler, and as such, naturally sits in the stern without question?

As my recent trips have shown me, there is a ton to be learned when you switch positions. Next time you’re paddling with your usual partner, I encourage you to ask yourselves why you’re sitting where you are sitting. 

Bow people: Have the courage to steer the canoe (even if it takes a few lakes or rapids to get the hang of it). Practice is the only way you’ll get better.

Stern people: Try giving up the control of steering the canoe. If your partner is struggling, teach through explanation, not by doing it for them.

Through this, we’ll all become much more competent paddlers!

Canoeing down the river