copyright© 2001 Cliff Jacobson

Piragis Northwoods Company

An Interview with Cliff Jacobson
Cliff Jacobson

Cliff Jacobson's Notes
Volume 55:

An Interview with Cliff Jacobson

By Cliff Jacobson

This month, Cliff Jacobson shares his best tips on how to enjoy canoeing.

Q. What tips can you share with those who are looking to buy a canoe?

Cliff. First, decide what kind of canoeing you plan to do—Boundary Waters paddling, running rapids, extended trips on wild Canadian rivers, etc. No single canoe will do it all, so focus on what will best satisfy your dreams. And don’t be put off by the high price of a top-shelf canoe. Why? Because good canoes “appreciate” over time; bad ones depreciate! For example, in 1969 I bought a new Kevlar Sawyer Charger for $575. I sold the canoe for 950 dollars in 1984!

Don't search the newspapers for a "good used canoe". You'll find mostly junk. Instead, join a canoe club (the Minnesota Canoe Association is the world's largest canoe club, with members in every state. Members get the “Minnesota Paddler! magazine each month and the free opportunity to buy and sell canoes and canoe gear.

Pretend that DURABILITY is a dirty word. Canoes more often die from abrasion (being dragged over rocks) than from head-on collisions with obstacles. Lightweight and high performance go hand-in -hand. A heavy, durable boat won't be much fun to paddle. You can learn to repair a lightweight, high performance canoe (it's easy!) but no amount of learning will make a badly designed durable canoe fun to paddle.

Q. What major mistake do most people make when buying a canoe?

Cliff. They search discount stores, which are more concerned with durability than the "joy of paddling" which, after all, is what canoes are all about. You’ll see the best canoes at canoe races, canoe symposiums and dedicated paddle shops.

Q. How important are paddling skills?

Cliff. Skills are much more important than things. Accomplished paddlers don't hit many rocks. Unskilled "canoers", who bang everything in the river, don't need a more durable canoe; they need to learn HOW TO PADDLE. Join a canoe club and take some canoeing classes. You can learn enough in one day to paddle surprisingly well.

Q. How did you get involved in canoeing?

Cliff. I discovered the canoe in 1951, at age 11, as a Boy Scout in a rustic Scout camp set deep in the Michigan woods. We paddled wood-canvas canoes then--Old Town's, Thompson's and Shell Lakes. These canoes were beautiful and paddled like a dream, though they needed frequent repairs. Don't misinterpret: these canoes were plenty tough if you attended to their needs and paddled them well. In those days, paddle competency was heavily emphasized. Instruction came first, the canoe second. Now, it's usually the other way around. People want to buy something to fix their problem rather than develop the skill to outfox it. My friends and I have paddled relatively fragile wood-strip fiberglass solo canoes all over Minnesota's Boundary Waters and northern Ontario. We've run many intermediate (Class II) rapids in these canoes, loaded for a two week trip. Sure, there were scrapes, but they were easily fixed with duct tape. The bottom line: skills are more important than things!

Q. What do you love most about canoeing?

Cliff. In two words--freedom and silence. I can follow my own star at my own pace, alone or with friends. I can get close to the water, close to the wind, close to the wilderness. It's easy to find solitude on your home town stream. And it doesn’t cost one penny!

Q. What tips can you share for those who want to learn how to paddle correctly?

Cliff. It depends on what you mean "correctly". Canoeing is like auto racing: there's the Indy 500, various formula events, straight down the pike racing, and curvy autocross events that are home to cars like the Mazda Miata. Then, there's white water slalom, downriver racing, fast cruising, FreeStyle and wilderness tripping. These all have a different emphasis. The canoes, paddles and techniques are different for each discipline. Best plan is to keep an open mind and accept the fact that all these paddling styles have merit. Learn them all and use the best components of each.

Q. Can you offer any advice on choosing equipment?

Cliff. Your most important purchase is a really great canoe paddle. It can be solid wood, laminated wood or high-tech carbon fiber. You can't do good work with a shaved down 2 x 4, or with a paddle that's not designed for the task at hand. Given the choice between paddling a bad canoe with a good paddle or a good canoe with a bad paddle, I'll take the good paddle every time. Why? Because your paddle is in your hands 100 percent of the time while you’re canoeing.

Q. How can one avoid the dangers of canoeing?

Cliff. Canoeing, per se, isn't dangerous, but some canoeists are. The biggest danger is "bad judgment"--canoeing on water that is too rough, running a rapid without scouting it, going straight across a big cold lake when you should be paddling around it. Most dangerous is over-confidence when you're really over your head. For examle, many times I've watched novice canoeists paddle dangerously high water that I thought was unsafe. I have pleaded with them to abort their trip. They usually refuse. They go merrily downriver with no clue and no life jacket. They should know better, but they don't because they haven't paddled enough to have a viable frame of reference. Competent paddlers have a saying: “Canoeists always wear their life jackets; canoers seldom do!”

Q. What should you know before you paddle rapids?

Cliff. Whitewater paddling is an art. It's not something you can figure out for yourself. Start by reading paddle technique books, and watch some canoeing videos. These will open the doors to hands-on learning. If possible, take a basic river canoeing class. You can learn the most important tricks in one day. Then, get out and practice in gentle currents. There are many degrees of white water, ranging from silly easy to "significant death wish". Frankly, most of drownings are on relatively easy waters close to home. Most of these people had no skills and they weren't wearing life vests.

Q. Is a careful paddler a good paddler?

Cliff. Accidents are usually skill-related. For example, most of the canoeists who have inadvertently paddled over a dam or capsized in a running sea were “careful”. The problem was they didn’t know how to paddle and therefore avoid the danger! I keep stressing the "how to paddle" part, because it is the major thing that will keep you out of trouble. For example, if you are canoeing with children, the best thing you can do for their safety is to be a competent paddler . The ability to avoid the dangers is what will keep you safe.

Q. What are your best tips for those who want to start canoeing but have no idea what to do or where to start?

Cliff. I'm a retired school teacher and writer, so naturally I recommend "education". Start by reading some basic "how to" books about paddling. And watch some canoeing videos. Education sets the wheels of learning into motion.
Join a canoe club. You'll rub shoulders with others who love paddling and who share your concerns. Clubs take care of the shuttle arrangements, which means you won't need to drive two cars. Sign up for an easy trip through the canoe club you've found. You don't have to own a canoe, or even rent one. Most club members own several canoes (I have 12 which aren't nearly enough). They are often willing to lend you one if you will join their trip.

Visit some canoeing shops. Wander around, check out the boats, ask questions. Canoeists love to chat about their favorite sport. Query passersby. Accomplished paddlers who are in the store will be flattered by your questions. They'll give you honest answers, point you in the right direction, and save you lots of money.

* You'll need a comfortable life jacket and a paddle. You may want to get these before you get a canoe. Again, go to a canoeing shop for these items. The stuff you’ll find in discount stores will get you downriver, but not with a smile.

* Try the Internet. Punch in canoes and canoeing in your search engine. Suddenly, a whole new world will open up.

* Subscribe to North America's premiere canoeing magazines. There are three: CANOE & KAYAK, PADDLER, and CANOE ROOTS (Canada). Read and learn.

* Don't buy any canoe until you've paddled it (Piragis Northwoods always lets you test paddle canoes for free before you buy)

* Don't be afraid to buy a used canoe. You'll find great deals in the classified section of canoe club newsletters. Late autumn, just before the snow flies, is the time to go canoe shopping. Many outfitters, like Piragis, replace their rental canoes at the end of each season. Most of these boats are immaculate and are very good buys.

*Choose a bright sunny day, rent a canoe, and go on an easy canoe trip with someone you love. Spend lots of time talking and lots of time gawking. When the bright sun fades to amber, evaluate your day If it's a "10", you're hooked for life!


Interview. Jacobson / DATE July 14, 2011