Novice Canoeist


Just picked up an used Old Town Stillwater 12, and paddled it around my small lake…now I can barely feel my arms, lol.

I want to learn how to paddle this thing solo, efficiently. I think I understand the point of the J-stroke, but I’ve never really seen it done and I imagine my technique (or lack thereof) is horrendously inefficient. Are there any videos online where I can watch it in action?

Also, the canoe is creaking alot. I think the sound is coming from the yoke, or the screws holding the yoke in place. Can I remove the yoke? I’m thinking about putting in a center seat, or just leaving the space free.

And finally, last question: How tight should I make my bow/stern tiedowns when cartopping the canoe? Right now I have it pretty tight, drove 300 miles highway no problems…but I’m afraid that it’s too tight and that I’ll damage the boat.

Sorry for all the questions, and thank you all in advance…I love fishing but I was surprised at how much fun I had just paddling about, even with my horrible form.



Some answers
I can’t speak for the J stroke as mine really sucks, but I just use a gooney stroke aka rudder stroke (holding the paddle in the water and ruddering the canoe back on course). Mostly I use a bent shaft and just switch sides to keep the canoe on course.

Creaking in OT boats is normal, it’s the seats and yoke moving against the plastic gunnels as the boat flexes. Don’t remove the yoke unless you plan on replacing it with a center seat as it helps keep the canoes shape. A center seat may make the canoe more fun to solo.

I make my bow and stern tiedowns pretty snug and have driven 2,000 miles like that without damaging the boat. Reefing on it isn’t necessary, just nice and snug.

The Bill Mason films are great for learning the strokes and are fun to watch. I started with a goon stroke and swore the elegance of the J was not for me. Then on a great paddle of lots of wildlife observation, the J developed without much thought. Have fun, experiment and enjoy the ride.

Path Of the Paddle
The Bill Mason “Path of the Paddle” vids are the next best thing to good instruction.

If your tie downs are the type that you pull on the strap I doubt you can get them tight enough to hurt the boat. If they are the ratchet type you want them good and snug but don’t go crazy.

If it was my boat I might pull out the yoke and try it. If it got real flexy I’d put the yoke back in.

You might try a kayak paddle,
instead of a standard canoe paddle if you are soloing the Stillwater 12. I have a 14’ model, although it is the Katahdin name, and I use a kayak paddle when I paddle from my drop in box seat for solo use. A couple drops of oil should stop the creaking thwarts. The Stillwater series canoes are fine for lakes and slow rivers. We had ours on big swells and waves from passing boats, and it handled them great! Happy paddling!

I don’t use my straight paddle much
anymore, only when I’m paddling on smaller rivers with obstacles; otherwise, I use a bent-shaft paddle which I find more efficent and easier to use on a long paddle. With a straight paddle you stop the stroke at your knees or you start lifting water, while with a bent shaft you can bring the paddle further back which makes for a easier paddling stroke. With a bent-shaft paddle I mostly switch sides. I paddle three or four strokes and then switch to correct. It’s much more efficent then using a J since all the strokes are at full power. Of course there is some inefficency since you zig zag a little, but still, it’s better than a J. You can’t really do efficent correction strokes with a bent-shaft paddle. Another advantage of switching sides is that you don’t paddle too long on one side. If I’m tripping and paddle all day for several days,

I start having elbow and wrist problems by not switching enough. I tend to paddle on my right side more than my left and after several long paddling days, it takes it toll on my body.

Having said all that, you should learn to do all the strokes since that’s part of canoeing and they are important to know on fast moving water. You don’t want to get caught in a strainer or end up on the river where you don’t want to be. You just need practice and after a few trips and thousands of strokes you’ll get better. What would help with learning is to paddle on non-moving water with no wind. I remember the first time I went out paddling solo, it was on a lake with a strong wind. It was impossible for me to figure out what was going on. If you add moving water to the equation, you’ll be hopelessly confused.

I agree that Bill Mason’s book “Path of the Paddle” is an excellent book. Get the newest copy that has revisions by his son, Paul. It’s a must have for any canoeist.

Just keep the ropes tight enough so the canoe doesn’t move in the wind.

Switch in a Stillwater?
boats got a 41" beam.

That’s a lot of reaching (or butt sliding) to paddle switch.

If I was paddling that boat I’d stay on one side much as I could.

This canoe is 12 feet long, 41 inches wide, and has a keel. Its not going to go fast and it’s not going to turn easily … but then, its not designed for that! It’s a big flat bottomed boat designed to be a stable platform out on the water … and it’s good at that.

If you try to paddle this canoe fast and do fancy turns, you will get sore arms! You can still enjoy paddling it, but be aware of its limitations.

A double bladed paddle (NOT a kayak paddle) could work for you. But why do that? You can learn a good correcting stroke in less time than it will take to master the two bladed paddle (a lot cheaper too). Considering that you are paddling alone AND you have a keel, your need for a strong correctng stroke should be pretty minimal.

Other peoples’ opinions on this will be interesting, but I think a J stroke might be quite challenging on this canoe because of the short distance between the paddler and the canoe’s pivot point; and because of the resistance caused by the keel. Kayakangler’s rudder stroke might be the better correcting stroke IN THIS CASE.

I urge you to learn to paddle with a canoe paddle and the proper strokes. If you get pretty good at manoevering your Stillwater, you’re going to stunned at what you can do when you move into a 17 footer with a 32 inch beam!

Paddle on and have fun!

Heeled over (i.e. you kneel to one side and let the boat sit at an angle), you will be able to turn that thing on a dime!

You need something in the centre for the structural support - consider a seat mounted with a slight forward tilt, or something called a kneeling thwart which is basically just a flat piece of wood mounted a bit lower for your but to rest on while you kneel.

I agree with the Mason books/videos.

I’d go tight on the middle tie downs, snug on the end ones.

I agree; it would be great fun to take this canoe out and try those turns. Looking at the Stillwater profile, I sensed that it had very little secondary stability and that that could make it pretty tricky to find a balance point in order to hold a nice angle on the hull. I am more than willing to give it a try; I’m going to bring a towel.

If a Canadian tells me it can be done, I’m gonna believe him.

a few other things
first off, are you really doing a J stroke or a pry? That got me in the begining. I didn’t really get taught how to canoe so I had to find out a thing or two on my own. That pry I was doing was KILLING my speed.

another thing I am wondering is if you are sitting in the back, or backwards in the front. The later should work out quite well. Heeling this boat over would be an exercise in futility. Being able to do something doesn’t always make it the best option. Alex Trebeck, Michael J Fox and Dan Akroid could all tell me to heel it over, but I wouldn’t be doing it.

Now go out and have some more fun paddling. Time will teach you all you NEED to know. you will eventually run into every circumstance that will effect you, and that is the truth.


Thanks everyone
for some great advice. I looked into rowing kits and double-bladed paddles, but I think I want to give the single paddle a good shot, learn the “traditional” way of powering a solo canoe…but if that fails I have no problem resorting to the path of lesser resistance, lol.

Will get the video and book, and practice before the season’s over (when I put away my fishing rods and pick up my cue again).

I will leave the yoke as is, but tighten it and give it a few drops of oil.

solo_canoe: I also feel the “oneness” between car and canoe…I have the round yakimas with gunwale brackets and straps, and thule tiedowns. Nice poem as well, I might chant it like a mantra while I’m paddling the J.

liveoutside: I’m sitting in the front facing back, and will probably continue to do so. I tried kneeling in the center and it was tipping the canoe to one side alarmingly, lol.

Thanks again everyone, really appreciate all the advice.