Want a slower way to travel? Learn to canoe

a Canoeing Adventure is Peaceful and Picturesque. It's also easy – even for novices. Here's how to plan A canoe trip.

They say the best things in life are free. But are they? How about skiing Vail? Not free. Vacationing in Hawaii? Not free. But river canoeing? Confounding the cynics, river canoeing is free. Well, maybe not completely free – unless you own a canoe. But it is very inexpensive.

How inexpensive? Canoe rental and shuttle service prices range from $15 a day to a high of $70 per day in certain areas such as the redwood forests near San Francisco. In many places you can find prices of $30 a day or less. With two people sharing a canoe, the typical cost per person is just $15. That's a vacation bargain.

Conservation and technology

When you stand on the shore of a North American canoeing river today and look out over the riverscape, the view may be just as it was 30 years ago, 80 years ago, perhaps even 300 years ago. These are the rivers that were once traveled by Indians, explorers, fur traders, and missionaries. They are windows into history.

In the US, many of these rivers are designated Wild and Scenic Rivers, thanks to legislation passed by Congress in 1968. This designation preserves the rivers' free-flowing, natural character (meaning they can't be dammed or diverted).

The National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, administered by the National Park Service, now includes more than 150 segments in 39 states, totaling more than 11,000 river miles.

Hundreds of additional canoeing rivers throughout the country are protected because they flow through state or national parks, forests, or wildlife refuges. Still other rivers are protected by conservation groups.

But there's more good news for beginning canoers. While environmentalists have been busy conserving rivers, engineers have been busy building better canoes. Hulls are more stable and streamlined. Contoured seats are more comfortable. Multilayered, high-tech plastic – the construction material of choice for recreational river canoes – is extremely strong, yet soft enough to flex when colliding with rocks and river bottoms. It also provides better control and a quieter ride.

If you haven't been canoeing in a long time, you're going to be pleasantly surprised.

Today, from the pine forests of Maine to the cypress bayous of Louisiana, from the north woods of Wisconsin to the redwoods of California, perfect canoe trips await adventurers.

Planning the perfect day trip

Begin by contacting the National Park Service (www.nps.gov/rivers/wildriverslist.html) or your state Department of Natural Resources. These agencies provide informational brochures and maps showing canoe launches, campsites, white-water rapids, visitors' centers, and other points of interest.

Canoe-route maps give distances in "river miles." Often, average "river speed" is also given, allowing you to calculate travel time between locations.

When choosing a river, be sure to consider the difficulty ratings of any white-water rapids. Rapids rated Class I are easiest to negotiate. These are OK for beginners. Rapids rated Class II are best attempted when at least one person in the canoe has some experience. Rapids rated Class III should probably be left to those with advanced skills.

Here are a few more things to keep in mind: Are motorboats prohibited on the river? Do outfitters rent inner tubes? (Noisy troops of teens can spoil the serenity that attracted you to canoeing.) What are the river's width and direction of flow? Knowing these can help you avoid paddling into the wind.

Select your canoe outfitter carefully. A good outfitter will know about river and weather conditions, canoeing techniques, and river safety. Look for an outfitter who offers multilayered plastic canoes. Don't settle for aluminum canoes; they're noisy, clumsy, and tip over easily. What's more, in hot weather they can be hot to the touch, and in cold weather they conduct the river's chill.

Because river speed and level (and white-water ratings) can be affected by recent rainfall, check with an outfitter for up-to-the-minute conditions. The US Geological Survey maintains a regularly updated website with stream flow and river-level data at http://water.usgs.gov/waterwatch.

Once you're out on the water, you'll find that river canoeing is the quickest, most direct way into the heart of wilderness.

Tippy canoe? Not you

What does a beginner need to know before he or she goes canoeing? First, choose the correct size canoe and then follow some basic rules.

At the canoe outfitter's, you may have a choice of canoe lengths. A longer canoe is usually a heavier, more stable canoe. Big and tall people will appreciate a 17-footer since it is less likely to roll over, even when two paddlers lean the same way at once. Small people may prefer a 15-foot canoe, because the lighter weight means it requires less paddling power, and keeping pace with other canoes in the group will be easier.

Paddling basics

• The person in the stern (back) steers by using the paddle as a rudder – use your rudder on the left to turn left, or on the right to turn right.

• The person in the bow (front) watches for submerged rocks and helps with the paddling.

• There are many paddling strokes, but the most useful are the forward stroke and the backstroke. As you might guess from the name, the forward stroke propels the canoe ahead. The backstroke is like a brake, slowing or stopping the forward motion of the canoe. Use the backstroke when landing a canoe on the shore. A third stroke – called the "draw" – pushes water under the canoe from the side, as if sweeping dirt under a rug. It moves the canoe sideways.

• Keep an upright posture: "nose over tailbone."

• Both elbows should be slightly bent.

• Use light forward strokes. As when driving on an icy road, too much power is inefficient.

• The principle of river-canoeing is "go with the flow." Keep your canoe parallel to the current and try not to let it get broadside to the current. Watch for trees that have fallen into the river, and use rudder steering (and backstrokes, if needed) to avoid them.

Safety rules

• Don't stand up in the canoe. To get into or out of a canoe, bend your knees and steady yourself on the canoe's gunwales (sides) or thwarts (crossbars).

• Plan your trip so you will easily reach your destination before sunset.

• Take an extra paddle.

• Use your canoe-route map and stay oriented.

• In fast or deep water, wear a life vest.

• If you capsize in fast water, stay on the upstream side of your canoe.

Handy to know

Five-day ice chests, which have thick insulation and refrigerator-style lid gaskets, are a great convenience when canoeing. To increase their usefulness, fill a half-gallon plastic milk jug nearly full of water, freeze it overnight, and place it in your cooler. That will take care of your refrigeration needs for a day of canoeing and even overnight camping.

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