Let’s start with something we can all agree on. Rolling a canoe isn’t easy. Once you learn proper technique and practice it often, rolling becomes less of a challenge, but it still requires a combination of strength, flexibility, finesse, and mental toughness that separates the roll from most other canoeing technique. Put another way, if you take a crappy forward stroke at 50% effectiveness, you’ll still go forward somewhat, just not effectively. If your roll is only 50% effective, you aren’t going to be able to right yourself, at all.
Over time, I’ve come full circle with the roll. When I first started canoeing, I struggled for years, flailing in pools, eddies, and in the middle of rapids without ever rolling. There were times when I thought I would never learn to roll, and that I’d never be able to run the difficult whitewater I dreamed of. Finally, the combination of quality instruction and putting in the time in led to my first combat roll, followed by a few more after that (like this one right above Gorilla).
Now, I help others with their roll, and monitor my own in case I ever fall into bad habits. In teaching, and in the years of struggling with it myself, I’ve noticed a few commonalities amongst paddlers who are struggling with the roll, which I’ve laid out here, in no particular order:
- Problem: You aren’t getting quality instruction
I have a running joke that anyone can teach canoe rolling. All you have to do is stand on the side of a pool and shout, “Keep your head down! Snap your hips!” But the simple fact is, getting proper instruction can be difficult. Your buddy who just learned how to roll last week might help, but getting the world-class instruction from an Eli Helbert or a Paul Mason or a Judd Lefeber can make the difference. It’s one thing to know how to roll, it’s another thing entirely to be able to articulately and efficiently instruct a complicated sequence like rolling in a way that suites different learning styles, and to be able to troubleshoot just what isn’t working as someone is learning.
This also cuts at another issue with rolling. Some canoeists find themselves believing that there is only one way to roll (or one way to do anything, but that’s for another blog post). This is simply false. There are a variety of different rolls a canoeist can use, and even within the basic low-brace roll, there are multiple set-ups, paddle orientations, and other variations. There isn’t a single right way to roll. I’ve watched an excellent instructor try to teach rolling, only to have other canoeists paddle up and tell the student, “Hey, that’s wrong, I do it this way!” So if you’re learning, be open to variations that might be more effective for your body type, paddling style, or overall strength. And once you’ve learned to roll, don’t fall into the trap of believing that your way is the only way that works. This “roll protectionism” doesn’t serve anyone.
- Problem: You’re your own best critic
Regardless of whether you’ve rolled a canoe before or not, if you’re having trouble rolling your canoe, it’s hard to troubleshoot underwater. Especially when you’re getting the crap kicked out of you. You might not realize that your body is too close to the back deck, your head is coming up early, etc. Without this information, how can you ever determine what is wrong with your roll? The key is to have someone else providing feedback, preferably someone who knows how to roll! Don’t have someone? Use a camera to record video, and analyze it yourself. You can post video to paddling forums, where hopefully others can provide quality feedback.
In this Age of Youtube, there are a bunch of videos that show not only the basic low-brace roll, but some of the intricacies of the roll, potential trouble spots, and important cues. It can be tempting to try to learn solely through watching video and then going out and givin’ er. But videos don’t provide the feedback that a competent observer does, particularly one who is a great instructor. So if you’ve watched all the rolling videos on the internet but still can’t get it, try getting feedback from someone.
- Problem: You aren’t rolling enough
Once you’ve gotten your first couple rolls, be it at a pool session or at the takeout, you need to practice. Rolling is a perishable skill, maybe the most perishable skill in canoeing. I liken it to starting a fire. Once you’ve gotten that first flame, do you just sit there and watch it burn out? Or do you feed little bits of kindling and oxygen to help that flame turn into a roaring fire? Learning is similar, with slow, methodical practice leading to an instinctive skill. So how do you practice? Commit to rolling at least five times per run. Pull into a big deep eddy and need to dump? Bang off a roll. If you swim, so what? You needed to dump anyways. Surfing on a wave? Try flipping over to flush and then rolling in the tailwaters.
Some practice spots are prettier than others
- Problem: You’re panicking
Part of rolling is training our minds to do something they do not like to do: accept a sudden loss of oxygen. Our brains are hardwired to hit the panic button the moment they sense they are in an oxygen-deprived environment, in an effort to get you to find some air. But part of rolling is training our minds to realize that we’re better off staying calm and waiting. The best way to train our minds is to learn how to roll in a safe environment…if only there was a type of paddling where you had to roll many times in a safe, approachable environment. Oh yeah, playboating!
Playboating is the single best practice you can have for bombproofing your roll. Playboating leads to flips and inversions of every kind, offside, onside, getting backdecked, etc. But, the danger is typically minimal, with swims usually resulting only in bruised egos. So if you have a pool roll, and you want to bombproof it for creeking season, go out to the local playwave and start flipping. Soon you’ll be trying to roll in the hole to stay on the wave, and rolling up in time to catch the service eddy for another surf!
- You’re too fat/inflexible
The years I struggled with my roll, this was my problem. I weighed about 225lbs. As a side-effect of getting really sick in Mexico, I lost a bunch of weight, and suddenly I was able to roll. This wasn’t a coincidence. It’s a lot easier to roll without 50lbs to flail around with. During the winter, if I skip a few gym sessions and eat a few too many cookies, I’ll notice that my rolls aren’t quite as snappy as they should be.
The fact is, if you’re a big guy (or gal), it’s going to be harder to roll. That doesn’t mean that it’s impossible, but my big friends who can roll are typically contractors, laborers, or work a physically-demanding job that has given them excellent core strength. Without that core strength, it’s going to be very hard to roll.
Similarly, I’ve worked with people who aren’t as flexible, be it because of age, injury, or general lack of flexibility. The bio-mechanics of rolling require a basic level of strength and flexibility, it’s just a matter of leverage. Working on flexibility, particularly hamstrings and back muscles, can help a ton. Phil Prince’s rolling exercises can also help.
- Putting it all together
If you’re still learning to roll, don’t get frustrated. The road from swimmer to roller takes time, practice, and dedication. Hopefully you can recognize some of the issues that might be holding your roll back, and work to overcome them. Because the best self-rescue is the one where you never leave the boat!
Blackfly team paddler Caleb Roberts put together this beautiful video from ALF 2017.
By Matt Hauhgee
We had a great team in place and were really excited to get on the water. The 50+mile section of river did not disappoint. From the put-in rapid to the stunningly beautiful paddle out; we had an amazing time on the river and camping out on its banks.
Admit it…as soon as you figured out how to get the canoe to go straight, you started imagining all the amazing places you could go canoeing. I’ve been lucky enough to paddle all over the world, and some of my favorite canoeing memories came on road trips with friends. In 2016, I spent five months on the road with Blackfly, taking demo canoes to Colorado, the PNW, Canada, and everywhere in between. Here are five keys to having a canoeing roadtrip of a lifetime!
- Have a good set of wheels
You need to have a vehicle that can get you, your friends, and all your gear there and back again as safely as possible. A good paddling vehicle needs to have a stout set of racks for carrying as many boats as possible, decent clearance for some of the sketchy shuttle roads (looking at you, Caney Fork) and a way to segregate gear…trust me, you don’t want your wet stuff mixed with your dry stuff. Anyone who has boated with me knows that I am often seen driving my mini bus, which I converted to a camper. While this is super convenient for living and sleeping, it leaves a lot to be desired as a people-mover for shuttles. Also, I lost a day paddling OBJ underneath the bus, banging on the front end with a spanner, so reliability is important too. Whether it’s Jeremy’s monster truck, Alex’s TacoMobile, or MarkZ’s venerable Subaru, having a good set of wheels makes or breaks the trip
2. Bring your crew
Let’s face an ugly truth head on…it can be hard to find people willing to paddle with canoeists, particularly out west. As the red-headed stepchild of the whitewater world, canoeists have been known to be left at the put in by bro-brahs and other jerks not willing to sacrifice the “jah-churchness” of their lap to show someone new down. So on a road trip, it’s nice to have a few others in the car who enjoy paddling runs of similar difficulty, so that you can be self-contained. That said, I’ve met some amazing people at the put-ins of the Callaghan, Jalacingo, and Green who were willing to take a chance on me. I try to pay that forward as much as possible, starting with takeout beer for your local guide!
3. Pace yourself
It can be very tempting to try and pack as much whitewater into your vacation as possible. I can tell you from experience that you will burn yourself out quickly. Paddling is physically and mentally taxing, and the tax increases with the difficulty of the run. Paddling Class IV/V day after day will wear you out, and lead to more physical and mental mistakes that can lead to injuries. Prevent this by pacing yourself. Go do a beautiful, easy run and take in the scenery. Stay well hydrated, eat healthy where you can, and don’t be afraid to take days off. Go for a hike, or explore the paddling town. Vacations are supposed to be fun, and if you’re bumming out you won’t paddle well, so on the road you might as well make a point of groovin’
4. Don’t plan too much
When you pull out a map, it’s hard not to think, “okay, on Day 1 I’ll paddle here, and then on Day 2 I’ll paddle here, and then on Day 3…” Once you’re on the road, you’ll find that the truth in the famous Mike Tyson quote, “Everyone has a plan until they find out the river dropped out”… (I think that was it). So try to leave yourself time to get lost, fix cars, and find places you don’t want to leave. You might get somewhere that requires more than just a day of paddling to fully enjoy, and you might find a place you thought was going to be awesome isn’t as great as you thought. That’s okay! Be flexible, willing to change. You’ll end up having way more fun if you don’t treat the trip like a checklist, and miss all the cool stuff in between.
That said, have a bit of a plan. A guidebook can be critical in learning about the best runs in unfamiliar drainages, with gauge info, shuttle logistics, and accessibility already figured out.
5. It’s your trip
At the end, it’s up to you to decide what makes a good canoeing road trip. Often times, Facebook is filled with pictures of the highlights, the epic drops and stout rapids that people ran. This scares some people (myself included) into thinking, “should I really go to X if I’m not running Class Y?” Don’t fall into that. Every place I’ve ever paddled, from Mexico to British Columbia, Switzerland to North Carolina, has had just as many amazing, beautiful, epic Class II-III runs as they’ve had Class V runs. One of my favorite days on my last summer road trip was paddling the Middle White Salmon with my girlfriend. There is fun whitewater out there for every paddler, the key is finding it.
One last bonus tip…take pictures and video. Whether it’s an awesome DSLR shot or shaky GoPro footage, you’ll want to capture the memories of a trip of a lifetime!
About a year and a half ago, I decided I needed a CNC router for Blackfly, because…well, if you look at US manufacturing data, you can see that we’re making almost twice as much in this country, with a third fewer workers than 30 years ago. With as much as we hear about the death of American manufacturing, it’s almost hard to believe, but when you think about the advances in technology, it makes sense that we’d be seeing huge increases in productivity. And as the cost of those technologies decreases, it filters down to smaller and smaller operations, like my goofy little canoe company.
So after a few months of head scratching, reading reviews, comparing options, running cost/benefit numbers, and my usual geeking out and learning as much as I could and overthinking things, I picked out a kit and pulled the trigger. Once it all came together and started moving on it’s own, it became obvious this thing was going to be ludicrously useful. Oh, and there was going to be a steep learning curve.
But eventually, I got a lot of it sorted out, sorted out the proper bits for cutting saddles.
Cutting saddles is the most frequent task for the machine. I was previously getting them water jet cut, but doing it in house saves a good bit of cost and takes about 5 minutes each; 5 minutes I can spend working on other things.
But there are plenty of other jobs it makes so much easier, and less boring. Previously, I was drilling holes in the thwarts on a drill press. Between counterbores for the the thwart screws, countersink for the dowel in the middle, airbag lacing holes, etc, there were about 10 holes I had to put in each one. Now it’s down to… eh, I don’t really know, I just load 28 thwarts on the machine and hit go and let it do it’s thing.
I use plastic rods to hold the footpegs to the saddle. Each rod needs to have pilot holes drilled for the screws. I used to get blisters from trying to hold onto the rods while I drilled them on the drill press. And it’s tedious, monotonous work.
Ultimately, the thing that steered me toward getting a CNC in the first place was being about to do CAD designed plugs for boats. It’s always been a challenge for me to get curves faired and boats symmetric when I’m shaping by hand, and having a machine do it for me was too appealing to resist, even if I do have to do it in small sections and put them all together.
As a one man operation, my level of productivity is hugely important to me, and having what is basically a robotic version of me that’s generally faster and more accurate has been amazing. While it’s cutting a saddle, I can start gluing the saddle that just came off. While it’s drilling holes in thwarts, I can be oiling the previous set of thwarts or running the next set though the table router. At least that’s the theory, I do spend a bit too much time just watching it work, especially if it’s a one-off piece. It’s really kind of amazing, both to watch it work, and to think about all I can do with it. I’ll be pretty interested to see as technology continues it’s march forward, what will happen in manufacturing. Economic theory tells us that increased productivity is good for the economy because it frees up workers to do other things. I know it certainly has for me, and has saved me money, not only over hiring someone to help out in the shop, but actually over farming out tasks I couldn’t do previously. But on the other hand, automation does reduce the number of workers required, which means fewer jobs. As the price of technology like this comes down, will we see more small operations like Blackfly adopting it in innovative ways to make really cool stuff, and become larger economic forces? Are there ways for small shops like mine to share resources that aren’t in use all the time? All tough questions to answer, but for the time being, I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords.
It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these “From the Shop” posts. Everything has been humming along here at Blackfly World headquarters, all the boats are in stock and ready to go out the door. It’s been a long, and very busy winter here in New Hampshire; it’s certainly not over yet, but it’s given me a lot of time to wax philosophical. I sometimes find myself asking, “Why am I here?” (Not New Hampshire, though sometimes I wonder about that). Why do I do this, making canoes? I could certainly go on about the less glamorous aspects of my work: the contact cement fumes, the dust, the long hours on the road and fast food, loading and unloading boats, the seasonal nature of the cashflow involved, the general struggles of running a small business. But for all that, the good days greatly outnumber the bad days. I really enjoy what I do. But I’ve decided there’s thing that really makes this worth it for me. I’m just here for the tacos.
I’m certainly not here for the money. Don’t get me wrong, I’m making a modest living, and that IS important to me, but I’ve done the math, and there are plenty of other things I would be better off doing if money was my ultimate motivation. So why do it?
I put in my fair share of monotonous hours, and sometimes my thoughts drift to things like the connection between what I’m doing and the past. The canoe is one of the oldest forms of boats, dating back thousands of years. What I’m doing is directly traceable back to the long-forgotten people hollowing out logs. I find that interesting and somewhat satisfying, but on it’s own, it’s certainly not enough to be my motivation.
I love to paddle, that’s why I started this whole crazy project. I especially love the feeling of paddling a boat I designed and built myself. I don’t think the feeling of putting a new hull in the water for the first time will ever wear off, especially when it performs the way I want it to. The flip side is sometimes prototyping new ideas can be frustrating and disappointing, but that’s why we prototype. It’s also nice to ditch work when the creeks are running (I’ll make it up later). However, I sometimes wonder if I’d get more river time if I paddling was only a hobby and not a job for me, and if I wouldn’t be thinking about chine and rocker designs as much while I’m paddling.
I have a belief and a desire that Blackfly Canoes can be a force for good in the world. It might be as simple as getting people outside, connecting with nature, and connecting with each other. I love seeing pictures of parents paddling tandem boats with their children (and I love paddling with mine). I’m driven by a belief in support the community around me, not just the river community, but also my neighbors near and far. Part of that is a commitment to American manufacturing and buying as much of what I need from close to home. If you want to see American manufacturing flourish, by something made here. I also have a deeply held belief that the preservation of our rivers is extremely important, I like to use Blackfly to support organizations that work toward that goal. Sometimes it’s a stretch though, and I never feel like I’m doing enough though. And how do I balance that with the carbon footprint of what I’m doing and what you’re doing every time you drive to the river? What about the impact of microplastics left in the river when your boat slides over a rock? These are things that conflict me.
The paddling community, especially my customers, are very encouraging. I love getting to meet you on the river and paddle with you and hearing the positive feedback about what I do. Seeing people enjoying the fruit of my labor is hugely rewarding for me. But I’m my own toughest critic. I know I can always do thing better, I notice all the flaws, and when people aren’t satisfied, it’s a massive disappointment for me.
I can’t say that without also saying one of the things I truly love most about what I do is the challenge. “Tell me I won’t, and I will.” All those flaws and mistakes and shortcomings are room for improvement, and I love striving to make them better. The boats I’m making today are better than the ones I made six months ago. Those are better than the ones I made a year ago. I’ve come along way, and I don’t intend to stop improving. Some of the improvements you can see, some are changes in process that make things easier, more consistent, or more efficient. I absolutely love the problem solving, creativity, and learning that goes into what I do. One of the driving factors that keeps me going into the shop is the question, “How can I do this better?” Because there’s always a better way to do something.
So having said all that, I’ve decided that what really, truly, honestly makes doing all this worth it for me is the tacos. If you’ve stopped by the Blackfly tent at a river festival, you may have been handed a taco, or at least you smelled them. Alex started it one year at Gaulyfest, and it’s become somewhat of a tradition for us to grill them up at just about every festival we go to. They’ve even gotten some press. We make them fresh, they’re delicious, and I can’t think of a downside to them. So really, I’ve decided I’m just here for the tacos.
As winter drums on in the Northeast often through March, thoughts of steep rocky creeks, warm weather and unbeatable camaraderie keep me coming back to the Southeast every spring. In six years of experiencing the yearly ALF gathering, the people I’ve met and the places I’ve been have created lasting memories, glimpses of which I’ve been lucky enough to capture on film. I hope you enjoy this retrospective. March 12th is just a few more weeks away!
In 2011, we scratched our knuckles on the Middle Prong …
… and caught the hike up, up, up Elkmont section.
In 2012, we took the plunge tandem on LeMance …
… and had a heck of a tandumb race on the Tellico.
In 2014, the inaugural Whitewater Canoe Film Fest was a great success …
… and we bucked some long rides in the hole at Soc-em-dog on purpose.
I even had the time to throw together a decent flick about the trip.
2015 featured a truly memorable cruise on Cane Creek in Fall Creek Falls State Park …
… we even survived the Suicide Section.
Who knows what creeks we will find in 2017, but I’m sure that they will be filled with great friends, old and new … likely a bunch of laps on the Tellico too. I hope that you can join us.
‘A brief look into my journey throughout New Zealand with my canoe.’
Coming into the fall of 2016, my mind was made up. I was going to follow summer and head down to New Zealand to tour and paddle. The plan was pretty rough, I had some friends scattered throughout the country, and I was pretty sure I could fly my Blackfly Option over. Air Canada allows kayaks and my Option fit in the size requirements,
Anyways, after many flight delays, missed flights, lost baggage and 30+ hours of travel, I made it to Christchurch. After buying a small Subaru Impreza and making proper wooden roof racks. I rallied to the Hokitika on the westcoast where I had some friends. It was amazing to be able to spend some time on the coast. The way the mountains mix with the sea is so beautiful. Sadly the rain wasn’t cooperating, and the majority of runs were ether low or not running. It still was a wonderful time with fun runs and great friends.
After some time in Hokitika, I decided to hit the road and head up to Murchison and the more central north section of the South Island.
Murchison is home to the New Zealand Kayak school and a bounty of class 2,3,4 runs. It attracts a large amount of boaters and I found it was always easy to meet and get out with someone. It is also a wonderful training ground to work on your technique.
While in Murch, I ended up paddling with two Americans a good bit. After a week or so there, They came up with the idea of doing a short multiday on the Waiou. Now to go make a long story short, this trip ended up being amazing. We had everything we needed to make it a “very” memorable trip. Beautiful sun covered mountain peaks, huge earthquakes, amazing whitewater, massive floods, stellar company, to list a few of them. Oh yea, and Helicopters.
Basically the trip went like this, day 1, Amazing Sun and beautiful landscapes, night 1, a massive earthquake happens. Day 2, awesome day on the water in some class 3,4. night 2, rain falls pretty heavily. Day 3, the river had come up 3-4 feet due to the rain and we decide to stay where we are and let it drop. Day 4 we were on our way out, when one person swam and we got cliffed in without their boat. So she was then nicely lifted out by some friends from above. Basically thats it in a nutshell.
Here are some photos from the trip.
After that trip, I ended finding myself at the Kaituna up on the North Island. The Kaituna has a couple things going for it. Firstly the river is amazing. Class 3ish 4-, clean drops and lots of fun eddies and moves. It also has a super easy shuttle. Secondly, the paddling community around the area is stunning. There’s the locals (vast majority of whom paddle) who live in the small village Okere Falls at the put in. And then there are the dirtbags who camp out at the takeout of the river. Lastly, there is a wonderful cafe at the putin that has amazing meat pies.
Since I had been living out of my car for almost two months, I found I fit right into the crowd at the takeout. I was amazed to find the wide range of paddlers who stayed there. Everyone from pretty new paddlers to crazy Belgium boaters, to the female champion of this past Sickline. Anyways, the community that forms there is amazing. I found that the Kaituna was a wicked training ground to work on fluidity. It also was just plain fun to go down, aka swim/inner-tube/do whatever your heart desires.
For the first chunk of time on the Kaituna, I found that I was always getting asked the same questions. “What’s that?” “Can you roll it” “Its a Canadian Canoe!” “Hows the waterfall go” etc. It was kinda interesting to see peoples perception of what you should and shouldn’t be able to do. After a bit of time there, I decided to start running the takeout waterfall called Trout Pool falls. It is a pretty simple delay boof with high consequences. It has a nasty boil/towback and a very high beatdown potential if you mess it up. After getting my line dialed in, I found most questions about my boat died down, and people had more respect for me and my canoe.
Every so often, the group at the takeout would rally, and we would head south to the central north. This is where the waterfalls abounded. I found this was a great way to test what I had been practicing in a different and more challenging environment. Probably my favourite drop was Huka falls of the Waikato River. Its an amazing mini canyon that goes through a couple class 4 drops and ends in a high volume 20 footer. My first couple lines weren’t perfect. (I swam once.) But in the end, I was super happy with my lines and the two days I got on it.
The main other waterfall of note would be Tawhai on the Whakapapa river. I got down there twice. The first time was during a massive rainfall and the river was going hard. I opted to pass due to the pool at the bottom being one massive boil.
Thankfully, two weeks later I was able to make it back down there. The flow this time was way more reasonable and I was able get some proper laps on it.
Now I am currently back down south in Christchurch. Realizing that my trip thats stretched over the past 4 months is coming to a close. Overall I am super stoked for the time spent down here, and the people that I’ve met.
I guess its now time now to look to Ain’t Louie Fest and plan for the time when I am back in the midst of all the canoes and spring melt. Its going to be good.
We’re stoked to announce that Blackfly has a Youtube channel! Our channel will have product videos, tips and tricks, and all sorts of whitewater canoeing clips. For more information, head on over and subscribe today!