With apologies to Sir Mix-a-lot for that title, I though this week I’d look at why Blackfly boats are “funny looking” for canoes, and why it works better. I get the question pretty commonly, “Why are the ends of the boats so bulbous?” To answer that, let’s fire up the Way-back machine and take a walk down memory lane…
Fall seems to have come on quickly in New Hampshire this year. The maples around the shop and along the rivers are turning fiery yellows and reds. There’s a chill in the air and the fall rains have returned. The rivers a coming up a bit. And I’m thinking forward to winter and trying to prepare for it.
In 2005, I was in the process of finishing up a master’s degree in Geology, was feeling a bit burned out on school, and wanted to take some time- maybe a year- to travel and paddle. I bought a 1994 Airstream B190, a vehicle I’ve heard (accurately) described as “The ugliest and best camper van ever made.” I never looked back, and ended up spending about four months a year in the van and traveling the country paddling for the next seven or eight years.
No, not making canoes. More days than not, I enjoy making canoes. I enjoy the challenges of it, of trying to continuously improve what I do. I enjoy the act of creating something physical. I enjoy seeing people enjoy the fruits of my labor. And paddling them of course. What I hate doing, but I’ve come to terms with, and I’m doing in the “rip the bandaid off as fast as possible” manner is this: I need to raise prices.
Here in New Hampshire this time of year, our namesake bug is giving way to mosquitos, which means summer is setting in. We’ve had a great spring for paddling, and it’s showing little sign of letting up as we move into summer. Just this week, I got on one of my favorite local creeks, the South Branch of the Baker. It’s a real treat to get this one when it’s warm and leaves are on the trees.
High flows and warm temperatures made it seem like a good idea to start our local weekly totally-not-serious race series on the Winnipesaukee., which is mostly an excuse to get together and bomb down the river a few times.
On the production side, things are cranking right along too. I’ve got a good stock of boats put together and ready to go out, and big pile waiting to get assembled. Everything listed on the website is in stock. With good water, and plenty of work to keep me busy, it’s a good place to be right now.
But the road is calling my name. When I started Blackfly, part of the motivation was to help fund my habit of traveling to paddle. Now days, Blackfly is the reason for my travels to paddle. I flew out to Colorado for Paddlefest in Buena Vista at the end of last month. It’s been a few years since I’ve been to Paddlefest, and it was good to catch up with a lot of old friends I haven’t seen in a while. Even better was to get some new people in modern canoes and get them stoked on what we’ve been doing in an area where a lot of people still haven’t seen them.
And in another two short weeks, I’ll be hitting the road again. First stop will be the Deerfield River Festival in Massachusetts, June 23-25th. From there, we’ll shoot all the way out to Methow Valley, Washington, for the inaugural Northwest Kanu Fest, June 30-4th, then swing down through Hood River, OR for a few days. Then back to Colorado for the 4th year of Colorado Kanu Fest in Buena Vista, starting July 8th. And along the way, the goal will be to paddle every day. It’s a tough job and a lot of miles, but someone’s gotta do it, it might as well be me.
Of course, we’ll be delivering boats along the way. I’ve added delivery for these events as a shipping option on the online checkout. With boats in stock, I’ll be taking orders up until June 22.
The flip side is, I’ll be on the road for three weeks, so if you want a boat shipped to you, you also need to order before then. All orders placed while I’m on the road will be shipped out after I return in mid-July.
But for now, I’ve got to get back to work.
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.