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.
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.