The Haw River Paddler


Sometimes if you stand on the bottom rail of a bridge and lean over to watch the river slipping away beneath you, you will suddenly know everything there is to be known.” Winnie The Pooh


If you have never canoed or kayaked, what are you waiting for? Why do other people go paddling and you don’t?

In the 1980s President Ronald Reagan created the Commission on Outdoor Recreation Resources. The purpose of the Commission was to survey and record how and how much Americans were using the out of doors for recreation. The final report documented that over 20% of all Americans had canoed, kayaked and/or rafted at least once in their lives and that 5% owned a paddle craft. It seems that much of our youth is introduced to paddling through scouting, church camps, city and county recreation programs, conservation organizations, paddling clubs and local outfitters.

I got my start on a floating telephone pole in the Mississippi River. I grew up in New Orleans four blocks from the river. To get to the river, I had to cross a railroad switching yard, climb over the levee and wade through a forested wetland between the levee and river. At night I would listen to the sound of tug boats as they moved barges and ships up and down the river. When the river was at flood stage, I could stand in our street and see ships passing by our neighborhood that were taller than the houses in which we lived. Of course all of my friends and I were forbidden to go to the river. Our parents were concerned that if we made it across the railroad tracks we would surely drown in the muddy Mississippi River.

In 1956 when I was 10 years old, one of my friends, Willamena Williams, and her family moved to the other side of the Mississippi River. The very next day I decided I would go visit her when I saw a telephone pole floating in the river. Near the pole was a floating board I decided I would use as a paddle. I didn’t think about how I would explain to my parents why I was wet or where I had gone. At New Orleans, the river is about one mile wide. I guess I got maybe 20 feet out into the current before it swept me away. Several miles down river I was finally able to get the telephone pole back to the levee where I could stand up. I called home from a pay phone, and my father picked me up. The next week, dad had enrolled me in a paddling class, and I have been paddling ever since. Wow, what a gift he gave to me. It was worth the scolding I got.

Some people paddle canoes, others paddle kayaks and some paddle both. They paddle for many reasons. Paddling can be great exercise, but not what you think. Good technique involves the core muscles and doesn’t rely on arm strength. In fact, whether you are paddling a canoe or a kayak, the key is what paddlers refer to as the paddler’s box. The box is made up of your arms, shoulders and the shaft of the paddle. Ideally, you don’t break the box which means you don’t bend at the elbows or at least not a lot. The movement requires you to rotate your body using the muscles on both your front and back rather than relying on the small muscle mass of your arms. If you feel aches and pain at the end of a paddle it is because you are not using proper paddling technique.

We are social creatures, and paddling with a group of friends or family members is a wonderful way to have some special time together; something different and unique, something out of the ordinary. When we can share something we love with those we love, it makes it all that more wonderful.

Other people paddle to relax, to get away from it all. I like to say that civilization is a wonderful thing, but it comes with a very high price; the price of insanity. Getting out on the water is one way to leave the sounds and pressures of society behind you as you retune your natural biological rhythms to the rhythms of the earth. Being out in Nature is a way to reconnect your senses to what matters in life by cleaning the mind of unnecessary and negative inputs. “The wonders and blessings of nature offer a beautiful balance to our metal, concrete and plastic world. Earth, sky, and water, moment by moment, offer their renewing and healing energies for our bodies, minds, and spirits” L.Richard Batzler.