"Again" Eric exclaimed.
Pacey steered the canoe around, and we paddled back out to the buoy to try again.
The sun continued its descent as darkness threatened to envelop the lake. We'd been out here almost two hours now, running maneuver after maneuver, working to prove that we were skilled paddlers ready to teach beginners. Pacey was getting frustrated as we kept blundering the landing exercise.
I was having the time of my life.
Two days prior, my erstwhile classmates and I awaited the Eagle along the pier at Shoal Lake First Nation. Most of the group had beaten me to the launch. There were Yvonne and Colin, long time Paddle Manitoba members (and former Ripple Editor), along with two-thirds of their troop of Scouts, George and Adam; Lou, eagerly sharing his bag of cherries; and Kira, a mildly famous member of the recent "Know the North" expedition.
In short order, the third Scout, Pacey, arrived; followed by Scott the paddling neophyte; and then, finally, the Eagle. We made quick work of loading up the Eagle, and in no time we were planing across Shoal Lake en route to Manitoba Pioneer Camp.
As a green member of Paddle Manitoba, and yet a greener board member, I applied to Canoe School to get a better understanding of the services that we provide to our membership, to learn how we encourage and empower new paddlers, and to get a feel for our community. What followed were four intensive days of paddling, study, practice, and enlightenment.
Sharon holds down the fort
While I was here to become an instructor, others were there to learn new skills. On offer: Introductory Tandem Lakefront, Introductory Solo Lakefront, and Advanced Solo Lakefront.
Manitoba Pioneer Camp provides an ideal learning environment for paddling. Situated, ironically, on an island of Ontario’s Shoal Lake, its moon-shaped harbour is host to a large pier and beach. Both the shape and direction of the harbour protect it from prevailing winds, allowing for calmer waters in which to practice.
Arriving at the Camp, we were quickly introduced to our bunk-house accommodations, and then all of the Canoe School participants went out for a brief paddle together before the sunset. Here I met the rest of my Instructor candidate cohorts, Anne, Kate, and Nathan – all counselors at MPC, looking for their certification in order to be teach the canoe program at camp over the summer. Charles, Eric, Jeremiah, and Sharon introduced themselves to the group and gave us the low-down on how the weekend would run. The sun set early, as it does in late May, and we returned to the dock and the warmth of Camp.
Having been placed in the men's cabin I found myself as one amongst a flock of keeners. Despite its optional nature, each of us proved eager to attend the early-bird paddle shortly after sunrise each day at 7:00 am. These brisk morning paddles gave us the opportunity to get to know each other better and to work on or learn new skills.
From there, our days were consistent. Up before 7:00 am for the aforementioned paddle; breakfast in the mess hall (with baked oatmeal, as a personal highlight – it was a revelation); then we would teach. Teach each other that is.
This is the most important, and valuable part of Canoe School for the Instructor Candidates. We'd each been assigned two lesson topics to prepare for and deliver during the weekend; one theory, and one skills demonstration with on-the-water practice. (For example, I presented on day tripping as my theory lesson, and reverse lines as my skills demonstration.) After each lesson, we deconstructed the presentation as a group. The Instructor Trainers would lead, followed by each Instructor Candidate offering their feedback. The focus here was on method and engagement over content. This is where the real learning happens for Instructor Candidates. It can be disheartening, depending on your temperament, to hear from your peers that they think you could’ve done this or that differently or better, but if you’re open to the feedback and work on it, it makes you a better instructor.
On the flip side, as an observer of the lessons, you are also working on identifying challenges in other’s lessons and how to frame your feedback so that it is respectful and helpful to the candidate. An invaluable skill to have as an instructor.
By Saturday afternoon we reached the presentation of Intermediate Tandem topics, skills that some of us were learning for the first time, skills that we would later need to show that we were fully capable of executing. These included running sideslip, and running inside & outside landings. We spent quite a bit of time practicing them to get them right, foreshadowing our late evening of running drills.
Later in the day, the Instructor Candidates split out into two groups to work on creating lesson plans for the next day. We were the guinea pigs for Canoe School’s inaugural season of having Instructor Candidates deliver the Canoe Basic clinic to some of the paddling novices who made up MPC’s work-weekend crew.
For most, the exercise of creating our own lesson plan veered into the realm of “too many cooks in the kitchen” and led to more frustration than anything else. For me, I appreciate the opportunity to collaborate with a group like this and to work towards a final product that reflects what we’ve each learned from the weekend.
Working out lesson plans
After an hour of back-and-forth, each group had its lesson plans prepared for the next day, and individually we worked on preparing our own lessons for presentation.
Later, after dinner, we returned to the water to run our drills, a veritable proving ground for the Instructor Candidates. By the time Pacey and I racked our canoe for the evening, I'd sacrificed my cedar Ottertail paddle during a failed landing, snapping it in two, but stopping the canoe just short of a collision with the dock. The sun found its bed before we did, but we got to the end, successful and exhausted.
Sunday was our big day - our first opportunity to actually teach paddling to beginners. We began our day the same as all the others - the early bird paddle followed by breakfast. Then, before sending us to the dogs, Charles and Jeremiah acted as our faux-neophytes so that we could have one run through of our lesson plan before we took the stage.
Over lunch, our groups stuck together discussing how the morning went and tweaking our plans based on our successes and failures.
All meals come with a side of Homily
It was time to teach. Pioneer Camp was hosting a "Work weekend," meaning that there were many MPC community members on site working to get the camp ready for its first guests of the season. From these folks, Canoe School had identified eight never-paddlers to be the guinea pigs during our first foray into teaching.
From the perspective of my group, our first experience went fairly well. We executed our lesson plans well. And we learned. We learned what not to do. We learned that things go wrong. We learned that it's not easy.
With people who've never paddled before, it can be difficult to get them situated in a boat. It can be difficult to get them to paddle to your position on the water, and it can be difficult to get them to stay together.
My team got to experience two challenging students: one who remained committed to 1940s-ish paddling practices; and one who had no trouble doing a j-stroke, but somehow couldn't paddle without doing a j-stroke, and therefore kept paddling in circles to the on-side, rather than the off-side.
For both, this meant that we got invaluable experience in "detection and correction," and a true appreciation of Eric's quote of the day: "Smooth is fast, fast is smooth." In both of these cases (and many others, I've since learned), slowing both participants down to focus on technique and to break down the components of each stroke we can expose the "mistake" they're making and work on correcting the practice.
Later that night, long after the course had ended and we'd all debriefed on our experience it was time to prepare the capstone to Canoe School - the Canoe Rodeo. As Instructor Teams, we each prepared a Canoe Rodeo course diagram, which the Instructor Trainers would choose from for the event. The Canoe Rodeo is something of a race, combined with a skills component. Ours was a combination of maneuvers - side slipping, in-place pivots, reverse lines, running landings, etc. The actual rodeo course even had a canoe-over-canoe rescue component.
The Canoe Rodeo is the highlight of the weekend, as all the camp counsellors, canoe school participants and many of the work weekend group come to watch or participate (participation is open to anyone).
Unexpectedly, the Rodeo was my next opportunity to teach. Standing in line for my chance at a run, I didn't have a partner and was considering joining those running the event solo. Meanwhile, a young man from camp named Clyde was trying very hard to get a partner but kept getting turned down. Everyone was very competitive about their chances, and Clyde didn't have the skills that the others were banking on. I asked Clyde if he wanted to be my partner, and he agreed.
Together we stepped out of the line to watch the next few contestants run the course. I talked him through what everyone was doing during each stage and asked him what strokes he knew that could accomplish the same thing. The third time through we talked about what we'd tell each other at each step to communicate what to do, and then we got back in line.
When the time came, everyone seemed very excited to watch Clyde go. We agreed he'd take the bow, so on the ready-set-go, I stabilized the canoe while he rushed to the bow seat. I pushed us off, and we began.
"Ok, stop!", I yelled after just a few strokes, to ensure that we would stop just before the dock ahead of us. "Now, draw."
Clyde began to draw in the bow as I ran a skulling pry in the stern, starting the slide slip to carry us to the end of the dock.
"You keep drawing, Clyde," I said as I began a draw myself to pivot us 180°. "Reverse!"
And so we did, sliding backwards along the dock and out into the bay. Shortly, we would execute another pivot, a running side-slip and so-on. As it became clear that we might actually complete the course, camp folk started cheering for Clyde.
We did complete the course. It wasn't pretty, and it wasn't smooth, but we executed all of the maneuvers.
Charles directing the Rodeo
Everyone comes out to watch