Hackensack River Canoe & Kayak Club

paddling for over a third of a century

Adirondack Freestyle Symposium
By Clifton Taylor

July 27-31, 2003

Ever since I saw Karen Knight perform at a Mountain Man Outdoor Paddling Festival in 2001, I’ve been interested in freestyle canoeing. Freestyle canoeists explore the potential of canoeing. It is graceful, lyrical and above all, controlled paddling. Tom MacKenzie, from the Loon Works - a maker of beautiful hand-crafted wood & canvas canoes - bills the symposium that he puts together every year in the Adirondacks as “obedience classes for your canoe.” He brings together some of the finest American free-stylers to lead the symposium, which takes place near Lake Placid, NY during the last week of July. The AFS is held over three days, from Monday through Wednesday. Each morning we had skills classes according to our level of paddling ability and experience. There are six levels: Canoeing I and II, and Freestyle I, II, III and IV. Each level is offered for both solo and tandem canoeists. In the afternoons, they offered classes in related topics, such as Canadian style canoeing (Omering), flat-water rescue skills, etc. In addition, they also offered refresher courses for ACA certified instructors. Sleeping arrangements and meal service is provided by Paul Smiths College, on whose campus the AFS meets. I chose to opt out of the dorm and camped for the week at a nearby state campground, where I had an island to myself on a bucolic Adirondack Lake.

Since I’ve been paddling for several years, I signed up for Freestyle II. The first morning at the put-in, I immediately felt that this was a big mistake. First, my boat was all wrong. I live in New York City and only have room to keep one boat in my garage space. Because of this restriction, I own and paddle a Mad River Teton. This boat has served me well over many years of day trips and long canoe-camping expeditions, through glassy ponds and whitewater rapids, with and without a partner. But here, it really stuck out from the sea of perfect hand-made solo free style boats that most people were using. I was definitely outclassed in equipment! Second, it appeared that everyone in the class had been through the earlier classes and seemed to have an idea of what this class would be about. I expressed my concerns to Tom, our instructor for that first day. He was very kind and said “Let’s just see how it goes.” I also whined to my pal Robyn, who was enrolled on Freestyle III, who gave me a confidence-building lesson in jargon and a friendly nod of encouragement. I was on my way.

The class started out pretty well. I understood the concepts that Tom introduced: palm rolls (a way of keeping the paddle in the water for the recovery after a forward stroke), draws and pries. But my actions were definitely more sluggish that my classmates! After 20 minutes or so, Tom suggested that I might want to try his boat for a while, “to paddle in a boat that actually wants to do what you are asking it to do.” We swapped boats and I had two revelations. The first was as he said: everything seemed so much easier in his perfect little boat. The second came while watching him paddle my Teton. He made it look so amazingly beautiful in the water. After that, I rented a boat from Tom for the remainder of the morning classes, and loved every minute of paddling in his beautiful boat. Freestyle II covers the forward maneuvers of the sport: axles, posts, wedges and christies. We went over these maneuvers on each of the three days. The symposium is structured so that each class of students stays together as a group, while the teachers rotate among the different classes. So while we were practicing the same maneuvers every day, we did them with different instructors who had wildly different styles and thoughts about how to implement them. Sometimes they contradicted each other, which I thought was wonderful. Those differences and contradictions gave me a better understanding of the fundamentals of each maneuver.

The afternoon classes were different and a great counterpoint to the morning classes. My tandem boat turned out to be perfect for the Omering class, a Canadian style of paddling that requires the use of a tandem boat, paddled solo. For Omering, we used Canadian paddles that are narrow and longer that freestyle paddles. The emphasis was on efficiency and practical maneuverability. We practiced several dockside skills, such as sculling, and I got a real feel for the asymmetrical placement in the boat (in Omering, the paddler kneels in one corner of the boat, making the near gunnel almost ride in the water and the keel almost out of the water.) Robyn and I took the excellent class in flat-water rescue skills on Tuesday afternoon. We practiced getting into a life jacket while in the water, boat-over-boat rescue, and in-water reentry. It was wonderful to have a chance to practice in a safe and calm setting (even though the water was COLD!)

I look forward to next years symposium, and hope that more people from the club will join us!


For more information about the Adirondack Freestyle Symposium, contact:
The Loon Works/AFS
361 McFalls Circle
Anderson, SC 29621
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