Canoeing in the Bitterroot Valley

of western Montana

The rivers and lakes that grace western Montana are ribbons and pools of life. So far from the ocean, it's strange, but comforting to know that there is so much water around us. And with a little skill, we can enjoy that water in a truly amazing way by floating along in a canoe.


A canoe is perhaps the simplest, most pure water vessel ever invented. It has no motor, no moving parts, but can tackle an array of water bodies. Around here, those bodies include rivers and lakes such as the Bitterroot River and Lake Como. If you're new to the area or new to paddling, why not try canoeing?

But where do you find one of these things? Well, there is a good chance a neighbor has one leaning against the barn; ask if you can join them on a paddle some time. You can also find canoes to rent from resorts and guest cabins near Lake Como, which is just outside of Hamilton. Also, there are paddling and outdoor shops that will sometimes allow you to demo a canoe before you buy one.

If you've never canoed before, it's best to start on a lake. Even a flat river, one without rapids, like the Bitterroot can be tricky. Canoes are a bit if you're unfamiliar with them and it's best to practice on easy water. Canoes can be paddled solo, but many are designed to be paddled by two people, a stern paddler and a bow paddler. The paddler in the stern, or back, is the person in charge of steering the boat. It's best to put the more experienced person back there. When you first step in, make sure you move about keeping your weight, or center of gravity, low. Let one person get settled before the other climbs in.

Once you have shoved off, the stern paddler should call the shots and make sure that each paddler is paddling on opposite sides of the boat. That helps stabilize the boat and avoid that tippy feeling. The reason the boat feels like it could dump to one side is because it has a keel, the spine on the bottom that helps the boat track, or move strait through the water. Coordinate your strokes and you'll be amazed at how smoothly and quickly you can move across the water!

When you're ready, you can dip your paddle into the Bitterroot but be warned, paddling on moving water is very different than moving on still water. Even calm and flat water is tricky. But as you paddle in rivers, you'll learn to use the force of the moving water to your advantage, helping you move quickly and safely across the current. Learning can be instinctive to some, but many benefit from a paddling lesson from a friend or instructor, of which there are a few in the Bitterroot Valley.

Learning to canoe is something everyone can do, and paddling is a sport for all ages. But mastery can take a lifetime! The benefits of canoeing are too numerous to list, but those that attract so many people include the ability to go places hikers and bikers can't, to travel away from roads and trails into some of the areas' most scenic and wild territory while never venturing too far from home, unless you want to. Even an afternoon floating the calm Bitterroot River can lead you away from the highway and homes to a place that looks much like it did 200 years ago, with deer and birds all around.

And as with any outdoor pursuit, learning how to do it safely can mean years of fun and adventure. Always wear a life jacket when paddling rivers, and don't try anything you're not ready for, know what you're getting into before you shove off. And don't forget the binoculars!

Discover Montana Bitterroot Valley Activities, Sports and Things To Do
Camping in the Bitterroot | Canoeing in the Bitterroot | Conservation in the Bitterroot | Cross Country Skiing in the Bitterroot
Downhill Skiing in the Bitterroot | Farmers Market in the Bitterroot | Fly Fishing in the Bitterroot
Hiking in the Bitterroot | Horse Care in the Bitterroot | Hunting in the Bitterroot
Look outs in the Bitterroot | Wildlife Watching in the Bitterroot

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