Alberta Cancer Foundation

4 Paddling Sports to Try

Lynda Roberts first tried paddling in 1984. Now, as manager of the Calgary Canoe Club, a non-profit that provides training in paddling disciplines, she is still drawn to the water. “I think paddling is so much more than a workout,” she says. “You’re getting outside, there’s preparation and planning involved, and there’s an element of adventure, no matter what paddling discipline you choose.”

Paddling is a low-impact sport that challenges the body’s cardiovascular system and improves muscular strength and endurance — and not just in the upper body. Roberts says the stabilization and balance paddling requires works the lower body and the core muscles. Here, Roberts shares her tips for four popular paddling sports to try.

Illustration by Andrew Benson.


Why Try It Canoeing is a sport the whole family can enjoy together. The boat’s larger size means that kids can sit between the stern and bow seats during a trip. Roberts says that canoeing is also a great way to introduce kids to water safety as well as basic strokes that can be applied to all paddling sports.

Expert Tip “If you’ve never canoed before, a lesson will come in handy,” says Roberts. “You’ll learn how to
stabilize a canoe, balance
and steer it.”

Where to Canoe Calgary’s Glenmore Reservoir is a controlled place for beginners to gain confidence, as the only motorized boats permitted on the water are safety boats. And if you continue paddling to the west side of the reservoir to the Elbow River and up into the Weaselhead, you’ll feel like you’re far from the city.



Why Try It Try kayaking with a friend in a tandem kayak or venture out alone in a solo kayak. Many kayaks often have foot pedals to help with steering, so you’re not only relying on your paddle to direct your vessel through the water.

Expert Tip “Posture is important with every form of paddling, but it’s especially important in a kayak,” says Roberts. “With good posture, you are engaging your core muscles as opposed to just paddling using your arms. You won’t fatigue as quickly that way, because now you’re using the bigger muscles in your trunk.”

Where to Kayak Roberts recommends beginners avoid fast-flowing rivers where steering and balance can be tricky. Instead, get that sense of outdoor adventure by kayaking in lakes in Central Alberta, like Buffalo Lake, Gull Lake and Sylvan Lake.

Illustration by Andrew Benson.

 Stand-Up Paddleboarding

Why Try It Stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) is a full-body workout that’s similar to surfing, but easier to master. The goal is to propel yourself with a paddle while standing and balancing on the board, which looks like a surfboard but is wider and more stable.

Expert Tip “Balance is such a huge component with SUP. You’ll be falling off [as you learn], so start off in a controlled environment where the water is calm and where it’s easier to build up the skills,” says Roberts. “It’s also really important that you can easily switch between standing and kneeling. I recommend squats and core exercises to train your body.”

Where to SUP Quarry Lake just outside of Canmore is a calm, safe spot to learn, making it a popular choice for recreational paddlers. Plus, you’ll be rewarded with incredible mountain views.


Illustration by Andrew Benson.

Dragon Boating

Why Try It Dragon boating is a team sport, typically made up of 20 paddlers, a drummer and a steersperson, and it’s all about camaraderie. It’s also a worldwide symbol of breast cancer awareness. In 1996, Vancouver-based scientist Dr. Don McKenzie formed a dragon boating team made up entirely of breast cancer survivors, and monitored the women for lymphedema, or swelling. In 1998, he published a study disproving the myth that intense, repetitive upper-body exercise was harmful to breast cancer survivors.

Expert Tip “The most important element of dragon boating is timing,” says Roberts. “If the team is out of time, it won’t be as fast or efficient. It’s essential to work together as a crew.”

Where To Dragon Boat The best way to get involved in this form of paddling is to join a team. While Roberts trains the Calgary Canoe Club crew out of the Glenmore Reservoir, she says you’ll find teams in Lethbridge and Northern Alberta paddling on Telford Lake and on the North Saskatchewan River, too.

Why Cancer survivor Gillian Rutherford loves Dragon Boating

After a year of chemotherapy and radiation, Gillian Rutherford was cancer-free and looking for a form of exercise that was both a great workout and a fun environment.

She joined Breast Friends, a dragon boat team in Edmonton specifically for breast cancer survivors, in 2008 and has been part of the team ever since. Dragon boating was physically beneficial following cancer treatment — it helped her regain strength and mobility on her right side where she’d had a lumpectomy. Now, it’s mostly the social environment that keeps Rutherford training hard.

“Following a cancer diagnosis, it’s really empowering to feel strong and meet other women who’ve been through what I’ve been through,” says Rutherford. “We don’t sit around and talk about cancer — we just work out together and support one another.”

Staying Safe on the Water

1. Take a Lesson

If you’ve never paddled before, book a lesson with an expert. “You want paddling to be a positive experience,” says Roberts. “Going in circles is not fun!”

2. Plan Ahead

Check the weather conditions ahead of time and be prepared for sudden weather changes. “Pack a windproof shell and something warmer, just in case,” says Roberts.

3. Bring the Right Supplies

Wear a personal flotation device, pack a dry bag with a cell phone and some extra clothes, and make sure you have all the required safety items. “That includes your whistle, a spare paddle and a bailer,” says Roberts.