Canoe Chronicles: Seven Tips for Safer, Happier Boating

Lake Raven at Huntsville State Park.
Lake Raven at Huntsville State Park. Photo by Jeff Balke
This is part three of an ongoing series of posts about my purchase of a canoe during the pandemic.

In case you missed them, part one of this series was about locating a canoe during the pandemic, something that was easier said than done. Part two was about managing to find a storage spot without killing myself or ending my marriage.

This time around, my goal is a little different. Instead of just telling you what I did — in this case, my wife and I actually got the damn boat in the water — I wanted to provide some lessons learned thus far in my journey, some of which I gleaned years before I had a canoe and others I've figured out along the way.

State Regulations

The state regulates canoes and other personal watercraft a little different from boats. You do not need to register canoes or add running lights unless you intend to have it out at night. However, you must have personal floatation devices (i.e. life jackets) in the boat that fit each person at all times. Failure will result in fines. Even more critically, if you cannot swim, keep a vest on you at all times when you are on the water.

Additionally, there are lots of beautiful national and state parks that encourage canoeing and kayaking, most of which allow only trolling or very small outboard motors (more on that below). But be sure to check with the park to see if there are restrictions and, more importantly, if they require reservations. Our first trip out was nearly aborted because we didn't make reservations at the state park we wanted to try.

Rock the Boat, Don't Tip the Boat Over

When you first start, take it easy. Balance is critical in canoes. Always put your feet in the middle when getting in and keep your weight close to the middle of the boat as much as possible, lest you go for an unintended swim. Generally, you need to move cautiously in canoes and try to make deliberate movements. Most beginner models don't tip easily, but they will tip if you aren't careful.

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The far north end of Lake Conroe inside the Sam Houston National Forest is an ideal spot for a quiet trip.
Photo by Catherine Matusow
Finding Good Launch Points (canoe websites, Google maps)

There are loads of great spots to launch, even in places you might not expect like bayous and creeks you may otherwise think aren't accessible. has an outstanding map of launch points, many of which have suggestions on how best to get there, where to park, etc. And the Houston Canoe Club website has loads of information on spots around the Houston area — there are far more than you might think — as well as what to expect and who to speak to if you want a guided tour.

Surprisingly, the photo above was taken after my wife and I found ourselves unable to launch at Huntsville State Park because of a lack of reservation. I searched Google Maps inside the Sam Houston National Forest at the far north end of Lake Conroe. Sure enough, there was a green map icon for a canoe launch next to an old bridge that was no longer in use. It turned out to be an absolutely beautiful, quiet float south towards the mouth of the lake.

Knowing When to Row and When to Go

Because you have to handle your boat with just your person strength, you should make note of weather and water conditions by checking weather apps and some of the aforementioned websites. The last thing you want is to be out on a lake when a thunderstorm shows up or as a cool front blows through (we wish) and forces you to attempt to paddle against a stiff breeze, which can also stir up some rough water.

This is especially true if you plan to paddle in any larger body of water more susceptible to the elements. Sticking relatively close to land as much as possible is a good rule of thumb. You may not WANT to walk your canoe back to your launch (in the next installment, you'll get to hear how that nonsense works!), but it can sometimes be necessary if you aren't careful.

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Seeings sights like this Great Blue Heron close up is one of the wonders of boating.
Photo by Catherine Matusow
Keep Your Eyes Open...For All the Best Reasons

One of the most enjoyable parts of getting in the boat is the ability to see things from a perspective most of us rarely do. Whether that is a river or creek running through an urban area or a vast stretch of nature, there are always loads of things to see. Bird watchers will find a particular paradise from the vantage of the water. All types of water fowl including this Great Blue Heron pictured above abound. And because there is no motor, birds will often allow you to come relatively close before flying off.

Make note, nature photographers. It's pretty much a wonderland.

Prepare For the Heat

Besides the aforementioned issues with wind and rain, don't forget the Texas heat. As we approach autumn, that will be less of an issue, but for now, it's rough out there. Still, if you use sunscreen and bring plenty of water, you'll be fine. Also, in many spots, depending on the time of day, you can paddle near the shore and find shade in the tree line. This is particularly true of late afternoons on Ladybird Lake in Austin where the high bluffs shield you from the sun.

Plus, canoes are certainly big enough for an ice chest. Who doesn't want a cold beverage on a hot day on the boat?

Beware Motorboats

As we have all seen from the sunken boats during the Trump boat rally on Lake Travis, motorboat wake is absolutely no joke. As a kid, fishing with my father, he and his fellow anglers were routinely angered by speed boats passing dangerously close to vessels much smaller. We watched boats inundated by water from water skiers and all mode of powerful watercraft.

This is why it is best to avoid areas that could become crowded with motorboats. Canoes are no match for the waves generated by those boats and, unfortunately, no everyone who operates them does so with courtesy and safety. Best just to avoid them at all costs.


The good news is there are plenty of great places to put your boat in the water. In addition to the creeks on the north end of Lake Conroe and Raven Lake in Huntsville State Park, we've gotten a chance to try quite a few great spots in and around Houston including Buffalo Bayou, where we had a rather harrowing experience. More on that in installment four...
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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke