Much of the confusion surrounding the paddling method comes from overlapping names of other strokes, especially since it shares many similarities to "the Canadian", "The Knifing-J", and even sometimes, the "Indian Stroke". Whatever the name, it is an efficient but little known method of propulsion that uses leverage and timing instead of brute force to power the canoe. It features a short power phase, rapid cadence, and use of abdominal muscles more so than "arm paddling" used by many paddlers. Early writings describing the paddling technique of natives mention a similar short, choppy stroke which powered the canoe rather effortlessly for long distances.
It seems logical that the inspiration for this technique would therefore originate with native peoples powering their canoes while kneeling on the bottom of their hulls. One of the earliest published writings which loosely describes the stroke is found in Robert E. Pinkerton's The Canoe: Its Selection, Care and Use (published 1914). This little gem, complete with wonderful photos shows the author in various paddling positions. The Toronto Reference Library has a copy of this classic in their archives and during a visit, I photocopied this picture which shows the kneeling stance of what the author calls "The Indian's Position"
The photo also clearly shows the upper hand, which is not gripping the top of the paddle but laid against the shaft in a much more natural position. Here are some select quotes from Chapter IV describing the reasoning and mechanics of the stroke...
"The usual stroke of the amateur canoeist is a long, slow pull with a slow, sweeping recovery. In the north woods, where the canoe is best understood, this stroke is never seen. The stroke is shorter, the recovery like lightning, and nearly two strokes are taken to the amateur's one.After coming back from the library and doing a search of used bookstores to see if this classic was available to order, I found out that it is available online in its entirety thanks to the generosity of The Wooden Canoe Heritage Association.
A day's journey will demonstrate the superiority of the woodsman's methods. His quick recovery almost eliminates that loss of momentum which is so hard to overcome and which is a continual drag on the energy of the slow-stroked paddler. The canoe maintains its headway, and greater results are accomplished for the energy expended.
The woodsman devotes his strength to the first of the stroke. The power diminishes rapidly when the paddle reaches his side, and the stroke is terminated quickly after it has passed. To continue the stroke as far back as one can reach necessitates a sharp inclination of the paddle. Any force expended upon the paddle when it is so inclined serves to pull the paddle up through the water more than to push it backward. The result on the canoe is to force or pull down the stern rather than to add to the forward motion. Not only is energy diverted from propulsion, but the upward lift on the paddle forces the stern more deeply into the water, thereby causing a greater drag on the canoe.
The quick, short stroke has another advantage which saves time and energy. With the proper paddle, the spring of the blade itself is sufficient to shoot the paddle forward for the next stroke with but little effort on the part of the paddler. To do this, the lower hand should be rigid at the end of the stroke, and there should be a slight, quick addition of power just before the paddle leaves the water."