Act Now To Save Gunwale Bobbing Before It’s Gone

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Gunwale bobbing has been a staple for older generations playing on the water in canoes and is lamented by some as becoming a lost art with modern youth. This may sound a little melodramatic to those raised in a generation of careless, youthful pleasures (or those who question this generous assignment of the term “art”), but query a group of kids, teens or even outdoorsy 20-somethings about this classic canoe game and you’ll elicit a host of puzzled expressions.

“Is that, like, when you rock side-to-side and see how far you can dip the gunwales?” wondered one college outdoor adventure program student. “Is it like bobbing for apples?” guessed another.

Hey, at least give them credit for knowing what a gunwale is.

It’s not the fault of the youth. In the late ‘90s, this cherished summertime tradition simply fell out of favor in camps and school programs across the country. “It’s not a written policy,” says YMCA Wanakita Camp Director Andy Gruppe. “Gunwale bobbing is one of many things camps are just not supposed to do anymore for insurance and liability reasons.”

Gruppe says no specific incident flagged gunwale bobbing’s demise. Rather, it was singled out for how dangerous it looks, not how dangerous it actually is. “More kids probably get hurt playing Capture the Flag in a given day than gunwale bobbing in an entire summer,” he says.

There’s still time to reverse this tragic loss.

Woman standing with sign that says "Act Now Save Gunwale Bobbing"
Grassroots activism at work. Corynne McCathy educates fellow students Tom Coker and Elly Squires. | Photo: Virginia Marshall

Now a new organization wants to bring gunwale bobbing back into the toe grasp of hordes of hyperactive campers. The 62-member National Gunwale Bobbing Association (NGBA) is gradually spreading the gospel of gunwale bobbing at waterfront parks, community pools and even on street corners.

At a recent Save Gunwale Bobbing on-water event, NGBA ambassadors reported over a dozen eager kids perched astride bobbing canoes, even as protectivist parents protested from the solar-, water- and sand-shielded safety of their SUVs. “We received a score of disapproving text messages,” reported one NGBA instructor.

Hand-wringing parents aren’t the NGBA’s only worry, however. A secretive organization led by a shadowy figure known only as Gunwale Bob has been raising awareness of gunwale bobbing’s plight with less-than-legal gusto.

Infiltrating camps and posing as canoe instructors. Posting incendiary notes and photos on kids’ Facebook walls. Even demanding that hapless paddlers pass the “gunwale bob test” before leaving the dock at rental outlets in Boundary Waters, Algonquin, the Adirondacks and dozens of other popular canoeing destinations across the continent.

Canoeroots couldn’t find Gunwale Bob for comment, but an undisclosed whistleblower at his organization states, “The time for passive promotion is past.”

Meanwhile, a shrinking minority of recreational canoeists and families who never heard that gunwale bobbing is too dangerous continue to enjoy this graceful and precarious dance. Some of canoeing’s best known advocates are ardent bobbers.

“Gunwale bobbing is a canoe game we played as children—and one we still play,” write Joanie and Gary McGuffin in Paddle Your Own Canoe. In fact, the McGuffins encourage bobbing as an exercise to develop balance in a canoe.

So, what is the uncertain future of gunwale bobbing? Will the enthusiastic efforts—public or subversive—of the NGBA and Gunwale Bob resurrect this classic canoe game at children’s camps? Or will over-protective zealotry deliver it the same fate as wooden playground structures, cliff jumping, bare feet and the other regrettably forgotten but unforgettably fun pleasures of previous, more risk tolerant generations?

Act now to save gunwale bobbing. Grab a partner or go alone. Straddle bow or stern, grip the gunwales between bare toes, feel leg muscles flex and extend rhythmically. Stand up, bob and be counted.

Get gunwale bobbing

Keep the tradition alive with these fun-for-all-ages games.

Gunwale Bob Races

Two or more players

Players line up canoes side-by-side, about a canoe’s length apart. Race to the finish by standing on the stern gunwales, facing the bow, and bobbing the canoes forward.

Gunwale Bob-Off

Two players

Players stand on the gunwales at either end of the canoe, facing each other. Alternate deep-knee squats to set the canoe bobbing. See how high you can bob your opponent. The goal is to send your opponent for a swim while maintaining your own balance. For an extra challenge, wiggle the canoe side-to-side as you bob.

Volley Bob

Four or more players

Pairs of players stand on the gunwales as above. The goal is to be the canoe that bobs the longest. Make sure each canoe has plenty of space and use a moderator to see that every canoe bobs with equal vigor.

This article was first published in Canoeroots & Family Camping‘s Spring 2011 issue. Subscribe to Paddling Magazine’s print and digital editions here , or browse the archives here.

Up, down. Gunwale bobbing is an allegory for life. | Feature photo: Virginia Marshall

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