Keeping your canoe moving downstream is easy on the streams of the upper Meramec region. You just have to keep the boat pointed in the way you want to go, and let the river do the work. Yet, experience has shown this is not as simple as it appears.
The trick is to get a good start: make sure that the person sitting in the front has enough leg room. (Last summer a friend of ours spent her first float paddling the bow position in a reversed canoe. She had 4 inches of leg room for the trip, and not a very good time.) Generally the person in the front paddles straight forward and the one in the stern also provides forward oomph, but is responsible for steering and not tipping.
We might as well face one big issue right off - keeping the canoe steered property can be a source of friction in relationships, platonic or otherwise. Floating can be as challenging as hanging wallpaper. While each couple will have to figure their own way of getting downstream, we suggest that the person in the back worry about the steering and the bow paddler try to provide gentle reminders that a rock or whatever is dead ahead. The bow person makes the best lookout.
The forward stroke is the same for both bow and stern paddlers. Of course there's all kinds of fancy techniques you can learn, but you should know that the upper hand on the paddle grips the handle on top, and does not hold the thing like it was a golf club. The lower arm, holding the paddle's throat - does most of the work, so you might switch paddling sides once in a while to keep both arms evenly exercised.
To turn the canoe, the stern paddler can do one of two things. He or she can do a forward sweep stroke which will turn the canoe toward the side opposite you're paddling on. To do this stroke, you reach the paddle out in front, but instead of pulling it down alongside the canoe, you reach out the blade in the water, making a 'C' shape as if stirring a huge kettle of apple butter. Pull the paddle in as far behind you as you stuck it out in front, then lift it out and do another if necessary.
A quicker way of turning is the reverse sweep. It is based on that same 'C' shape in the water, but do it backwards, so the paddle is moved toward the bow. The stroke, if done with a fair amount of force, is usually so powerful that it's necessary to do only halfway. Just take the paddle out of the water when your arm holding the throat of the paddle is fully extended in the middle of the stroke. It's best to use these reverse sweeps when a quick turn is necessary.
Even on straight stretches of river, keeping the canoe going straight isn't a simple matter. The easiest way to go straight is for the two floaters to have their paddles on opposite sides of the canoe and both paddle straight ahead. If you just paddle like that, the canoe ends up going off to one side, right? Okay, to prevent this, the stern person should do the 'J' stroke every second or third stroke. This is probably the trickiest stroke to pick up: you do about three-quarters of a normal stroke, then instead of bringing the paddle straight back, you give the blade a one-quarter turn outward to put a tiny reverse sweep on the end of the stroke. That makes the hook of the 'J'. It'll take a bit of practice to get this one. If you are too frustrated and can't seem to see how the 'J' stroke works, you can always both switch paddling sides every five or six strokes. But that's a hassle.
The only other stroke the sternperson must know is the backwater. It's simply paddling backwards. It will stop you, but not on a dime. So if you do have to stop, it may be best to hop out - making sure the water's not too deep - and hold onto the pointer (the line tied to the stern or bow) so the canoe doesn't go off without you.
The one special stroke the bow person should know is the 'draw stroke' or 'pull-to'. Both names describe it well: you stick the paddle deep in the water as for out directly opposite from you as you can. Then pull it in, mainly with the lower arm, to you. The draw stroke takes you towards the side you do it on. You'll need to do left or right draws when rocks or riffles or trees come up. The stroke moves the bow over quickly but does not turn the stern as well, so the person in back had best be ready to also do a draw stroke, or a sweep, when the person in the bow finds it necessary to do this maneuvering.