January was a big month for Jimmy Carter. For one thing, he made the cover of "Canoe" magazine.

In the paddlers' world - and the 39th President is a part of that world - this is a substantial honor. Being elected president helped, but like other "Canoe" cover paddlers, Carter also demonstrated some water skills.

He is primarily a canoeist, but he also kayaks and rafts. Georgia has some marvelous white and flat water rivers, and going paddling is at least as natural as choosing up sides for softball.

The magazine cover shows the familiar Carter grin, but his hair is a watersoaked and sun-dried tangle, and he's almost lost inside a monstrously loose paddling jacket. But happy as a Georgia muskrat with a fresh catfish.

Carter can continue paddling during his stay in Washington, and right in his own backyard. The Potomac, the River of Presidents, has some white water stretches that match his native state's Chattooga.

Or, he can do like many other winter paddlers and stay in the upstairs sitting room and take his adventure through the pages of one of the paddling magazines.

For this story is really about the magazines, not about a paddling president.

"Canoe" is the official organ of the American Canoe Association, and it is the stuff of dreams for the nation's paddlers who can't get to the Back River of northern Canada or handle the whitewater of the upper Yough in Pennsylvania but want to know how it would be if they were there.

It covers paddling in all of the states and American paddlers all over the world. Last year it began an epic series of articles on the paddlable rivers of each state and started with, of all places, Nebraska.

No doubt every state has its crusing water, and canoe crusing is what dominates "canoe" magazine. "Canoe" does cover paddling across the board, but the whitewater-only paddlers and the avid racers will find more of their thing in "Down River" and "American Whitewater," magazines that are coming along but haven't arrived the way "Canoe" has.

The average "Canoe" reader is something like the new president - male, married with children, in the comforable income brackets, a paddler - mostly canoe - but a general outdoors-man.

He get what he wants. In the current issue (February on the cover; January-February inside) he gets an authoritative guide to paddling in Texas. Since the "Canoe" reader is also an equipment nut (note to Amy: Your father can use a new paddling jacket for his birthday), the current issue gives a detailed rundown on what's needed for wilderness canoe trips. The kayakers - or the canoers who envy the maneuverability and survivability of the covered boat - can read how to Eskimo roll. The magazine has a number of excellent color pictures.

There are a few pages, too, of news of American Canoe Association activities, written by Washington paddler Jean Goertner.

The personal-experience story is common fare in paddling magazines and, by and large, "Canoe" and "American Whitewater" do it best. The "Canoe" authors in particular avoid the overstated tale of terror that makes paddling sound like a death-defying sport - which it should not be and almost never is for the good paddler.

As a test, I read about two rivers familiar to me - the Nolichucky, as it flows from North Carolina into Tennessee, and the Chattooga, where it forms the Georgia/South Carolina border.

The Nolichucky article in a recent "Down River" magazine was so hyped with artificial excitement that it was nearly unrecognizable. But the Chattooga, in several "Canoe" articles in the last few years, was pictured realistically - its danger spots, scenic areas and paddlable sections all described for the boater who sincerely wants to know what it's like.

"Down River" appeals more to the younger, daring whitewater paddler than to the quiet cruiser. It includes rafting articles, which "Canoe" does not. If the typical "Down River" reader doesn't have a kayak - in addition to his canoe - he will miss a lot in the magazine. And if he doesn't race or follow the racers, he will miss most of the rest.

"Down River" ought to improve and expand, given time, because its editor, Eric Evans, is a most accomplished and respected paddler who should attract the best material from the racing and whitewater writers.

The serious heavy whitewater paddlers read "American Whitewater," the journal of the American Whitewater," the journal of the American Whitewater Affiliation, an association of boating clubs and individuals. While the magazine appeals to the rapid-runner - canoe, kayak and raft - it is in no way a friend of the daredevil paddler, however.

In fact, "American Whitewater" carries the best articles on river safety of any paddling magazine. They tend to be highly detailed and technical - on that is what its readers need. A recent issue carried detailed descriptions of six possible routes to run one rapid on the Colorado River. (The sixth route, incidentally, was to walk around - "Extremely safe. Very little pride is lost after looking at the rapid.")

The equipment articles in "Canoe" are particularly valuable. The analyses and ratings of boats, paddles, helmets, life jackets provide the "Consumer Reports" of the paddling world.

Starting with the current issue, incidentally, the First Paddler will have White House delivery on his "Canoe" magazine.