I seem to put more emphasis on paying tribute to old canoe paddles than canoes. The walls in my living room, kitchen, office and even bathroom are adorned with canoe paddles. There are blades used on past trips, a few I’ve carved on my own, and some gifted to me over the years. My canoes, on the other hand, are stored on a rack in the backyard, belly up to the sun and showing off their ugly scars.
There’s no question that your canoe is crucial to the well-being of your journey. But what about the paddle? That simple flattened stick of wood is what propels you, getting you from point A to point B. An average hour of paddling adds up to a 1000 strokes, a full day will add up to over 8,000 strokes, and a week-long canoe trip will have seen the blade push through the water close to 60,000 times. For that reason alone your canoe paddle deserves to be displayed on the wall.
To some, it’s the paddle that defines the canoeist more than the canoe, or at least defines what type of paddling they do. Paddles can be made of plastic, fiberglass, aluminum, or graphite. I prefer wood. It gives the blade more character. They’re also light, well balanced, and when placed under stress, a wooden paddle bends and springs back. Spruce is good, hard maple even better. There’s also soft cherry or stiff ash. Birch and cedar are common, and butternut shows the grain of the wood like no other.
Paddles can be bent or straight. I like mine straight. I paddle the Canadian Shield the majority of time (the Northwoods as some paddlers label it). My canoe trips are made up of moderately-sized lakes, ponds, and ever-twisting rivers. It’s the Canadian stroke I use to propel the canoe forward, and a rounded, not overly wide Beaver Tail blade slices through the water with little effort. Perfect for the “Northwoods.” Most of the blade length is under the surface and less friction occurs. The rounded tip also enters the water more easily.
The Beaver Tail makes a perfect bow paddle. For stern paddling and especially solo tripping I switch to the Otter Tail design. It’s similar in design to that of the Beaver Tail but extended somewhat, has a narrower blade towards the tip, and has a shorter shaft length.
Of course, if there’s more river than lake to paddle on, then I’ll switch to a wider, squarer blade. It’s not as efficient on the Canadian stroke, especially for the long term, but it pushes a lot more water when you’re in a hurry to move the canoe.
The grip on the paddle is almost as important as the blade that enters the water. For comfort, I like the shape to be oval and tapered slightly from the throat (where the blade reaches the shaft) to the grip. This, rather than a rounded top, makes the paddle far more comfortable and maximizes its strength. Just make sure that the long axis of the oval is perpendicular to the plane of the blade. If it’s opposite to that, then the shaft will be very weak and most likely the paddle will break.