Canoe paddles propel us across the lakes and down the rivers of Middle Earth but they also hang in university dorm rooms and are proudly displayed above mantles, reminding us of adventures past. Canoe paddles are woodsmen’s tools and scholars’ art, they are swords of freedom and portals into memories of the past.
Where do you buy such a mythical thing? Our paddle buyer’s directory introduces you to the makers—from large companies with magical worldwide distribution to the garage-based wizards in your shire. Before you delve into our directory or speak with your local peddler, your first step in buying a paddle is to determine the size you require and type of magic you wish it to perform.
Sizing Your Sword
Choosing the correct paddle size can be as simple as walking up to a rack and finding the one that stands to between your chin and your nose. This old camp standby is a good rule of thumb for sizing your first paddle.
Other paddlers spend their lifetimes working out complex equations, calculating such variables as torso and arm length, shaft diameter and shape, curve of the blade, activity type, seat style and height above the water. Granted these are all valid considerations, but the ultimate deciding factor is usually personal preference developed after a few adventures.
Types of Paddle Magic
Recreational canoe paddles are general-purpose tools made of inexpensive materials such as aluminum, plastic and cheaper woods. Wood recreational paddles often come in the same blade shapes as lakewater tripping paddles. Aluminum and plastic paddles come in a variety of shapes and are inexpensive and very durable. In either case, what you save in cost you give up in performance and aesthetic appeal. When was the last time you saw a plastic paddle hanging over a fireplace?
Traditional designs such as ottertail, beavertail and voyageur have long, narrow blades for smooth, repetitive strokes on deep, flat water. They are most often made of wood, for tradition and aesthetics more than any other reason. One-piece or laminated paddles made of woods such as ash, cherry, mahogany, maple, walnut and poplar offer lightness and beauty finely crafted into wonderful shapes. Wood paddles require a bit of care. Dents and scrapes at the end of the blade should be sanded and varnished or oiled to prevent splitting.
Whitewater paddles generally have short, square blades for quick and powerful strokes in aerated, shallow water. Whitewater blades are most commonly flat or spooned to “catch” more water and built tough to withstand abuse. They can be made of wood, fibreglass, carbon or Kevlar with metal or resin-reinforced tips. While other paddle types have a variety of contoured grip shapes such as pear grips, whitewater paddles usually have T-shaped grips for leverage and a precise, secure feel.
Performance canoe paddles are built for speed and often used in racing or fitness paddling. Weight and efficiency are more important than price, allowing manufacturers to use more expensive materials, such as carbon and Kevlar, and experiment with a variety of blade shapes. Bent-shaft designs set the blade at a slight forward angle to help keep it vertical through the most powerful portion of the stroke. When the clock is ticking, every little bit helps.
This article first appeared in the Summer 2004 issue of Canoeroots Magazine. For more great content, subscribe to Canoeroots’ print and digital editions here.