Misinformation is the weapon of many critics, and I’ve heard some real whoppers from those who thumb their noses at Greenland kayak paddles.
Chief among these myths is that the skinny Greenland blade—called a pautikby Inuit peoples, and known affectionately as a stick by modern Greenland-style paddlers—is at best an unsatisfactory compromise. The absurdly misguided theory being that the lack of robust trees and other materials in the Arctic lead Northern seal-hunters to use whatever anorexic flotsam washed up on their shores. Never mind that these are the same resourceful people who brought us one of the most complex and perfect traditional craft ever built: the kayak.
It’s time Greenland paddles got some respect. Like the kayak itself, the origins of this paddle design stem from trial and error over thousands of years, as inhabitants of extreme Arctic environments perfected their means of survival. These skinny wooden paddles co-evolved in the far northern regions of Russia, Canada and Greenland as a vital tool for roaming offshore to hunt marine mammals and birds.
My first kayak paddle was a 230-centimeter, one- piece Euro paddle with a 45-degree blade offset. Like the Euro paddles used by most modern sea and recreational kayakers, it was descended from the whitewater paddles that emerged out of Austria and Germany in the 1920s. During the first summer that I transferred my surf kayaking skills into a sea kayak, I was handed a Greenland paddle and I have been using and building them ever since. As a kayak instructor and co-founder of Ontario Greenland Camp (read about this traditional paddling training camp in the Early Summer 2012 issue, www.rapidmedia.com/0422), I’ve found that skinny sticks are better for, well, just about everything.
Myth number two amongst naysayers is that sticks deliver less power and speed than the wider spoon blades of Euro paddles. In fact, the blade surface area
on a stick is very similar in size to a Euro paddle—it’s just laid out in a different length to width ratio.
The unique shape of the long blades requires a different technique. Many critics have picked up the paddle and tried to stroke forwards for just 10 minutes, without any instruction on how to actually use it. Their experience is a lack of propulsion or a huge amount of fluttering. This is simply what you get when you grab a knife and try to use it like a spoon— or use a stick like a Euro paddle. Instead, you need to use a canted stroke. This lets water vortices shed from one edge of the blade, and allows the stick to work more like a propeller, giving lift and resistance with which you can gain propulsion.
The Greenland paddle also has significant advantages for touring, where fatigue and wind resistance over longer distances are important factors. When used correctly, there is less stress at the catch, as the power is gained during the middle to end of the stroke and the release, rather than as a forceful initial load.
I asked one of my mentors, Turner Wilson, for his thoughts on touring with a stick. Wilson makes traditional qajaqs and beautiful Greenland paddles, and he is one of the rare paddlers these days whose initial kayaking experience was with a stick.
“In paddling, there are X, Y, and Z axes: forward, turning and revolving. No paddle integrates all three as effortlessly as the Greenland paddle. Grace, flow, rhythm, elegance, ease, bite, release… no other instrument extends the human body into the water for the purposes of movement in quite this same way.”
Not only are these paddles better in the wind thanks to their narrower profile, but you can also use a sliding stroke in which you walk your hands back and forth on the paddle to dig deeper and leave less material in the air. The anthropometric measurements used to custom size each paddle to its user include sizing the widest part of the blade to the paddler’s hand, allowing you to hold anywhere on the stick. This is also an advantage when making efficient, powerful extended sweep strokes to turn quickly, or to increase leverage during rolling.
As a rolling instructor trainer, I believe there is no finer tool with which to learn the cold water survival skill of self-righting yourself in a kayak. Blade angle is a critical element of the roll and having one blade in your hand allows you to keep the working end at the perfect angle for sweeping and creating lift. The natural buoyancy of the wood further aids in rolling, effortlessly floating your paddle to the surface.
In 2012, James Manke became the first person to paddle a sea kayak with a Greenland paddle down the Grand Canyon. “I feel more comfortable with a Greenland paddle in my hands,” he says, although he’s the first to admit that it may seem like a strange tool for the environment. The one place that a stick
upside down or non-power face—it performs the same regardless of how it’s held. “This can certainly be an advantage after a huge trashing when your paddle gets tossed around and you lose your blade angle and sometimes the entire paddle.”
Perry, who is also one of the world’s finest Greenland rollers, finds similar advantages when she capsizes in difficult coastal conditions. “If the water is rough and I end up upside down, the Greenland paddle gets tugged around less than a Euro blade,” she says.
Speed, endurance, rolling, rough water— Greenland paddles excel in challenging situations. But Perry is quick to point out some of their subtler advantages, “They’re quiet, you can paddle completely soundlessly. I find this style very relaxing.”
She also notes, like the generations of Inuit hunters who designed her blade, that the paddle’s silent stroke is great for sneaking up on wildlife.
Perhaps the greatest benefit, however, is the Greenland paddler’s deep connection to his or her blade. Most stick paddlers are also stick makers. In part, this is out of necessity. While commercially available paddles are on the rise, the best way to get a blade that’s perfect for you is to shape it yourself.
“All of the marketing we’re exposed to urges us to try the latest and greatest gadget. It is a joy to step back from that precipice of consumption and say, ‘not so fast,’” muses Wilson. “What about these objects that express a deeper understanding, that form can and does truly follow function? This penultimate tool is one of the best expressions of this—elegant and beguiling in its sophisticated simplicity, honed by experiential discovery.”
James Roberts is mad about trad. Find him paddling his handmade qajaqs and pautiks on the waterfront at Ontario Sea Kayak Centre.
This article first appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of Adventure Kayak magazine. For more great content, click here and subscribe to Adventure Kayak’s print and digital editions, or click here to read the current issue.