Credit: Kevin Callan
I got a couple of new paddles for my upcoming Meanest Link canoe trip in Algonquin Provincial Park.
They’re both made by Badger. One is a common tripper model and the backup spare is what’s called a “digger” — used for getting extra power to get across a big lake or up river. The cool thing about Badger is that you can get your paddle custom-made as well. I had my name embedded on the blade and the paddle water-coloured a light green. I also had one made for my wife and daughter. Very cool.
The new blades are going to get a good workout on this trip. Consider this: you are likely to paddle well over 1,000 strokes an hour on an average canoe trip, which adds up to around 8,000 strokes per day or 56,000 strokes per week. I’m guessing my 20-day trip I’ll do at least 160,000 paddle strokes. It’s proof that the paddle you pick is one of the most important decisions you'll make. The problem is, it's not all that simple.
What you first have to think about is what type of trip you're going on. The route, whether it's simple lake paddling, navigating down difficult rapids, or a combination of both, will be the deciding factor when choosing between various blade styles. Each type is molded for the character of the canoeist as much as for the water-course itself.
Beaver Tail Paddle: For general use (a trip that takes you from lake-to-lake) the old-fashioned Beaver Tail design works great. It's made from a solid piece of wood (usually maple, ash or cherry) and has a rounded end to it, like that of a beaver's tail. It's a great paddle to use for flat water tripping, especially at the bow.
Otter Tail Paddle: For use in the stern, or especially solo-paddling, the Otter tail is preferred. 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.
The grip on both the Beaver Tail and Otter Tail designs should be oval in shape and tapered slightly from the throat (where the blade reaches the shaft) to the grip. This 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.
For whitewater paddling you need a much wider, square tipped blade to enable you to push lots of water in a hurry. The previously mentioned touring blades are actually far more efficient when it comes to pushing water for the long term. Most of the blade length is under the surface and less friction occurs. The rounded tip also enters the water more easily. But to muscle your way across, it's far better to have a much bigger blade. It should also have reinforced tips to protect the paddle from sharp rocks. And for capital control, the top of the paddle should have a T-grip. Avid whitewater enthusiasts also opt for synthetic paddles made from fiberglass, graphite, Kevlar, or plastic. They're tougher than wood, but are also ugly as sin and take away the whole mystique of paddling. A laminated softwood paddle works just as well if you look after it.
As for the new-age bent-shaft paddle, some canoeists love it, and some absolutely loathe the design. A canoe instructor I once paddled with is a faithful user of the bent-shaft. Being interested to see what all the fuss was about, I agreed to use one while out on the our trip together.
While out paddling the instructor explained to me how first-time canoeists automatically attempt to travel in a straight line by constantly switching their paddles from one side to another. Paddling with a bent-shaft allows that natural reaction, with the stern paddler hollering out the command "Hutt" to indicate the right moment for both paddlers to switch sides, allowing the canoe to stay on track.
He then displayed how at the end of a stroke with a straight paddle, water is pushed up to the surface, slowing your progress. When a bent-shaft paddle surfaces, the blade remains vertical; no water is pushed up, no speed is lost, and less energy is used. This allows the canoeist to travel much faster with less energy.
By the end of the trip, having tried out the newfangled technique the entire time, it became obvious that the instructor was right with everything he had pointed out. We moved much faster en route and never once wandered aimlessly across the lake. The design made perfect sense. But it all honestly I couldn't stand it. I've never cared about how fast one goes while they're out there. With that kind of attitude you might as well stay home in my opinion. And every time he called out the command "Hutt" I went absolutely berserk — needless to say, we've never paddled together since.