Over the years I’ve owned a lot of them, both low and high quality. Of course, as is usual for me, price was always at the top of the list. The first paddles were bottom of the line and worth every penny. Still have them. One is tacked above the shed door as part of an ‘X’ pattern with a plastic, Mickey Mouse swing seat my three-year-old son used to call ‘Bommie’ centered above. Together the three have a look something like a skull and crossbones. That was the intention anyway.
The remaining few hang in the shed with splitting glue joints, lending them a forlorn look. Though they were cheap, the splitting was my fault. Or at least it I think it was. The paddles were bought back in my ‘things last forever and I shouldn’t have to do squat to help them along’ days and weren’t given the maintenance they deserved. Even crap will last a long time if given a little TLC. But I hadn’t yet realized that. A brief ten minutes of light sanding and a coat of spar varnish at the end of the season was all they needed. After I came to realize things fall apart over time, the last cheapie, a beavertail, was given the attention it deserved and looks near new after better than two decades use.
Allan and my trips to Manitoba called for new paddles, at least in my mind they did. As luck would have it, one of the businesses on my extended FedEx route made paddles and hockey sticks, quality ones. They also sold factory seconds. Yup, my kind of quality. There I bought a pair of bent shaft models. When he heard what I’d done, a co-worker told me you couldn’t j-stroke with a bent shaft. Not a problem for me. Hell, I couldn’t j-stoke with a straight one. Didn’t know it at the time but I needed the Internet to teach me an ages-old method. Seeing as how I’ve always done things ass-backwards that fit right into the pattern.
Over the years I came to see those bent shaft paddles had other uses. When it came to repositioning while fishing a weed edge, ‘cause of their sort shafts, they’re sculling wonders. Grab one at the blade top, reverse the angle, brace your arm against the shaft and go to town. She’s painful in a constructive way. It’s an inch-along process but when you’re covering every foot of good water, that’s what you want.
Somewhere along the line I got the idea to make my own paddle. A classic one from a single piece of ash. I recall reading that Sigurd Olson, the author and outdoorsman, carved his own from ash and even wrote an essay about it. As I recall, Olson wrote the slab of wood had to hewn from the heart of a lightning struck, swamp ash and whittled in the light of a full moon. Could be wrong about that but it sure sounds good. Regardless, Olson carved his from ash and so would I.
As luck would have it, above in the garage rafters rested an ash plank. Fairly straight grained and dry as bone. Over a couple of weeks I sawed, planed, sanded and varnished. What I finally held in my hands mostly looked like a paddle and kind of felt like one also. But she was heavy like something Alley Oop would cold cock a mastodon with. Not good. These days it’s the third member of the shed’s skull and crossbones. Looks good up there.
But I wasn’t done with thinking of another. The idea stuck with me through the years until spare time and quality glue finally became one. The next was also formed from spare ash. This time a pair of scrap boards were dismembered and reformed into a general shape with waterproof adhesive and clamps. Throw in some work with the band saw, hand plane and a sander or two and once again I formed a fine pile of shavings and wood dust, also a functional tool. Took it to the Boundary Waters where it worked like the real deal and tuckered me out some. Guess it was still on the heavy side.
Long story continued, me and the paddle ghost became good friends. Got together a dozen or more times in the garage with varying kinds of wood. Came to learn at my workbench that walnut made an attractive and hard accent material. Its dust also darkened my snot more than I thought healthy. The walnut came to me from the international airport via a good friend who’d passed away a few years back. These days you’ll find it on several of my paddles tips and grips and a rock or two on border lakes. Believe that’s known in some circles as entropy.
The newer paddles are lighter and for sure a lot prettier – For an amateur who’s stabbing his way through the dark. The last pair was formed from garage sale redwood. Don’t know how long the cabinet was sitting in their garage but it had a decades-long patina. Straight-grained, old growth wood that set me a-tingle. These days that kind of treasure can only be found in scrap heaps and antique stores. This year’s pair of tips came from hand-hewn birch from the cabin. Throw in a little scrap pine and aromatic cedar as accent, they’re pretty enough to hang on the wall and never touch a drop of water.
Working the wood’s a love-hate job. When you’re working scrap wood with marginal tools, each step takes attention and care. Even then nothing comes out perfect. The loom, that’s the handle, is formed from three or more lengths. The blade from a dozen or more and the grip has another four pieces added. Lot of gluing and clamping. All told, the last pair is a slap-dash of twenty-one pieces.
Last fall at the State Fair I asked a craftsman how many hours in each of his paddles. He thought a moment and said, “Maybe two?” Good thing I’m not trying to make a living as a paddle man.